29 May 2014

Contested Primacy in the Western Pacific: China’s Rise and the Future of U.S. Power Projection

Montgomery grasps the magnitude of China’s asymmetric military developments. He makes a compelling point, which unfortunately is still lost on too many observers:

“Neither side in the grand strategy debate views these developments as a major challenge to U.S. military primacy… because of their singular focus on global power projection rather than local power balances. Yet this perspective largely ignores the possibility that the United States could remain dominant globally while losing significant ground locally.”

This is precisely what I’ve been trying to point out in my analysis of Chinese military development, wherein I strive to differentiate between China’s lower-priority, gradual, limited, vulnerable and even sometimes cooperative projections of force out of region and its highly-prioritized, rapid, increasingly-potent, disproportionately cost-effective capabilities development and deployment closer to its homeland. With proper focus, a dramatic picture comes into view. There should be rigorous debate about policy implications, but we need to start with a comprehensive, up-to-date understanding of the facts emerging on the ground (as well as in and under the sea, in the air, in space, and in cyberspace). Kudos to Montgomery for distilling the most important dynamics–this should enhance discussion in academic and policy circles alike.

Evan Braden Montgomery, “Contested Primacy in the Western Pacific: China’s Rise and the Future of U.S. Power Projection,” International Security 38.4 (Spring 2014): 115-49. 

Despite their disagreements, proponents of deep engagement and offshore balancing share an optimistic but unrealistic assessment of U.S. military power. In particular, both sides in the debate over U.S. grand strategy underestimate the potential consequences of China’s military modernization. China’s antiaccess/area denial strategy and conventional precision-strike capabilities are already undermining the United States’ ability to prevent local conflicts, protect longtime allies, and preserve freedom of the commons in East Asia. Whether the United States intends to uphold the status quo when threats emerge or adopt a wait-and-see approach to regional conflicts, it will need to adapt its military for power projection operations in much less permissive environments than it has become accustomed to during the unipolar era. These adaptations include developing air and undersea platforms that can survive inside denial zones, forward bases that are better able to withstand attacks, and satellite and cyberspace networks that are less vulnerable to disruption.

For full text of sources cited here, see:

Michael S. Chase and Andrew S. Erickson, The Conventional Missile Capabilities of China’s Second Artillery Force: Cornerstone of Deterrence and Warfighting,” Asian Security, 8.2 (Summer 2012): 115-37.

Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle J. Goldstein, eds.Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011).

Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson, eds., China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007).

Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang, Using the Land to Control the Sea? Chinese Analysts Consider the Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile,” Naval War College Review 62.4 (Autumn 2009): 53-86.