Just over a month after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the United States in September, Chinese military aircraft tracked an American warship as it entered contested waters in the South China Sea in what Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai called “a very serious provocation”. As this episode revealed, the relationship between the United States and China has reached a new, complex phase in geopolitical competition. Despite regular diplomatic meetings, robust economic ties, and widening sociocultural connections, the American military has taken up the task of attempting to contain China, vilifying the entire nation and undermining peace in East Asia. By developing a robust military containment apparatus dubbed “Air/Sea Battle,” the United States military has substantially increased the risk of an armed conflict with a nation that needs to remain a critical global partner.
Introduction to Security Dilemmas
The theory of the security dilemma, also known as the spiral model of conflict escalation, offers some insight into the fraught U.S.-China military relationship. According to this theory, both parties prefer the status quo, but the ambiguity of the other side’s actions encourages modernization, militarization, and expansion. Perceptions and communication play a huge role in the security dilemma. Both sides may misread neutral or friendly signals as aggressive, miscalculating the appropriate response. In World War I, for example, no nation desired war, but uncertainty about enemy alliances forced nations to militarize. When Austria-Hungary perceived a window through which its military could obtain an advantage over Serbia, the nation struck decisively, sparking a widespread conflict.
Within the security dilemma model, scholars often subscribe to the concept of offense-defense balance, which refers to the relationship between the cost to the attacker of taking a territory and the cost to the defender of retaining that territory. When countries favor offense, the security dilemma is likely to escalate because both sides feel they must attack first to gain a comparative advantage. According to offense-defense balance theory, the most dangerous scenario appears when lines between offense and defense are blurred, but offense retains a significant advantage.
This theory contradicts the deterrence model, which posits that when one country builds up forces, the other backs down due to the massive negative consequences of a potential war. The deterrence model fails to accurately describe the U.S.-China dynamic. The relationship between the two nations already appears mired in the security dilemma as the two militaries approach parity in military power. In economic, political, and diplomatic spheres, the U.S. and China compete for relative power and hegemonic status. The advancement of sophisticated military technology makes escalatory moves particularly likely as each new development by one side forces the other side to raise the bar. Viewing this dynamic through the deterrence model would make the potentially devastating consequences of armed conflict more likely.
Air/Sea Battle 101
In a recent example of escalatory moves, China has deployed its anti-access/area denial capability, known as A2/AD, to combat American power projection. American doctrine involves predominance based on a buildup of military forces that can enter any theater of operations as well as freedom of navigation through global commons. Chinese A2/AD aims to undercut America’s offensive advantage and combat this strategy by both keeping the U.S. out of local waters with anti-access forces and bogging down potential enemy forces with area denial capability.
China’s military developments have introduced ambiguity into the balance between offensive and defensive forces in the U.S.-China power dynamic. Blurring the balance even further, the U.S. has responded to Chinese A2/AD by deploying in 2009 the offense-minded Air/Sea Battle (ASB), a strategy designed by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and the Pacific Air Forces. In crafting this proposal, these organizations emphasized “jointness” in using forces owned by different parts of the military.
While the concept has been renamed to “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons,” it is still referred to as Air/Sea Battle in most scholarly publications. A significant challenge in analyzing the program stems from its intentional ambiguity; much of the concept is classified, and most of the information about ASB comes from a 2013 Department of Defense release. We do know that ASB was crafted to overcome A2/AD not through solely defensive operations or symmetric retaliation, but through systematic destruction of the defensive forces that uphold A2/AD. According to the Defense Department report, “cyber or undersea operations can be used to defeat air defense systems, air forces can be used to eliminate submarine or mine maritime threats, or space assets can be used to disrupt adversary command and control.” Furthermore, ASB involves deep strikes on the Chinese mainland against forces and infrastructure that support A2/AD.
How would an ASB-driven war be fought? Deep strikes could eliminate Chinese surveillance and targeting operations. Cyber, air, and space operations could be used to target radar and sensors on land and in the ocean. Carriers could blockade Chinese sea navigation, and strikes could easily target Chinese military bases. If deployed, the concept would be very effective—primarily because it would eliminate Chinese command and control—and would render China incredibly vulnerable to attack.
At its core, ASB represents an attempt to establish an advantage over China by significantly skewing the offense-defense balance in favor of offense. Implicit in the concept is that the U.S. would strike before China could attack American forces—that’s because for ASB to effective, it would have to begin before Chinese A2/AD eliminates American offensive forces. According to the deterrence model, ASB would deter war because China would want to avoid the massive consequences of war. But because of the emerging parity between Chinese and American military forces, it’s easier to imagine pre-emptive strikes on mainland Chinese missile launchers forcing retaliatory actions, as the security dilemma model predicts. What’s more, ASB involves offensive cyber operations on Chinese missile launchers, which makes China even more nervous about its security.
Advanced Arms Racing
China already fears the risks of a potential conflict with the United States; that much is clear from its development of A2/AD and its military modernization efforts. The relationship between the U.S. and China resembles a classic security dilemma in which both nations, fearful of war, take actions to modernize and project power. Unfortunately, both sides believe that by projecting more power and modernizing more rapidly they can force the enemy to back down. While a powerful American military sounds good in theory, military modernization more likely forces retaliatory actions. ASB’s central purpose involves weakening China’s primary defensive forces, and the potential of deep strikes is uniquely threatening to Chinese security infrastructure. American alliances originally spawned Chinese A2/AD, which in turn sparked the American ASB concept, but because ASB relies on ambiguity and pre-emptive strikes, it is uniquely likely to trigger a conflict within the framework of the security dilemma.
It is difficult to imagine a growing power like China sitting idly by as the United States installs an operational concept determined to eliminate its defenses and attack the mainland. More likely, ASB will intensify a space race and cyber arms race, threatening to unravel the progress achieved through the last eight years of diplomacy. Proponents argue that ASB successfully deters Chinese expansionism and modernization because it raises the costs of war. However, deterrence is based on the United States’ ability to punish an enemy for destabilizing actions. ASB is dependent on American cyber infrastructure, which is particularly vulnerable to Chinese attacks. In space, ASB could encourage China to pursue offensive anti-satellite capabilities to eliminate dangerous enemy satellite operations. These American vulnerabilities short-circuit the deterrence goals of ASB, pushing China into offensive strikes on weak American cyber and space infrastructure and encouraging an escalating arms race. Any miscommunication regarding these developments in American and Chinese military capabilities has the potential to spark a pre-emptive strike resulting in a military conflict.
Revisiting the Spiral Model
ASB is, by its very nature, an escalatory strategy. The foundational premise of ASB is that war with China is inevitable and the United States needs to combat A2/AD effectively to win. Scholars like Harvard’s Graham Allison cite the Thucydides Trap, which posits that conflicts are likely between declining hegemons and emerging superpowers. However, accepting the inevitability of a U.S.-China war produces a terrible frame for policy because it ignores the promise of diplomacy and encourages escalatory military posture.
Because China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) prioritizes its own strike capability, the threat of ASB requires a Chinese plan for retaliation in the case of an attack. ASB’s central operation requires rapid elimination of targeting, sensing, and strike capabilities, which would have to be deployed very rapidly. The very installation of these forces would encourage China to perceive American preparations for a pre-emptive strike, encouraging massive retaliation. American strikes on the Chinese mainland through ASB would also certainly draw retaliatory measures from the PLA. While the nuclear deterrent has played a significant role in preventing a major war, China may perceive ASB’s deep strike capability as a danger to its nuclear forces, producing “use it or lose it” pressure on China and encouraging the rapid deployment of nuclear weapons.
Some argue that ASB represents a broad operational concept, not an aggressive stance tailored toward China. Indeed, the Defense Department renamed the program and scaled down some of the escalatory rhetoric tied to ASB. However, ASB remains the only military doctrine developed to address Chinese military capabilities, and while it’s not specific to China, it is specific to combatting A2/AD. While other countries like Iran have pursued A2/AD, China’s A2/AD program remains the most significant. The Pentagon has also visibly shifted funds to expanding offensive electronic, cyber, anti-submarine forces, which clearly indicate preparations for an ASB-driven war. Furthermore, regardless of what the strategy entails or what the program is named, perceptions of the program in the Chinese government and military circles are paramount. If Chinese strategists perceives ASB as a preparation for war, that is cause for serious concern in Chinese military circles, encouraging pre-emption and an escalating arms race.
Amidst this uncertainty and mistrust, there does exist a hopeful future in the burgeoning U.S.-China relationship. Recent climate accords, economic interactions, and diplomatic overtures offer a glimpse into that future. But by enacting ASB and moving forward with a strategy that exceeds containment, the U.S. military poses a substantial threat to progress in East Asian geopolitics.
Editor’s Note: This article is part two in a series on the Air/Sea Battle. You can read the argument for the Air/Sea Battle in part one, here.
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