Analysis & Opinions - War on the Rocks

Balancing China: How the United States and Its Partners Can Check Chinese Naval Expansion

For 70 years, the U.S. military has dominated the seas and skies of East Asia, enjoying almost total freedom of movement and the ability to deny such freedom to enemies. Now, however, China has acquired advanced missiles and launch platforms that may be able to destroy U.S. ships, aircraft, and bases within 500 miles of China’s territory and disrupt the satellite and computer networks that underpin U.S. military power throughout East Asia. Many U.S. analysts fear that China could use these anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities to hold the U.S. military at bay while enforcing its expansive territorial claims, which include most of the East and South China Seas. Left unchecked, some fear, China will eventually become the hegemon of East Asia and start projecting military power into other regions, including the Western Hemisphere.

How should the U.S. military respond to China’s A2/AD capabilities? One option would be to gear up by preparing to wipe out China’s offensive forces at the outset of a conflict. Another would be to give up by withdrawing U.S. forces from East Asia, abrogating U.S. alliances in the region and granting China a sphere of influence.

Both of these options have drawbacks.  Preparing for preemptive strikes on Chinese A2/AD forces would not only be expensive, but also might increase the risk of war by encouraging the United States and China to shoot first in a crisis.  Retrenchment, on the other hand, would not only reduce U.S. influence in East Asia, but also might embolden China to try to conquer parts of the region.

Does the United States have a third option? In a new article in International Security, I make the case for what some analysts call an “active denial” strategy that splits the difference between gearing up and giving up. 

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For Academic Citation: Beckley, Michael C.“Balancing China: How the United States and Its Partners Can Check Chinese Naval Expansion.” War on the Rocks, .