The Elephant in the Room

21 Apr

China-SignPost-55_near-seas-far-seas-map.jpg The real significance – or lack of significance – of North Korea’s failed Unha-3 launch is, that it obscures the actual strategic contest already taking place between China and the United States in East Asia. And, in that sense, India’s Agni-V launch is the real development that bears scrutiny. Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins argue against conflating the scope and intensity of China’s naval deployments.

Concerns about a Chinese “blue water navy” fundamentally mischaracterize the true nature of China’s present and medium-term challenge to the U.S. Navy and other U.S. and allied forces. Because of the fundamentally different cost dynamics, and China’s very different levels of military capability in the Near and Far Seas, it is important for analysts not to conflate Near Seas high-intensity A2/AD with Far Seas low-intensity presence, and even influence.

Beijing’s “blue water” naval expansion remains years from posing a serious problem for Washington. Indeed, as a growing great power, it is only natural for China to play an increasing role in this realm, and in many respects it should be welcomed. The U.S. has and will continue to have many viable options to address any problems that might emerge in this area, at least with respect to the potential for high-intensity kinetic conflict.

For instance, Chinese forces themselves are highly vulnerable to precisely the same types of “asymmetric” approaches (e.g., missile attacks) that they can employ to great effect closer to China’s shores. In fact, there is substantial room for cooperation beyond the Near Seas. This potential may even be said to be growing, as China’s overseas interests and capabilities increase, thereby allowing it to contribute in unprecedented ways. In this area, which covers the vast majority of the globe, China appears to be cautiously open to U.S. ideas about “defense of the global system”-which in fact offer excellent opportunities for “free riding” off U.S.-led provision of security for key global sea lanes such as the Strait of Hormuz.

The problem for the U.S. is that in the Near Seas themselves China is working to carve out a sphere of strategic influence within which freedom of navigation and other important international system-sustaining norms are seriously constricted. Thus, China’s already-present ability to engage in A2/AD operations within the Near Seas and their immediate approaches has the potential to seriously undermine U.S. national security interests.

Assisted in part by the land-based Second Artillery Force, anti-satellite capabilities, and global cyber activities, this A2/AD challenge threatens U.S. naval platforms, but is far more than just a Chinese navy-based threat; some U.S. government experts have called it an anti-navy.” It could already be difficult to handle kinetically with current U.S. approaches, and the situation appears to be worsening rapidly. The U.S. may not have years to develop new countermeasures and prepare to address the most difficult aspects of the problem; in that sense, “the future is now.”

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