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US Pacific Deterrence Initiative Too Little, Too Late To Counter China – Analysis


By Hugh White*

The US–China rivalry has many dimensions, but at its heart is a strategic contest over primacy in the Western Pacific. Although this contest is being waged on many fronts — including economic, diplomatic and ideological — it is essentially military. China seeks to challenge US leadership in the Western Pacific by opposing the US maritime military supremacy. The United States is trying to resist that challenge and preserve its military preponderance.

Neither side wants a war. Instead, both hope to win by convincing the other side to back off in the face of the other’s evident military power and strategic resolve. In other words, they hope to deter one another.

The United States is in danger of losing this contest because its historically unassailable maritime power is being challenged by China’s growing naval, air and missile forces. US forces remain more powerful overall, but China has many advantages in the Western Pacific — fighting a defensive campaign close to home bases. China’s massive investment in maritime capabilities over the past 25 years has effectively exploited these advantages, so that today it has the potential to exact a heavy toll on US ships and aircraft projecting power towards China.

The United States can no longer expect a swift, cheap victory in a war with China in the Western Pacific. It must expect a long and very costly war — bigger than anything since Vietnam and probably bigger than any war since 1945 with no clear prospect of ultimate victory.

This has serious implications for US capacity to win its strategic contest with China. The harder it would be for the United States to win a war with China, the harder it is to convince Beijing that Washington would choose to fight. This undermines US deterrence and emboldens Beijing to stage provocations designed to demonstrate its new strength and new US weaknesses. This is what China has been doing in the South China Sea over the past decade. Next, it may try it on Taiwan.

The Pentagon understands this. With support from Congress, it is giving priority to regaining lost advantages through a program called the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI). It aims to bolster US capacity to deter China by improving its capacity to win a war, making it more likely that the United States could choose to fight rather than fold in the face of Chinese provocations.

But it probably won’t work. The PDI itself is far too small to reverse the long-term shift in China’s military advantage. The US$27.4 billion that the Pentagon requested is for a five-year program. This amounts to less than US$6 billion a year and less than 1 per cent of the total defence budget for what should be its single highest priority. When China’s US$200 billion defence budget is primarily focussed on confronting the United States in the Western Pacific, there is just no chance that a program of this size will rebuild US preponderance and restore deterrence.

This conclusion is even clearer given how the money is to be spent. Much of it will go to missile defences in Guam and other US bases in the Western Pacific. That makes sense, of course, but it is hardly a war-winner. The United States needs to spend a lot more money on systems to destroy Chinese air and naval forces — not just defending its own. Advocates argue that the Pentagon has other programs to do that, which aim to exploit new and exotic technologies and operational concepts. But these are years, if not decades, from fruition, and the contest with China may well be lost by then.

There is still a deeper problem with the PDI. Even if the Pentagon does find a way to restore US maritime superiority and, in particular, could win an air and sea battle in the Western Pacific over Taiwan, would that deliver victory? On an issue as central to China as Taiwan, it is unlikely to concede defeat.

Yet there is no sign that the United States has a plan to win a war with China that goes beyond a maritime campaign. A land invasion that aims to seize substantial Chinese territory can be ruled out as beyond US capability. History also suggests that a conventional bombing campaign or a trade blockade is unlikely to work.

This leaves nuclear weapons. The United States’ ‘nuclear first use’ doctrine envisages resorting to nuclear forces if conventional forces fail to deliver victory. But China has nuclear weapons too — which it could launch against US cities — and no president could afford to ignore the risk that they would be used to retaliate against any US nuclear attack on China.

Restoring credible deterrence of China is much harder than rebuilding US capabilities to fight and win a maritime campaign in the Western Pacific. It requires the United States to develop a credible military strategy that has a real chance of forcing China to concede on vital issues like Taiwan at a price that the United States is willing to pay. If that price includes a clear risk of nuclear attack on the United States itself, then no such a military strategy might be possible. In this case, the United States will lose the contest with China.

*About the author: Hugh White is Emeritus Professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region. It consists of an online publication and a quarterly magazine, East Asia Forum Quarterly, which aim to provide clear and original analysis from the leading minds in the region and beyond.

2 thoughts on “US Pacific Deterrence Initiative Too Little, Too Late To Counter China – Analysis

  • May 11, 2021 at 4:48 pm

    I don’t agree with this analysis. Any US-China war in the Pacific would start with the US on the defensive, which inherently requires less power and initial US air strikes would be at stand off distances supporting a country which also has a significant military. This diminishes China’s power to what it can use to strike at that distance and increases the US power in proportion to the allied nation’s power. In addition, the implicit and even overt assumption that US power is limited to what’s in the region is false. The air force has about 500 tankers and can allow the US to bring forces over in a day, including B1’s, B2’s, B52’s, and fighters, particularly F22’s, F15’s and F35s which have multi thousand mile combat ranges. The US has 4 carrier strike groups in the Pacific plus amphibious groups with additional planes. They may take a week to get there but it’s unlikely that war would be over by then. In terms of naval power you can’t just count ships because the US has a lot more ships with VLS launchers and a lot more VLS launchers per ship, on average. So the US is actually strongly positioned for a war with China at stand off distances.

  • May 12, 2021 at 6:23 pm

    I disagree as well. The task for the US is twofold:
    1) Maintain conventional deterrence by denial, essentially denying the ability for China to project maritime power. This is difficult, but achievable–it is the PLA that must project and sustain power, a harder task. Current US force structure is moving in this direction.
    2) Create political and diplomatic means to off-ramp a conflict, as we did in the Cuban Missile Crisis. There is no unconditional victory over nuclear powers. This is difficult, but both sides will be heavily incentivized to get out of what would be a mutually disastrous conflict.

    These are both difficult tasks. That said, they are achievable, and doing so is far less costly than the alternatives.


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