Can the Dragon be Slain? The Difficulty of Finding a Way to Defeat China
First published: 7th April 2017 | Colum Hawken
The US has no clear option for conducting a war against China. While several concepts have been suggested, all have clear drawbacks. This article does not presume to definitively explore every theory on how such a war between the US and China would play out. Instead, we shall discuss some of the leading warfighting concepts, so as to better understand their utility. We will specifically examine; AirSea Battle (ASB), Offshore Control (OSC) and Deterrence by Denial (DBD). Following their assessment, a brief discussion of how a Sino-US war would open and play out will be used in order to decide how best these concepts should be used. In the interest of brevity, only potentially likely operational and strategic level events will be considered to measure these concepts against. Finally, this article assumes that such a conflict would generally involve on one side a US led coalition of allies including the UK, France, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia. Whereas China would only be joined by North Korea, and in extremity Pakistan. However, it is assumed that the US coalition would still have commitments similar to those at present, particularly in Europe and the Middle East that would prevent them bringing all their weight to bear in all but the direst circumstances.
AirSea Battle, is an operational concept designed to utilise integrated forces and long range striking to by-pass the perimeter of an enemy’s defences and degrade their capabilities.  This concept relies on utilising the domains of air, land, sea, space and cyberspace to defeat an opponent.  Whilst AirSea Battle has not formally been suggested as being aimed at defeating China, it is designed to overcome Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2AD) capabilities, which China has been building up.  Currently, the concept in itself is classified, meaning that discussion of AirSea Battle’s feasibility is limited, but certain conclusions can be drawn from an unclassified summary, and the writings of its advocates and critics.
The first problem with AirSea Battle is its complete reliance on integrated networks and streamlined communication. In order to be successful, the concept requires extensive C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capabilities.  ASB requires satellite and other reconnaissance gathering forces to quickly communicate with strike assets to overcome and destroy enemy capabilities. However, China has shown it has the ability to interdict these crucial information exchanges. In 2007 China used a missile to bring down one of its own satellites, and cyber-attacks against US military institutions in 2006 and 2009 have been attributed to China.  Therefore, China’s anti-satellite (ASAT) and cyberwarfare abilities could dramatically undermine the feasibility of ASB by denying strike assets necessary intelligence and communication with each other. This makes ASB not only potentially militarily unsound but also inherently destabilising. At times of crisis political and military leaders will face an issue of using or losing the assets, which could lead to open conflict where diplomacy might have prevailed given time. 
Secondly, should China’s ASAT and cyberwar attacks fail to destroy AirSea Battle’s cohesion, there is still no guarantee that strike assets will be able to properly find their targets and destroy them. This is shown by the First Gulf War and the coalition’s difficulty locating scud missile launchers operating in the desert.  During hostilities with China, not only would missile launchers be in more concealed locations, but coalition forces would be operating in contested airspace as well. This indicates that ASB would not be as effective at destroying China’s ability to fight as its advocates suggest.
Finally, there is the risk that ASB will result in a patriotic upsurge in China if mainland targets are attacked.  Therefore ASB could prolong the war by hardening Chinese public opinion. Moreover, bombing campaigns have historically been less effective than hoped, two obvious examples are the Blitz in World War Two and US air campaign in the First Gulf War. In the former, the British government’s fears about a collapse of morale soon proved unfounded, and in the latter, Stephen Biddle has shown that far more of the Iraqi army survived the coalition’s air attack than had been expected. 
Therefore, while some attacks on the Chinese mainland are necessary and ASB can to some extent provide this capability, on its own it is an insufficient method to achieve victory. This is because of several factors, such as its inherently destabilising properties. Furthermore, China’s ASAT and cyberwar capabilities can rapidly blunt ASB’s attack, ASB may actually prolong conflict and coalition assets will likely struggle to achieve air superiority or find their targets. ASB as a concept risks seeing air power as a simple panacea for difficult problems which it is not capable of.
Unlike ASB, Offshore Control is not an operational concept but instead a strategic one which has been designed specifically to defeat China.  OSC is effectively a strategy of blockade, relying on separating China from her imports, especially vital oil imports, in order to cause economic collapse.  It is hoped that this economic collapse will undermine the legitimacy of the political class and potentially cause internal instability in supressed regions like Tibet, forcing China to back down without risking escalatory attacks on the Chinese mainland.  Instead, OSC dictates that the US coalition secure the First Island Chain, stretching from Japan southward to the Philippines and contest Chinese movements up to their own coastline. 
Despite being formulated specifically to deal with Chinese aggression OSC also has several flaws. Firstly, while blockade is a useful stratagem to pursue, alone it is unlikely to result in victory, unless the war has remained very limited in nature.  Furthermore, the effectiveness of this blockade would be limited. While currently 80% of Chinese oil imports pass through the Strait of Malacca, which could be closed in war, investment in Pakistani pipelines will help China surmount this challenge to some extent.  This would mean that pressure would have to be applied to Pakistan in order to prevent this, risking the escalation of the conflict into the Indian Ocean region. Moreover, if the straits are held and Pakistan made to co-operate, Russia could likely supply China with oil to continue the war. While China might not be able to supply all of its domestic oil needs and so face economic damage, its warfighting capability would not be completely disrupted as OSC supporters suggest.
Secondly, assuming that the blockade could be made to work and China separated from vital imports there are further problems. OSC has been put forward as a less escalatory method of waging war.  This is in some way correct as it does not possess the same use or lose mentality as ASB, nor requires strikes on mainland China. However, it is escalatory in other ways. Its advocates hope to use OSC to undermine the legitimacy of China’s political class and cause uprisings against the leadership. If successful, China’s elites would have to try to end the war quickly. This leaves them with the option of backing down, and accepting at best a return to the status quo and a loss of face, or to convince the US of their resolve, potentially through nuclear posturing.
Finally, securing the First Island Chain may prove unrealistic, as anti-America political events in the Philippines suggest.  Additionally, more nations are becoming increasingly economically reliant on China, such as Australia, meaning that allies in the region may become increasingly unwilling to take sides in such a conflict. 
While OSC does have some flaws, it still has promise. OSC should be a foundational strategy for fighting China, as economic strangulation, while not a complete solution, it will help bring China to the negotiating table. Therefore, the USA and her allies should adopt OSC as a basis for their military planning rather than ASB.
The final concept to be examined is that of Deterrence by Denial. DBD intends to utilise A2AD capabilities to deny China its ability to project force into the Pacific.  DBD relies on securing the First Island Chain and making it prohibitively costly for China to change the status quo, thereby preventing war from breaking out in the first place.  Krepinevich has suggested that this role be fulfilled by missile armed army formations dispersed around the island chain. 
However, again there are several issues. The first, as already mentioned is whether the First Island Chain is a politically feasible defensive line. While naval forces have the mobility to potentially defend this line, land forces are entirely reliant on foreign bases, and therefore vulnerable to political machinations. Furthermore while land forces will be needed in a conflict with China, due to the geography of the theatre naval forces would be far more suitable due to their inherent flexibility. Land forces conversely would be tied to their positions and therefore vulnerable to Chinese forces concentrating against dispersed garrisons.
While DBD has merit, like ASB, it would be wrong to rely on it to deter China. This is because it lacks mobility and flexibility and has the potential to simply lead to a stalemate with neither side able to defeat the others A2AD capabilities. Unless diplomacy is able resolve such a standoff though a ‘win on points’ by either side, then DBD’s utility is limited.
We can make several assumptions about how conflict with China might play out. Firstly, while the conflict might open in a number of ways the Korean Peninsula and South China Seas would certainly be battlegrounds. The former due to North Korea’s desire to reunify the Peninsula and the later because of China’s desire to safeguard important sea lanes in the area. Furthermore, the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf regions would be of pronounced importance. This is due to China’s funding of infrastructure in the area that would enable her to circumvent blockade actions. The Central Asia Republics might also become areas of contention due to their oil wealth, though special forces and air power could likely disrupt Chinese aggression in that theatre. Finally, the continental US and Europe would be spared from kinetic attack, but would have to be prepared for cyber and terror attacks as well as keep adequate forces in reserve to deter Russian aggression.
Whatever stratagem is adopted against China must meet several criteria. Firstly, it must protect lines of communication to Japan and Korea so that a defensive land war can be waged there. Secondly, it must be able to deny China, and her merchant marine, freedom of action in the South China Sea, particularly around the Strait of Malacca. Thirdly, adequate forces must be maintained in the Persian Gulf to pressure or actively prevent Pakistan supplying China with oil and other imports. Finally a reserve must be maintained to meet eventualities in Central Asia or crises elsewhere.
These criteria combined with the political difficulties currently enveloping the Philippines mean that naval forces are critical to maintaining lines of communication around China’s perimeter. Land and air forces will also have a role but in concentrated areas. Defensive in the Korean and Malayan Peninsulas, and in a deterrent and potentially offensive role in the Middle East. In the former regions DBD is an excellent concept to adopt, but trying to utilise it down the entirety of the island chains risks spreading forces too thin and becoming vulnerable to a pre-emptive attack. Likewise ASB has its uses, chiefly in peripheral theatres where Chinese A2AD is less cohesive. These include Pakistan and Central Asia, if intervention is necessary, and beyond the First Island Chain.
The navy’s role is threefold. Firstly aid the operations in these key areas. Secondly, destroy enemy naval force projection assets, chiefly the Chinese carrier and tactical submarines, to safeguard sea lanes and deny them to the enemy. Thirdly degrade Chinese A2AD capabilities, to gradually bring strength to bear upon island bases and towards the Chinese coast. While critics will fear this concept cedes the First Island Chain to the Chinese and risks their breakout into the Pacific, this need not be the case. Instead, a well-funded coalition navy, with amphibious forces, can prevent China gaining a real foothold in the western Pacific without being tied to forward bases as land an air forces would be.
This mixed concept seeks to avoid attacking directly into the teeth of Chinese A2AD capabilities where they are strong in the Western Pacific. Instead naval action around the Gulf and Malacca will force China to come to the coalition’s battlefield or face economic strangulation. While there is still the risk of escalation, in theory Chinese nuclear weapons will be only used in retaliation.  At the same time, war in Korea, while likely to be extremely high intensity, will divert Chinese resources from breaking this strangle hold. Furthermore strike assets deployed in Korea or Central Asia could eventually be used to target imports that come into northern China over the Russian border. Finally, once the Chinese navy has been destroyed and China’s other assets undermined, the coalition navy can become more aggressive. This can take the form of probing attacks along the coast and at island bases to keep China off balance and secure the initiative.
This mixed concept which I will term Peripheral War like all the others is not perfect, no plan will be. While its blockade strategy is more all-encompassing than OSC, this alone is unlikely to end the war.
In addition there is still the risk China can concentrate against individual strong points, though this is less of a risk than if the entire Island Chain is held. However, I believe it utilises the positives of the three concepts discussed while minimising flaws. Moreover, it gains the strategic initiative by forcing China to fight in ways geography limits, but does not emphasise mainland strikes, giving the Chinese room to back down.
The concepts of AirSea Battle, Offshore Control and Deterrence by Denial all have flaws. These flaws vary from over emphasising the success of air power, the power of blockading the western Pacific alone, the chances of defending the First Island Chain, and the contribution of ground forces to defending the South China Sea. Nevertheless, to dismiss them out of hand would be wrong, as each has merit they simply require combination and adjustment.
War with China is likely to be long, unless cool heads prevail or nuclear weapons are used. Therefore leaving important assets vulnerably far forward or dispersed and attacking through China’s strongest defences risks them for questionable gain. Instead it is better to concentrate forces into several peripheries, rather than along the entire perimeter, and rely on blockade to undermine Chinese war making capability. This capability will also be further constrained by being forced to attack A2AD strong points and Chinese naval forces being hunted down by superior coalition fleets. As the war progresses and the Chinese naval threat has been minimised and her merchant marine driven from the sea, the Navy can put more emphasis on offensive operations keeping the Chinese off balance.
If there was an opportune moment to go to war with China it has passed. Chinese capabilities have advanced to the point that there would be no easy victory. Peripheral war, does not pretend to find a route to quick victory, instead it fights defensively and seeks to strangle the dragon rather than fight through its teeth. Moreover it utilises the inherent flexibility of naval power to keep China off balance and prevent her concentrating against the strong points. This method of waging war, will not result in total victory but instead will bring China to the negotiating table after undermining her economic and military power.
 AirSea Battle Office, AirSea Battle- Concept Implementation Summary, May 2013, p. 4
 Ibid, p. i.
 D. Kearn Jr., ‘AirSea Battle, the Challenge of Access, and U.S. National Security’, American Foreign Policy Interests, 36 (2014), pp.34-43, p.34; A. Krepinevich, ‘How to Deter China: The Case for Archipelagic Defense’, Foreign Affairs, 94 (2015), pp. 78-86.
 J. Dobbins, ‘War with China’, Survival, 54 (2012), pp.7-24, p.14.
 J. Kurth, ‘The New Maritime Strategy: Confronting Peer Competitors, Rouge States and Transnational Insurgents’, Orbis, pp.585-600, pp.589, 590.
 T. Hammes, ‘Strategy for an Unthinkable Conflict,’ The Diplomat, 27th July 2012, http://thediplomat.com/2012/07/military-strategy-for-an-unthinkable-conflict/, Accessed 14/10/16.
 T. Hammes, ‘Sorry, AirSea Battle is no Strategy’, The National Interest, 7th August 2013, http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/sorry-airsea-battle-no-strategy-8846, Accessed 14/10/16.
 E. Torsvoll, ‘Deterring Conflict with China: A Comparison of the Air-Sea Battle Concept, Offshore Control and Deterrence by Denial’, Fletcher Forum, 39 (2015), pp. 35-55, p. 43.
 A. Calder, The Myth of the Blitz, (London, 1992), p. 121; S. Biddle, ‘Victory Misunderstood: What the Gulf War Tells Us about the Future of Conflict’, International Security, 21 (1996), pp. 139-179, p. 149.
 Hammes, ‘Sorry, AirSea Battle is no Strategy’.
 E. Torsvoll, ‘Deterring Conflict with China’, p. 44.
 Ibid, p.44.
 Hammes, ‘Sorry, AirSea Battle is no Strategy’.
 E. Colby, ‘Don’t Sweat AirSea Battle’, The National Interest, 31st July 2013, http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/dont-sweat-airsea-battle-8804, Accessed 14/10/16
 J. Dixon, ‘From “Pearls” to “Arrows”: Rethinking the “String of Pearls” Theory of China’s Naval Ambitions’, Comparative Strategy, 33 (2014), pp. 389-400, p. 391; S. Gurpreet, ‘China as an Indian Ocean Power: trends and implications’, Maritime Affairs, 12 (2016), pp. 13-24, p. 14.
 Colby, ‘Don’t Sweat AirSea Battle’
 K. Kapoor and E. Cruz, ‘Americans in Philippines jittery as Duterte rails against United States’, Reuters, 18th October 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-usa-mood-idUSKBN12I07K?il=0, Accessed 30/10/16
 ‘China Australia Relations’, Lowy Institute, 30th October 2016, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/issues/china-australia-relations, Accessed 30/10/16.
 E. Torsvoll, ‘Deterring Conflict with China’, p. 49.
 Ibid, p. 51.
 A. Krepinevich, ‘How to Deter China: The Case for Archipelagic Defense’.
 Y. Yunzhu, ‘China’s Perspective on Nuclear Deterrence’, Air and Space Power Journal, 24 (2010), pp. 27-30, p. 29.
AirSea Battle Office, AirSea Battle- Concept Implementation Summary, May 2013.
Biddle, S., ‘Victory Misunderstood: What the Gulf War Tells Us about the Future of Conflict’, International Security, 21 (1996), pp. 139-179.
Calder, A., The Myth of the Blitz, (London, 1992).
Colby, E., ‘Don’t Sweat AirSea Battle’, The National Interest, 31st July 2013, http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/dont-sweat-airsea-battle-8804, Accessed 14/10/16.
Dixon, J., ‘From “Pearls” to “Arrows”: Rethinking the “String of Pearls” Theory of China’s Naval Ambitions’, Comparative Strategy, 33 (2014), pp. 389-400.
Dobbins, J., ‘War with China’, kearn, 54 (2012), pp.7-24.
Gurpreet, S., ‘China as an Indian Ocean Power: trends and implications’, Maritime Affairs, 12 (2016), pp. 13-24.
Hammes, T., ‘Sorry, AirSea Battle is no Strategy’, The National Interest, 7th August 2013, http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/sorry-airsea-battle-no-strategy-8846, Accessed 14/10/16.
Hammes, T., ‘Strategy for an Unthinkable Conflict,’ The Diplomat, 27th July 2012, http://thediplomat.com/2012/07/military-strategy-for-an-unthinkable-conflict/, Accessed 14/10/16.
Kapoor, K., and Cruz, E., ‘Americans in Philippines jittery as Duterte rails against United States’, Reuters, 18th October 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-usa-mood-idUSKBN12I07K?il=0, Accessed 30/10/16.
Kearn Jr., D., ‘AirSea Battle, the Challenge of Access, and U.S. National Security’, American Foreign Policy Interests, 36 (2014), pp.34-43.
Krepinevich, A., ‘How to Deter China: The Case for Archipelagic Defense’, Foreign Affairs, 94 (2015), pp. 78-86.
Kurth, J., ‘The New Maritime Strategy: Confronting Peer Competitors, Rouge States and Transnational Insurgents’, Orbis, pp.585-600.
Lowy Institute, ‘China Australia Relations’, 30th October 2016, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/issues/china-australia-relations, Accessed 30/10/16.
Torsvoll, E., ‘Deterring Conflict with China: A Comparison of the Air-Sea Battle Concept, Offshore Control and Deterrence by Denial’, Fletcher Forum, 39 (2015), pp. 35-55.
Yunzhu, Y., ‘China’s Perspective on Nuclear Deterrence’, Air and Space Power Journal, 24 (2010), pp. 27-30.
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