The rebalancing of the US defense portfolio from West to East Asia has been called a “pivot,” but the term arguably applies better to China’s strategic situation.  Over the past few decades, China has had momentum in the global military competition, but looking ahead, China will have to adjust to the reactions to its rapid build-up in the region.  These responses may put China on the wrong side of the cost-imposing equation. More generally, they may complicate China’s effort to reap strategic dividends from its modernization to date.

Up to the present, China has taken advantage of the conventional precision strike trend to build up a “counter-intervention” force, aimed at threatening, for example, expensive US power projection assets with relatively cheap missiles. Today, we are witnessing the fruits of China’s decades-long effort to construct a network of sensors and strike assets capable of hitting fixed and mobile targets – from runways in Taiwan and Guam to US aircraft carriers in China’s near seas. This has threatened the ability of the United States to project power by traditional means along China’s periphery. With logistics support, staging areas, and both surface naval and airborne platforms vulnerable to Chinese missiles, would the United States come to the defense of, say, the Philippines in the event of Chinese aggression against Filipino claims in the South China Sea?

There is another way of casting this question, however.  Looking forward, China’s emerging defense infrastructure will itself be vulnerable to conventional precision strike. From the Indian Ocean in the west to the Timor and Banda Seas in the south and the Sea of Japan in the north, regional states are acquiring their own counter-intervention capabilities to defend their interests and maintain stability in the context of outstanding territorial disputes, competition over resources, and other potential disagreements with China.  Consider the following examples of observable and potential developments:

  • India, Japan, and South Korea have all been investing in sophisticated cruise missiles that could threaten Chinese naval forces.
  • Land-attack variants might be placed on submarines operating off of China’s coast. Australian Collins-class subs could carry Harpoon land attack cruise missiles (LACMs), and Vietnam has purchased Kilo-class submarines that could carry Russian LACMs.
  • Former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Thomas Mahnken has proposed a West Pacific intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) consortium involving data from drones that would enable consortium members to detect and, presumably, target Chinese forces conducting incursions.

As the regional security environment evolves, and as China chooses to become an aggressor, the logic of precision strike will turn against it.  Chinese power projection assets, rather than US forces, will be in the crosshairs.

Beyond the operational level, the spread of counter-intervention capabilities in the region could pose a serious challenge for Chinese strategy, which is centered on inflicting a devastating series of strikes at the outset of a conflict to paralyze or incapacitate the enemy so that China can prevail quickly.  On their own or as part of a coalition, other states look poised to acquire the means to withstand such an onslaught and inflict damage on Chinese forces.

Would regional states really venture to use conventional precision strike against Chinese forces and risk nuclear retaliation? This question suggests the need for better understanding of nuclear proliferation dynamics in Asia. Observable trends include the prominence of tactical nuclear weapons in Russian doctrine; the build-up of fissile material by actors from India, Pakistan, and potentially the Middle East to North Korea; and developments in US and allied missile defense. In light of these factors, prospects for nuclear arms reductions by China look slim. Nuclear-related decisions by other regional actors will likely hinge in part on the fate of the US extended deterrent.  Mark Stokes has noted that China may have its own version of prompt global strike by 2025, so it makes sense to ask about the impact of this capability on the credibility of the US commitment to the defense of regional allies and friends.

A final consideration is that China’s economic growth, a critical enabler of its defense modernization to date, is beginning to slow, as the draft Global Trends report notes.  This will affect China’s ability to sustain defense budget increases across the board and necessitate potentially difficult trade-offs among investments.  For these and other reasons, leading Chinese security scholars such as Shi Yinhong and Wang Jisi have begun to debate whether China’s period of strategic opportunity is ending.  A perceived closing window of opportunity could affect Chinese decisions about Taiwan or other disputed territory on land (e.g., along the border with India) and at sea (e.g., in the East and South China Seas) in surprising ways.