The Deterrence Trap: The cost of the US military’s overwhelming conventional superiority
By Clint Mallory
The views expressed in this paper are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the Air Force nor the Department of Defense.
The overwhelming conventional military superiority of the US has succeeded in deterring the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from directly using its military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), to achieve its strategic objectives to return to great power status by expanding political and economic influence, taking back “lost territories,” eroding and ultimately displacing the US as the leader of the international system, and creating a world safe for PRC authoritarian interests. However, this same qualitative over-match has revealed new and more complex problems as it has driven the PRC and other revisionist powers such as Russia, to pursue more asymmetric, or Gray Zone, methods to change the status quo in their favor. And they are succeeding. Despite this, some still believe that doubling-down on more of these same conventional “deterrence” capabilities and activities is all that is needed to deter the PRC from pursuing their interests and preserving ours. We are taking the wrong actions, albeit for the right reasons.
America’s overwhelming military dominance and global reach has likely deterred Beijing from using overt military force to achieve their regional goals, and we should continue to pursue capabilities and activities that send a message to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on America’s willingness to use our military to protect our interests. However, we cannot ignore the fact that for at least the past ten years, the PRC has successfully changed the status quo and reached their objectives on a range of issues all without ever using military force. Our military superiority has done little in these cases to prevent or stop the CCP from using Gray Zone actors to intentionally avoid the US’s military strength.
Over the past decade, Beijing has used Gray Zone actors such as its state-owned enterprises (SOE), diplomatic “Wolf Warriors,” economic incentives, debt trap diplomacy, its coast guard, academia, trade, tourism, fishing vessels, and international organizations to pursue its goals without triggering military conflict. Examples include sending China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s (CNOOC) Oil Rig 981 to explore for natural resources into waters contested by Vietnam; sending Chinese Coast Guard vessels into the 12 Nautical Mile territorial seas surrounding the Senkakus (a US treaty ally); establishing state-sponsored boycotts on goods coming from the Philippines, Australia, Japan, and South Korea (all formal US allies); using Confucius Institutes, Chinese Student and Scholar Associations, and Western academics to circulate views “favorable” to China; employing its Thousand Talents program, educational exchanges, and university partnerships to infiltrate, pilfer, and attract US and Western thought, technology, and expertise; leveraging China’s large market to co-opt foreign politicians and business leaders; using economic incentives and disincentives to influence decisions in US-led or other intergovernmental organizations; providing “free content” reporting in US and Western media favorable to China; establishing de facto control over critical sea lanes in the South China Sea by building artificial islands and militarizing them; using debt traps to gain partial ownership or outright control over strategic ports; and successfully stripping away many of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners.
To highlight just one example, in January 2016, after years of austerity, Greece announced that China’s state-owned shipping firm, China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), was acquiring a 51% share (now 67%) in the Port of Piraeus, Greece’s largest container port and Europe’s seventh largest at the time (now the fourth largest). China’s own stated goal was to make Piraeus the entry point for China’s OBOR aspirations in Europe. Then, in July 2016, after the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration’s tribunal ruling on artificial features built by China in the SCS, Greece (along with two other European Union nations) opposed any strong language condemning China’s activities. A year later in June of 2017, Greece blocked an EU statement at the UN Human Rights Council to condemn China’s human rights record. Since then, COSCO has increased their investment over Piraeus and China and Greece have increased strategic cooperation, including bi-lateral joint military exercises. Beijing’s ability to leverage economic and political influence to block a vote from a regional body that it is not a part of represents a credible shift in that body’s ability to act in concert. This might be seen on the surface as a uniquely European problem, but taken to its logical conclusion, Beijing’s ability to use this same strategy to potentially block unanimous action by NATO means that they can potentially block political or military interests that matter to the US as well.
China has also used its military to pursue some of its objectives such as flying military aircraft in close proximity to Taiwan, or challenging US air and maritime traffic in the South China Sea. However, these have been the exception and not the norm as Beijing has opted for the implied threat of force in these situations and not the actual employment of force itself. The recent tensions on the Sino-Indian border are also an obvious exception, but even then, China employed its forces in a very non-traditional way by agreeing to confidence-building measures with India banning the use of weapons along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) while simultaneously advancing into disputed areas also claimed by India. The recent bar room brawls on the border using bats and hammers are an effect of this approach – not the cause. 
Beijing has rarely used its increasingly capable military to compel these changes and has opted instead for a range of Gray Zone operations that the West generally, and the US specifically, have found hard to counter. Our adversaries know this and have developed a finely-tuned sense of our aversion to risk, calculating – correctly - our tolerance for such activities. This has allowed them to incrementally alter the status quo without triggering military conflict by devising ways that conveniently circumvent America’s most preferred and potent tool for preserving our interests and preventing others from achieving theirs - our military power.
Not only is our military power not deterring these Gray Zone activities, but it is actually reinforcing them in many ways. A short look at America’s military activities over the past 30 years in many ways reveals that China’s preference for asymmetric methods has been a direct result of their perceived inability to challenge the US military directly. US successes in the first Gulf War, the air campaign in the Balkans, and the accidental bombing of the PRC embassy in Belgrade all come to mind. But the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis is perhaps the most obvious example of US military capabilities and Beijing’s powerlessness to do anything about it at the time.
In that crisis, President Bill Clinton sent one, and then two carrier groups to Taiwan to compel China to cease it saber-rattling surrounding Taiwan’s first democratic election. While this was clearly seen as the right choice at the time, Beijing’s humiliation resulted in two notable consequences. The first being that it led to the birth of the PRC’s DF-21, and later the DF-26 “carrier killer” family of missiles. These missiles were specifically designed to prevent a future intervention in the region by the US by giving it a potent anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability that neutralizes one of America’s most potent power projection platforms, our aircraft carriers. Second, it taught PRC leadership that in the meantime, it should not attempt to challenge the US military directly and should instead employ a range of asymmetric and non-conventional methods to obtain its objectives, at least until China reaches military parity with the US. Both these lessons learned exploit one of America’s main weaknesses: our tendency to ignore minor, easily solvable, yet ambiguous problems and until they become major, intractable, and obvious threats to national security before we act. Of course, by then it is too late.
This dynamic is evident in our approach to Chinese land reclamation and “island manufacturing” in the SCS. Initial concerns about the potential for Chinese power projection or international sea lanes were quickly brushed aside in an environment of engagement where US attempts to make China a “responsible stakeholder” caused us to ignore (intentionally or otherwise) what was actually happening on the ground. One Belt, One Road (OBOR) is another example that provides the PRC with political and economic leverage while simultaneously building out potent power projection capabilities. North Korea’s development of a nuclear weapons program, Confucius Institutes, Chinese cyber-hacks and the theft of US military proprietary technology are just a few more examples. Granted, we still have a response options in all these scenarios, but uncontested initial advances by our adversaries means that any future options must be more aggressive, opening up the potential for miscalculation or provocation – which is exactly what China accuse us of when we (belatedly) respond to their attempts to change the status quo. This allows adversaries to control the narrative.
Beijing has used the time since the 95-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis to develop and field an increasingly credible military deterrent to our forces while also perfecting and employing a range of tactics to reach their objectives without using kinetic force. In a perverse way, our own past success at deterrence is exactly what is keeping us at bay now.
But despite indications that our activities might be hastening China's military development even while it pursues asymmetric methods in the interim, we often insist on more of the same activities and capabilities such as conducting exercises to demonstrate our readiness, increasing our posture in the region, or developing, testing, and fielding even better technology and weapons systems so that we can counter the counter that the Chinese made to counter us after we countered them….
A focus in the US military on deterrence activities that make the PRC “think twice” before using their military to achieve objectives misses the fact that China has been “thinking twice” for the better part of two decades now. And yet, this has not stopped them from gains that increase PRC influence and power projection capabilities, many of which are at the expense of US interests. This excessive focus on more traditional deterrence methods at the expense of asymmetric deterrence is exactly what Beijing wants. Traditional deterrence is succeeding – and that's the problem.
Flexing US military muscle through increased exercises, basing, posture, shows of force, or testing and development does serve a valuable purpose in deterring PRC military aggression, and we should absolutely maintain those capabilities and increase them where necessary. But we should also keep in mind that with every successful deterrent activity, the PRC adapts and evolves to become a more capable fighting force. While arms races can sometimes serve as stabilizing factors in geopolitics, that is not what is happening here; the military “competition” between the US and China is happening almost independently from Beijing’s actual gains below the threshold of armed conflict. These “non-military” methods have not been deterred by the range of US military responses precisely because they don’t fall under traditional military authorities or tasks. And yet, these represent real gains that could provide the PRC with invaluable power-projection platforms in a future war.
The brilliance behind Beijing’s incremental non-military approach is that US preferences for solving problems with military force give us no meaningful “target” to attack. Consequently, our predictable lack of response to these activities erodes US credibility and makes Beijing’s next move even more effective as allies and partners choose to hedge with a rising China against what they perceive to be an unreliable US. For example, China doesn't have to turn the Philippines into a formal ally to be effective, they only have to cause them to question US reliability. In fact, this is already happening.
Another consequence of our tendency to handle the bulk of deterrence with traditional military means is that it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy that increases the risk of miscalculation, leading to the very conflict we are trying to avoid. Like the hammer that views every problem as a nail, focusing on military-only solutions, even when military is not the best response, means that our adversary may decide to escalate with military force (again, calculating correctly our aversion to match that escalation). Even if they don’t escalate militarily, China and others are adept at employing alternate proxy approaches that still result in gains for the adversary.
But the second half of this equation is even more concerning; that is, a traditional military-centric approach to deterrence leads us into believing that we are winning the global geopolitical struggle just because we have deterred the PLA. The effect is that we see Beijing’s asymmetric methods to change facts on the ground as non-threatening, thus we take no real action and succumb to an environment where the US does nothing and ends up Losing Without Fighting, (students of Sun-Tzu will appreciate my co-opting of the famous Chinese strategist).
And while the US often criticizes China for not playing by the rules or for not competing fairly, this says less about unacceptable PRC behavior, and more about the limited way the US sees conflict. US views of warfare as a binary equation are actually harmful when formulating responses to our adversary’s asymmetric activities. While we see “war” narrowly as open, armed conflict, the PRC views it as a protracted, long-term struggle that enlists all elements of China’s power, literally a whole-of-nation and whole-of-society approach. Our myopic view limits the range of responses that the US is willing to pursue. This is further reinforced by the US military’s phased operational planning (OPLAN) system which is prepared in response to actual or potential military conflict.
These plans move in a linear fashion through five escalating phases of conflict to achieve US wartime objectives. These contingency plans do include Phase 0, or “Steady State” activities that include shaping operations, security cooperation, stabilization operations, etc.; but such rigid and inflexible planning ignores the fact that the PRC’s “operational plans” along with their current activities don’t conveniently coincide with ours. This means that we may not recognize a PRC tactic as part of a coherent strategic approach, so we will not respond or match in the best or most appropriate ways.
For example, while we might be satisfied in thinking that we are currently in Phase 0 or Phase 1 “Deter,” Beijing is busy with activities that we might call the “Seize the Initiative” (phase 2), “Dominate” (phase 3), and in some cases, the “Stabilization” (phase 4) – all without ever applying overt military force. The risks here are two-fold: First, as the PRC moves this notional status quo line of conflict to the right, they achieve real gains without ever triggering a military response from the US or regional partners. These represent gains that are difficult to roll-back once achieved. A good example are the artificial features in the South China Sea. First the PRC “Seized the Initiative” when they began reclaiming these features, next they “Dominated” when they militarized them, and now that they are solidly under Beijing’s “Stabilization” phase, there is very little the US can do to compel the PRC to demilitarize or dismantle these features short of openly attacking them.
The second risk is that as China moves this line closer to what we would interpret as formal conflict, decision space for US leadership is dramatically reduced. To put it another way, when we fail to notice Beijing moving from our notions of peace, into crisis, and then eventually into war, then we will fail to send the necessary signals to deter kinetic conflict, demonstrate resolve, or fail to make the appropriate preparations to win. This cedes valuable time, strategic positioning, and any potential de-escalation off-ramps to the enemy. In short, by the time we realize that a “war” is taking place, Beijing has quite possibly already fought – and won – the battle. The South China Sea scenario is equally appropriate here since by the time Beijing stabilized their gains, we had lost almost all other diplomatic, political, or economic leverage. This leaves us with only military tools, which they believe we will hesitate to use in the absence of a clear and overwhelming threat.
And this is exactly what Beijing wants. PRC leadership is fighting a war with the United States that very few Americans even realize is taking place. Statements from Beijing telling US leadership to “abandon the Cold War mentality” does not mean that we’re not in a Cold War – only that they don't want us to know that we already are.
Traditional deterrence has “succeeded.” So far, it has avoided a kinetic war with China. But it has also doubled as a security blanket for the US on many levels. The risk of succeeding at traditional deterrence against rivals such as China, is that it gives us the false impression of winning while unintentionally providing cover for a range of our adversary’s malign activities. Meanwhile, incremental gains erode US influence while sidestepping a credible response. Did deterrence really work in the end if China is able to upend the US-led international order to create a world more conducive to its authoritarian interests?
Deterrence and Gray Zone conflict are not the same thing. The US military should continue planning for deterring (and if necessary, winning) traditional conflict. But we also need innovative and creative solutions that restructure and employ our forces for asymmetric competition to counter the war that Beijing is waging.
Some of this might include getting clear about our end-state and objectives (“competition” is not an endstate), employing more mis-attributable or non-attributable capabilities such as cyber, re-learning deception, weaponizing our military key leader engagements, expanding information operations (with a corresponding increase in “wartime” authorities), using our military aid and training programs to incentivize or disincentivize behavior of allies and partners, increasing covert action options, mobilizing like-minded nations into specialized and task-specific agreements that create multi-lateral bridgeheads against malign activities, creating a planning “Gray Cell” at Indo-Pacific Command (or anywhere) to plan and execute a new range of operations for nontraditional deterrence, or even sub-unified commands with the proper authorities and responsibilities to focus on military options for Gray Zone warfare.
If some of this sounds familiar, that's because it is. The US military was an important part of America’s Political Warfare efforts throughout the Cold War, but has suffered from the misplaced notion that “Political Warfare” is somehow a dirty word or un-American. But employing more activities in areas of political warfare is exactly what we need to complement our existing capabilities to deter Beijing across the spectrum of conflict – not just in the traditionally military realm.
I will agree that some of this might sound crazy, but it’s not as crazy as continuing to think that conventional deterrence alone is all we need to preserve US interests and maintain our leadership position in the world. If anything, our conventional deterrence should act as a security umbrella for our Gray Zone activities to support non-traditional deterrence – this is the same thing China is doing to great effect.
As military professionals, we are trained to look for military solutions to some of our nation’s foreign challenges. We should continue to do this while recognizing that conventional military “deterrence” will look very different in the future that it did in the past or even the present. We are not the only department that should be doing this, but we have an important role to play in helping to frame the problem. This means devoting some of our military planning, strategy, operations, intelligence, and logistics expertise to provide creative solutions to these challenges.
Deterring Chinese activities in the Gray Zone will let us start to leverage our military capabilities to fight the war that Beijing is waging now, not just the one we are planning for in the future. Actions that will deter Beijing from further incremental gains and will also begin to push the status quo line firmly back into the steady-state “peace” realm where it belongs. From there it will be easier to immediately recognize Beijing’s incremental activities for what they are – brazen attempts to change the status quo. Most importantly for America, this will recover the decision-space we have ceded over the years and will regain the ability to choose when to use our hard military power to coerce or compel before our national interests are threatened instead of assuming that all military “competition” activities are equivalent to deterrence. The best time to start doing this was ten years ago; the second-best time is now.
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