At a time of heightened tensions between China and its neighbors involving uninhabited islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea, China recently put into service its first aircraft carrier, reflecting Beijing's ambitions to be able to project military power beyond China's coastal waters. The steady growth of China's military power raises important questions about the role that the next U.S. president should play in either containing China, cooperating with China, or trying to strike a balance between containment and cooperation.
On the U.S. presidential campaign trail, both candidates have taken positions that raise similar questions about how to have it both ways with respect to China. Both presidential candidates envision a larger U.S. military role in the Asia-Pacific region flanking China. At the same time, both candidates advocate for economic cooperation with China as a means of reducing the likelihood of conflict with the world's most populous nation. Is it viable for either presidential candidate, regardless of party, to try to contain yet simultaneously court China?
RAND research on China's growing military and economic might helps explain why the United States needs to perform this kind of delicate balancing act—and how such a balance could be properly struck. The core conclusions are as follows: Any military conflict between the U.S. and China would be disastrous for both sides, but such a conflict is unlikely so long as the U.S. retains the capacity to deter behavior that could lead to a clash. China will gradually achieve local military superiority, first around Taiwan and then at greater distances. But bolstering the defenses of China's neighbors could improve U.S. prospects for defense and deterrence while reducing the need for escalation.
The People's Liberation Army has long been investing in "anti-access" capabilities designed to slow the deployment of U.S. forces into the Western Pacific or prevent them from operating from certain locations within the theater. The commissioning of China's first aircraft carrier last month marks a new phase in the country's long-term strategy, signaling a shift from a primarily anti-access posture to one that is starting to include elements of power projection. Although China is still far from being able to challenge U.S. naval supremacy on the high seas, the aircraft carrier reflects Beijing's desire to close the gap in military power and to reduce U.S. influence in the region.
Working with partners and allies, the United States should take several steps in response to China's growing military capabilities. Among these are protecting military information systems, increasing the number of missile defense systems, constructing concrete aircraft shelters, increasing rapid runway repair capabilities, strengthening defenses against commandos and saboteurs and diversifying the basing options for U.S. military aircraft in the region. The Pentagon also needs to continue to develop new military capabilities, despite tightening defense budgets. Key areas for investment include improved defenses against ballistic and cruise missiles, improved antisubmarine warfare capabilities, improved minesweeping capabilities, long-range antiaircraft capabilities and improved capabilities to strike targets defended by advanced surface-to-air missiles.
At the same time, the U.S. should draw China into cooperative security endeavors, not only to avoid the appearance of an anti-China coalition but also to obtain greater contributions to international security from the world's second-strongest power. The collapse of North Korea, for example, could become an opportunity for U.S.-Chinese collaboration.
On balance, the economic interdependence between the two nations is itself a powerful source of deterrence—a form of "mutual assured economic destruction." The United States needs to maintain the strength of its economy, lest it find itself hobbled and thus even more deterred than is China by the prospect of severe economic damage arising from military conflict.
James Dobbins directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center and Roger Cliff is an adjunct senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. This op-ed is adapted from an essay that first appeared in RAND Review.
This commentary originally appeared in The Orange County Register on November 5, 2012.