10 September 2010

China’s Evolving Anti-Access Approach: “Where’s the Nearest (U.S.) Carrier?”

Andrew S. Erickson, “China’s Evolving Anti-Access Approach: ‘Where’s the Nearest (U.S.) Carrier?’” Jamestown Foundation China Brief 10.18 (10 September 2010): 5-8.

Article covered in the KMT Central Policy Planning Committee’s bi-weekly report on mainland China.

China’s military planners covet the ability to prevent U.S. and allied forces from intervening effectively in the event of a future Taiwan Strait crisis and to constrain the latter’s influence on China’s maritime periphery, which contains several disputed zones of core strategic importance to Beijing. In order to achieve the aforementioned goals, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been pursuing a two-level approach to military modernization, with consistent focus on increasingly formidable high-end ‘anti-access/area denial’ (A2/AD) capabilities to support major combat operations in China’s ‘Near Seas’ (Yellow, East, and South) and their approaches, and relatively low-intensity but gradually growing capabilities to influence strategic conditions further afield (e.g., in the Indian Ocean) in China’s favor.

In July-August 1995 and March 1996, concerns about Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s measures that Chinese leaders associated with moves toward de jure independence of Taiwan led Beijing to conduct missile tests and other military exercises near the Strait. To deter further escalation, then U.S. President William Clinton dispatched two carrier strike groups (CSGs) toward the region in March 1996, later remarking, “When word of crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident the first question that comes to everyone’s lips is: where is the nearest carrier?” In the unfortunate event of a future U.S.-China military crisis, however, it is Chinese leaders who would be asking where the nearest U.S. carrier is, albeit for the opposite reason.

Since 1996, China has methodically developed and acquired the technologies that could hold U.S. and allied military platforms and their supporting assets at risk in the Western Pacific [2] by positioning China on the affordable end of any asymmetric arms races. This matches Beijing’s larger ‘active defense’ military doctrine, which is based partially on ‘non-linear, non-contact and asymmetric’ operations. Non-linear operations involve launching attacks from multiple platforms in an unpredictable fashion that range across an opponent’s operational and strategic depth. Non-contact operations entail targeting enemy platforms and weapons systems with precision attacks from a distance sufficiently enough to potentially preclude the enemy from striking back directly. Asymmetric operations involve exploiting inherent physics-based limitations to match Chinese strengths against an opponent’s weaknesses.

At present, China’s submarine-focused navy and still-limited air and naval aviation forces can only support a more limited strategy of sea denial and offensive counter-air as opposed to outright control. This A2/AD strategy is ever-more-potent, however, thanks to a vast and growing inventory of short-range ballistic and cruise missiles deployed in coastal units and on a variety of air, surface, and undersea platforms. The PLA is improving rapidly in many areas, and has manifold advantages on which to draw, particularly in its proximity to, and focus on, the most likely scenario—a multi-vector PLA offensive to pressure Taiwan into reunification. …