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China’s Anti Access Future is Here

March 28, 2012


China’s may already be able to hold U.S. forces in the far western Pacific Ocean at bay, argues DT’s go to China expert and Naval War College professor Andrew Erickson in one of his latest analysis pieces.

While China can’t yet project serious military power around the globe — or even to the farthest corners of the Pacific — it’s massive military buildup may have given the nation enough muscle to create the anti-access/area denial scenario in its own neighborhood that Pentagon planners have been worrying about for several years. As Erickson says, the “the future is now.”

Here’s an excerpt from his piece titled, Near Seas “Anti-Navy” Capabilities, not Nascent Blue Water Fleet, Constitute China’s Core Challenge to U.S. and Regional Militaries.

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.[vii] 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.[viii]

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.”

Radiating Range Rings, Through the Lens of Distance

The most common source of error in Chinese and U.S. analyses of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) development is the conflation of two factors: scope and intensity. A stone dropped into the water forms waves that radiate outward, gradually dissipating in the process. Close to home, China’s military capabilities are rapidly reaching a very high level. However, they are making much slower progress, from a much lower baseline, further away. The major exceptions to this pattern occur in space, in which China’s capabilities are more evenly distributed and hence more global in nature, and in cyberspace in which physical distances are largely meaningless.

To call this a “tale of two militaries” oversimplifies, since some platforms and weapon systems can contribute in both areas, but it captures the basic dynamic. Many vehicles and armaments are primarily relevant in one area or the other. Cherry-picking the characteristics of either of these “layers” or “levels” to characterize overall Chinese military/maritime power risks fundamentally misrepresenting its critical dynamics.

On one hand, it is a mistake to exaggerate the scope of China’s military buildup: China is not developing a “blue water” power-projection navy nearly as rapidly as it is deploying shorter-range platforms and weapon systems such as missiles for land, air-, sea-, and undersea-based platforms. On the other hand, it is equally misguided to suggest that restraint and limitations in the Far Seas indicate restraint and limitations in the Near Seas, when in fact Chinese actions across the military and diplomatic spectrum strongly suggest the opposite.

“Counting all the beans” by treating side-by-side comparison of all Chinese and U.S. forces as the key metric, as sometimes done by those who would minimize the PLA’s significance, is only relevant if one assumes that the pertinent scenario is a Cold War-style Sino-American global conflict—a virtual impossibility, fortunately. Rather, China is seeking to further its core interests by pursuing an asymmetric approach that maximizes its advantages in a contingency relatively close to China’s maritime periphery.

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