Tomorrow, President Barack Obama is due to meet China’s new President Xi Jinping in a face-to-face summit meeting at an estate near Los Angeles, the first such personal get-together since Obama’s reelection and Xi’s promotion to the leadership of China’s state and party structure earlier this year. Many observers have called for such a meeting as a means of reducing the tensions and suspicions that have accumulated between the two powers over the past few years.

Most notably, China’s growing military and paramilitary presence in the Western Pacific, its more muscular approach to dealing with maritime-sovereignty disputes with Japan and several southeast Asian nations, and bilateral frictions over trade and cybersecurity have fueled an image in the United States and some other nations of Beijing as an aggressive bully bent on flouting international norms, intimidating its maritime neighbors, and eventually supplanting Washington as the dominant power in East Asia.

Michael D. Swaine
Swaine is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and one of the most prominent American analysts in Chinese security studies.
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Meanwhile, Beijing looks askance at Washington’s efforts, as part of the so-called “rebalancing” to Asia, to strengthen security ties with nearby Asian powers such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, India and Japan; to shift more U.S. military assets to the Western Pacific; to promote a new, free-market-oriented regional trading structure; and to intervene in maritime territorial disputes. Many in Beijing view these aims and policies as part of a deliberate, coordinated strategy to undermine China’s continued development and contain its growing influence in order to protect America’s global and regional dominance.

The two nations’ mutually reinforcing and corrosive attitudes have resulted in a deepening level of bilateral strategic distrust that threatens to harden into an enduring zero-sum mindset that could endanger regional peace, stability and prosperity. To counter this dynamic, some Western observers have called for new bilateral initiatives to deepen and expand global and regional norms and institutions designed to reinforce cooperative behavior, channel competition and limit strategic rivalry. Others have stressed the need for more competent, sensitive diplomacy and a deemphasis on the growing Sino-U.S. military competition in favor of more inclusive and far-reaching joint military-to-military activities.

On a much broader level, Beijing has called for the development of a “new type of great power relationship” with Washington, based on “mutual trust, equality, inclusiveness, mutual learning, and win-win cooperation.” Although Washington has cautiously endorsed this concept, it remains largely undefined, a general catch-all notion for trust-building actions on both sides. Hopefully, the forthcoming Obama-Xi summit will provide a first step toward this objective by establishing a sustained level of personal, high-level rapport between the two leaders.

However, although no doubt useful in blunting the sharpest edges of the bilateral relationship, personal rapport, better diplomacy and stronger institutions will likely prove inadequate to construct the kind of bilateral relationship that can avoid the worst aspects of great-power rivalry associated with a changing balance of power. To do this, Beijing and Washington must understand and address the underlying reason for their deep-seated strategic suspicion, deriving primarily from basic differences over the best system for sustaining order and prosperity, both domestically and within the international system.

Simply put, Washington believes the former is best provided through a pluralistic balance among contending interests, mediated by institutionalized procedures and legal rules, while the latter is best secured through the presence of a single dominant military power able to ensure the safety of the global commons, deter aggression and resolve important conflicts in its favor. Beijing believes the opposite—that is, that domestic order requires a single source of uncontested political power and international order necessitates a balance of power among major nations, with China playing a far more important security role in East Asia than at present.

Domestically, this difference is most clearly reflected in longstanding U.S. attempts to encourage the evolution of China’s one-party state toward greater political diversity and eventual democracy. Internationally, in the Western Pacific—by far the most critical area of Sino-American strategic competition—these differences are reflected most directly in American and Chinese approaches to the use of air and naval power and sovereignty disputes between Beijing and U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines.

While the protection and advancement of human rights should and likely will always remain an important objective of American diplomacy, there is little that Washington can or should realistically do to transform China’s current regime into a democracy, beyond encouraging and facilitating Chinese contact with democratic processes, values and beliefs. Indeed, past efforts to justify U.S. engagement with China as a means of democratizing China are misguided and serve more to reinforce Chinese strategic suspicions toward the United States than to bring about meaningful change in China’s political system.

In contrast, much can and should be done to address the growing strategic rivalry between Beijing and Washington. Since World War II, the United States has been committed to maintaining a position of military predominance in the Western Pacific as the foundation for regional stability. This predominance has included, in particular, the ability to operate freely in the air and naval domains up to the territorial waters of the Chinese mainland, and it has relied heavily upon the U.S. basing presence in Japan. At present, Washington views such capabilities as essential to deter China from using force to settle the Taiwan issue and other maritime disputes and to reassure allies that they need not embark on major military buildups in order to maintain their security in the face of China’s military modernization.

For its part, since at least the mid-1990s, China has been building up its own military capabilities in an effort to expand its defense perimeter beyond the continent and out toward the so-called first-island chain, comprising Japan, Taiwan and most islands in the South China Sea. These efforts have been driven in large part by China’s determination to prevent Taiwanese independence and consolidate disputed territorial claims, including over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, to which China and Japan both lay claim. More broadly, however, such military expansion is also increasingly driven by a desire to reduce China’s overall potential vulnerability to American and allied pressure or threats to China’s maritime borders and coastal areas.

These two sets of security imperatives are increasingly at odds with one another. And the most important locus of this growing contradiction is in the waters and airspace around Japan, given Tokyo’s proximity to China, its critical importance to the U.S. position in Asia, and its arguably worsening territorial and resource disputes with Beijing.

In a recent report published by the Carnegie Endowment entitled China’s Military and the U.S.-Japan Alliance in 2030: A Strategic Net Assessment, we and seven other analysts outline three potential strategic approaches that the United States and the alliance could adopt in order to respond to this destabilizing dynamic. All of them involve some variation of the current “engage and hedge” policy approach, combining efforts to increase political, diplomatic and economic cooperation with Beijing on one hand with efforts to implement various levels and types of military deterrence on the other. However, each approach would also entail key departures from the status quo.

The first approach, “robust forward presence,” derives from a clear commitment to maintain an unambiguous level of U.S. military primacy in the Western Pacific. This would likely involve efforts to adopt one of two or more robust operational concepts intended to preserve U.S. access to the area near China. One such concept currently under discussion and elaboration in the Pentagon is the Air Sea Battle Concept, which would emphasize the need to disable Chinese C4ISR capacity early in a conflict, most likely through deep strikes at targets on the Chinese mainland. The goal of such a strategy would be to prevent the Chinese from successfully deploying anti-access/area-denial capabilities, especially precision-guided conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, against the United States. A second concept is that of Offshore Control, which would rely on the imposition of a massive naval blockade along the first island chain to cut off commercial shipping to and from China. The goal of such a strategy would be to capitalize on Chinese geographic vulnerabilities in order to force capitulation after a conflict has been initiated. Such a concept would require a robust air and naval presence along the first island chain capable of imposing and sustaining a blockade.1 

The second broad strategic approach, “conditional offense/defense,” would eschew both deep strikes and a naval blockade, but would nonetheless seek to build upon status quo policy in a way that preserves U.S. access and freedom of movement within the first island chain. In order to do so, this strategy would prioritize more dispersed basing in both Japan and other Asian allies and partners, combined with hardened air bases, expanded ballistic missile defense, and/or investment in counter-precision-guided-munitions technologies. Some large naval assets might be rear-deployed in the early stages of a conflict, and air bases would have to be prepared to absorb an initial attack; however, redundant basing combined with strengthened defenses would in principle enable the allies to rapidly recover from a first strike and then execute offensive attacks with both naval and air assets.

In contrast to the first two approaches, the third strategic approach, “defensive balancing,” would shift away from efforts to sustain existing military advantages and freedom of action throughout the first island chain via offensive military strategies and alliance-centered political strategies. Instead, it would seek to establish a more genuine balance of power in the Western Pacific through a more defensive “mutual denial” force posture, coupled with deepened cooperation among the three countries involving a greater degree of alliance accommodation of Chinese security interests within the first island chain. Such an approach would include efforts to bolster U.S. and Japanese anti-access/area-denial capabilities vis-à-vis China, including more missile-resistant, lower-visibility forces (such as submarines and long-range, standoff weaponry) deployed in both forward and rear locations. Meanwhile, tactical aircraft and large naval surface assets would be pulled back to rearward locations in Guam, Hawaii and the continental United States.

The first two approaches attempt to address the above growing clash between U.S. and Chinese security imperatives in the Western Pacific by sustaining American primacy, albeit at differing levels (that is, the second approach involves a more ambiguous level of primacy, but primacy nonetheless). In other words, they assume that stability and continued economic development in Asia can only be assured by negating, not balancing against, China’s growing offshore military capabilities. For some reason, proponents of these approaches apparently believe that even a much stronger Beijing committed to reducing its security vulnerabilities will submit to such an approach and maintain or even deepen cooperative relations with Washington and Tokyo at the same time.

The first approach, a robust forward-presence strategy, is likely to intensify a regional arms race and exacerbate escalation in a crisis. It also would be difficult to implement. In particular, the deep strikes at critical targets on the Chinese mainland envisioned in the publicly articulated versions of Air Sea Battle raise questions of strategic nuclear stability, as much of the infrastructure China would utilize for guiding conventional missiles is also used for controlling its nuclear weapons. While less escalatory in this regard, a doctrinal commitment to Offshore Control would nonetheless prove intensely provocative to the Chinese—in many ways, representing the operational incarnation of their fears of “encirclement”—and its actual implementation would do deep harm to the global economy. Offshore Control in particular would probably require much more of allies (including, but not only, Japan) in terms of blockade support than they would be willing and able to provide. Moreover, the provocative military elements of this approach would almost certainly greatly undermine if not nullify any parallel diplomatic and economic efforts to strengthen cooperative engagement with Beijing.

Although the second approach, a conditional offense/defense strategy that builds upon the status quo, is likely to prove more feasible and stabilizing than the first approach, it also could prove economically and diplomatically difficult. Efforts to more broadly disperse U.S. air bases in countries across the Western Pacific, such as Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan and Australia, would almost certainly be at least partially stymied by cost constraints and resistance within those countries to a new or expanded U.S. military presence, especially if this were to involve permanent bases and personnel. Moreover, technologies and strategies intended to defend forward-deployed air and naval assets could prove incapable of weathering or countering sustained barrages of Chinese missiles coming from the mainland—and could also prove prohibitively expensive.

We believe (and we do not necessarily speak for the other report authors in this regard) that, in principle, the third approach, defensive balancing, provides the most attractive long-term mechanism for securing the interests of the United States, Japan and China, and for ensuring regional stability. A military posture centered on the creation of a mutual denial capability would improve real deterrence capacity by moving the most vulnerable U.S. military assets (such as short-range tactical aircraft and large naval surface vessels) outside of the reach of most Chinese asymmetric capabilities (including ballistic and cruise missiles) and shifting the force posture toward more viable weapons platforms (such as submarines and long-range precision-guided weapons). These platforms would continue to rely upon Japan-based logistics and support facilities, and their successful operation would place a premium on a more fully integrated U.S.-Japan C4ISR infrastructure.

This more survivable and enduring posture would better enable the United States to ensure Japanese security and deter any potential Chinese aggression against Japan. At the same time, in pulling back offense-oriented assets from the waters nearest China, it would also provide China with the security it seeks and thereby make efforts to deepen cooperation more viable. It would also likely prove more affordable, as it would require fewer, if any, major increases in the level and function of most U.S. military capabilities, and it would significantly decrease costs associated with forward bases, tactical aircraft and carrier groups.

Despite these advantages, several bureaucratic and diplomatic realities would make this approach highly difficult to implement. On the bureaucratic side, it would require a sea change in the cultural mindset of the U.S. military, which favors offensive, preemptive and forward-deployed strategies. It would necessitate fundamental shifts in American approaches to air and naval power—including moving away from a reliance on short-range tactical aircraft in a China contingency in favor of long-range standoff missiles and unmanned aircraft. It also would prioritize undersea capabilities over carrier-based surface assets.

Diplomatically, it would also need to be well articulated in advance to Japan and other allies, to reassure them that even as the more visible and high-profile components of the U.S. military presence in Asia were being withdrawn, the broader U.S. military presence in the region was in fact being repositioned in a more viable and sustainable way. Equally important, this approach would almost certainly require deeper levels of mutual reassurance regarding the most likely catalysts of future crises—for example, over Chinese military deployments and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan; Sino-Japanese military and paramilitary deployments near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands; and U.S. intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance activities along China’s coastline. These measures would be necessary to compensate for the reduced U.S. capacity to intervene early in conflicts near the Chinese mainland.

Such conditions and requirements could prove prohibitive. At the very least, their realization would require extremely far-sighted and bold leadership and highly effective diplomacy in Washington and Beijing, based on a clear recognition of the likely dangers presented by the deepening contradiction between U.S. efforts to sustain, and Chinese efforts to undermine, America’s historical military primacy in the Western Pacific. The next most preferable alternative, a variant of the conditional offense/defense approach outlined above, would likely prove more bureaucratically and politically feasible within the United States. However, Chinese acceptance of a continued (albeit lower level of) U.S. primacy would also likely require an even greater degree of the kind of diplomatic mutual assurances deemed necessary in the defensive-balancing approach. That would be no easy task.

Ultimately, there are no easy answers to the current strategic dilemma confronting Washington and Beijing. But before struggling with possible solutions, the two sides first need to recognize the nature and seriousness of the problem. Only by doing so can there be any hope for the successful emergence of “a new type of great power relationship.” As a first step, Presidents Obama and Xi should seize the opportunity of their forthcoming summit to begin a serious dialogue on this subject. Time is running out.


1 It should be noted that some Air Sea Battle proponents deemphasize the need for forward-deployed assets and focus instead on the role that long-range bombers could play in incapacitating Chinese C4ISR targets. Similarly, some Offshore Control advocates do not necessarily see the need for forward-deployed tactical aircraft or carrier groups, suggesting instead that minimal U.S. assets could be used to impose the initial blockade (with a strong reliance on the naval and air capabilities of allies, especially Japan), at which point rear-deployed naval assets could be brought forward to assist in maintaining it.

A shorter version of this piece was originally published in the National Interest.