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Countering China’s A2/AD Challenge

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U.S. defense planners are now focusing on Syria, but they have also been compelled to plan for countering Chinese efforts at what Western analysts term “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) capabilities. How successfully Washington deals with Beijing’s increasing capabilities in this area will go a long way toward determining how much faith our western Pacific allies place in our commitments to them.

China’s efforts at developing A2/AD capabilities, which the Chinese term “counter-intervention,” are rooted in the pattern of Chinese economic growth and their assessment of lessons learned from recent major wars.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Mao Zedong, fearing attack from both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, concentrated economic development well-inland. Mao sought to protect China’s “third-line” of industry from attack by interposing China’s physical space between it and likely attackers.

Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, reversed much of this policy (among many others) when he inaugurated the period of Reform and Opening in 1978. Thanks to Deng’s policies, China’s economic center of gravity has shifted to its coast, where foreign and domestic investment has been most heavily weighted. Indeed, part of Bo Xilai’s popular appeal (as Party Secretary of inland Sichuan province) was his argument that China’s inland areas had been slighted for more than three decades of economic expansion.

Ironically, the desire for strategic depth to keep potential enemies at arm’s length from China’s economic centers is a key factor in the development of Chinese A2/AD capabilities, further motivated by Chinese observations of other people’s wars. From Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990 through NATO operations in the Balkans, the toppling of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and the destruction of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, airpower has played a major, if not central, role. In each of these conflicts, American-led forces have used sustained aerial attacks (from a variety of platforms) to degrade an opponent’s defensive capabilities and destroy their economic, political and communications infrastructure at minimal cost to itself. The American ability to rapidly deploy carrier-based airpower in the 1995-1996 Taiwan crisis is also believed by some to have been a factor.

PLA analyses have concluded that airpower is essential for the conduct of “non-contact, non-linear, non-symmetric” warfare. In their view, these three qualities are typical of “local wars under informationized conditions,” where airpower—along with space and cyber capabilities—will be essential to victory. Consequently, China’s efforts in A2/AD are intended to forestall, and if possible defeat, an opponent’s ability to engage in sustained aerial attack against key Chinese targets.

China’s A2/AD efforts are therefore focused on countering both American land- and sea-based airpower, including not only aircraft carriers, but cruise missiles and long-range bombers. To this end, Chinese strategy has strategic, operational and tactical dimensions.

The strategic dimension is embodied in the so-called “three warfares.” The objective is to fundamentally deny the legitimacy of U.S. operations in the western Pacific using legal, public opinion and psychological warfare. These initiatives are coupled with diplomacy and efforts to secure control of the East Asian littoral. The U.S. is not the sole target here. These efforts are aimed just as much at U.S. allies and third parties throughout the region. If Beijing can persuade these states that Washington should not be allowed to operate in their air and sea-space, or that it is dangerous for them to antagonize China by doing so, it as effectively shuts down American capabilities as physically destroying them.

The operational dimension focuses on denying the U.S. the ability to operate in its customary manner. Based on their analyses of past American-led military actions, the Chinese have concluded that victory in future wars is rooted in the ability to establish “information dominance (zhi xinxi quan).” The side that can better collect, transmit and exploit information, while denying an opponent the same ability, will be the victor. In practice, for the PLA this means attacking American information networks, and especially their space capabilities. By combining physical attacks on satellites with non-contact disruption and degradation of their operations (e.g., by dazzling them with lasers), along with cyber attacks on the information that passes over those satellites, the PLA hopes to prevent the U.S. from effectively striking at over-the-horizon targets, even as China defends its territory while enjoying the physical advantage of operating closer to its own shores and infrastructure.

The tactical dimension of A2/AD involves the array of weapons aimed at destroying or damaging American capabilities, e.g., anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), submarines, and long-range cruise missiles. Much of the discussion about A2/AD has been focused at this level. There has been a lively discussion in various circles about whether U.S. carriers will be able to operate within China’s ASBM envelope, heightened by questions of whether the F-35, with its relatively short range, doesn’t play into Chinese hands. Similarly, there are growing concerns about the ability of U.S. airbases in the western Pacific—even those on Guam—to operate in the face of a concerted Chinese suppression campaign that employs a variety of ballistic and cruise missiles. Unfortunately, it is less clear that as much attention has been devoted to countering Chinese efforts at the strategic and operational levels.

The United States has tried to respond to the overall Chinese A2/AD effort through the so-called Asia pivot. At the strategic level, the Administration has sustained the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) effort, an Asia-wide free trade agreement. When completed, it will provide various local states with the incentive to draw closer to the U.S., countering Chinese strategic efforts to drive a wedge between the two sides of the Pacific.

But too often, efforts to counter the Chinese have been stymied by the incoherence of American security and budgetary policy. The Administration all too often appears to feel that China shares an interest in allowing the U.S. to operate freely in the western Pacific.

Despite all the talk about the “Asia pivot,” sequestration is increasingly undercutting the credibility of that move. The Chinese—and other potential antagonists—can keep tabs on how many ships are not leaving port and how many pilots have had their training reduced. Reduced training and presence inevitably affects the credibility of the American deterrent, as well as the viability of an American response in the face of Chinese A2/AD efforts.

This is further exacerbated by efforts to cajole the Chinese into accepting the American role. It is not clear what the Administration has in mind when it seeks out Chinese “cooperation” in limiting cyber-intrusions, even as evidence mounts that it is the Chinese government itself that is engaging in cyber-espionage. This is tantamount to Eliot Ness inviting Al Capone to help limit bootleg liquor.

Similarly, inviting the Chinese to participate in RIMPAC, the largest multilateral exercises in the Pacific, would seem to downplay the importance of A2/AD, at the strategic as well as operational and tactical levels. Some RIMPAC participants, such as Japan, view China with great skepticism. Inviting the Chinese to participate, not just to observe, risks revealing key capabilities in American and allied anti-submarine warfare, anti-air warfare and strike operations to a nation eagerly seeking out weaknesses to exploit as part of its A2/AD strategy. That this invitation is extended, even as China is amassing additional A2/AD capabilities seems emblematic of the incoherence and lack of direction in the American response.

- Dean Cheng is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.

Originally appeared in The National Interest

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