Taking Stock of RAND's China and Indo-Pacific Security Research
Photo by James Pomfret/Reuters
Fueled by decades of extraordinary economic growth, China has transformed itself into a major power on the world stage. Along with its growing economic power, China has been expanding its diplomatic influence, increasing its standing as a scientific and technological power, and strengthening its military capabilities by modernizing and reorganizing the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Chinese leader Xi Jinping has announced ambitious plans to achieve the "Chinese dream of national rejuvenation" and to transform the PLA into a "world class military" by the middle of the 21st century. Xi's military reorganization efforts are building a PLA more capable of conducting regional combat operations in the near term. In addition, China's establishment of its first overseas military base in Djibouti and development of power projection capabilities indicate its determination to protect global interests in the longer term. China's more assertive handling of its maritime disputes, especially its island-building and militarization in the South China Sea, has increased tensions with its neighbors and with the United States. Beijing is not only acting more assertively in the Indo-Pacific region but also pursuing increasingly global interests and objectives, as reflected by its expansive Belt and Road Initiative.
As the U.S.-China strategic competition increases, what do we know about China and its grand strategy? What are the implications of domestic developments in China, and of China's approach to engagement and competition with other countries? What U.S. strategies and capabilities would help position the United States for success in a long-term strategic competition with China?
The RAND Corporation has studied China and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region extensively over the past two decades. This brief introduction discusses the main findings from RAND's unclassified research in six main areas. The first section addresses the literature on U.S.-China strategic competition. The second section discusses RAND work on China's grand strategy. The third section focuses on U.S. strategy and capabilities for countering China. The fourth covers research on Chinese engagement and competition with other countries. The fifth distills the findings from research on Chinese domestic trends. The sixth section addresses nuclear, space, and cyber issues.
U.S.-China Strategic Competition
Along with its more assertive security policy and ambitious military modernization, Chinese political influence operations, cyber-enabled economic espionage, and trade practices have contributed to growing friction and competition in the U.S.-China relationship. The most recent U.S. National Security Strategy and U.S. National Defense Strategy documents focus on China as a strategic competitor, while China's most recent defense white paper charges that the United States is intensifying major power competition and undermining regional and global stability. As the U.S.-China relationship has become characterized by friction over economic policy, security issues, and other challenges in recent years, one thread of RAND research has focused on understanding the dynamics of the emerging U.S.-China strategic competition. A 2018 RAND report, titled Understanding the Emerging Era of International Competition: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives, defines strategic competition as follows: "Competition in the international realm involves the attempt to gain advantage, often relative to others believed to pose a challenge or threat, through the self-interested pursuit of contested goods such as power, security, wealth, influence, and status." According to the report, global patterns of competition are likely to be complex and diverse, with distinct types of competition prevailing in different issue areas. The crux of the competition will be the relationship between the United States, the architect of the post-World War II rules-based order, and China, the leading revisionist peer competitor. The report argues that strategic competition is likely to be most intense and persistent in nonmilitary areas of national advantage. Two particular flashpoints for the emerging competition lie in regional territorial and influence claims and in the growing tendency of rising and revisionist states to seek to extend their reach and control beyond their borders. In the case of China, this could mean both economic competition and tension over Chinese territorial and sovereignty claims in the region and control over large swaths of peripheral maritime territory. The emerging era is likely to involve a drawn-out combination of contestation, competition, and cooperation; a singular focus on winning or victory is likely to be the wrong intellectual model. The challenges posed by China's growing power and influence over the long term are a unique and very difficult problem for U.S. policymakers and planners.
There is also a military dimension to strategic competition. Several RAND studies have focused specifically on this aspect of competition, tracking and comparing U.S. and Chinese military capabilities. The United States retains an advantage in this component of the strategic competition, but its edge is eroding in some key areas along with the modernization of Chinese military power. A 2015 RAND report, The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Force, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996-2017, presented ten scorecards that assess military capabilities as they have evolved over four snapshot years: 1996, 2003, 2010, and 2017. The results of the report show that China is not close to catching up to the United States in terms of aggregate capabilities, but also that it does not need to catch up to challenge the United States along its maritime periphery. Despite U.S. military improvements, China has made relative gains in most operational areas, in some cases with startling speed. However, trends vary by mission area, and even in the context of the most difficult scenarios, U.S. forces retain some important advantages across scenarios, suggesting they retain some flexibility and adaptability in operational concept and force projects. In general, distance and geography work against the United States and largely counterbalance U.S. military strengths, especially in scenarios around China's immediate periphery. China's ability to project power to more distant locations remains relatively weak, and the United States continues to hold more decisive advantage in Asian scenarios at a distance from China's coast. China's ability to project power is improving, however, and the relative balance in areas more distant from China is also shifting.
China’s Grand Strategy
China's grand strategy has evolved over time as its interests and influence have become increasingly global. Under Xi, China is pursuing "the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," strengthening its position in the Indo-Pacific as it implements a more assertive policy direction regionally, and expanding its influence worldwide in pursuit of its expanding global economic and security interests. Along these lines, another major thread of RAND research has focused on China's strategy for pursuing its regional and global interests. A 2000 RAND report, Interpreting China's Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future, found that China's continuing rapid economic growth and expanding involvement in global affairs would have major implications for the power structure of the international system. The report concluded that Chinese history, the behavior of earlier rising powers, and the basic structure and logic of the international system all predict that China will become more assertive internationally as it becomes stronger. China's stepped-up international engagement was the subject of a 2009 RAND report, China's International Behavior: Activism, Opportunism, and Diversification, which highlighted ways in which China is becoming active in regions and on issues that were once only peripheral to its interests. The report found that China's international behavior is not aimed at overturning the fundamental structure of the international system, but it is clearly altering the dynamics of that order through its more assertive diplomacy, participation in existing international organizations and formation of new ones, and efforts to shape rules, norms, and institutions to advance its interests.
Under Xi, China has pursued the goals of "national rejuvenation" and the "China Dream" and adopted a more assertive approach to pursuing its interests regionally and globally. A 2016 RAND report, The PLA and China's Rejuvenation: National Security and Military Strategies, Deterrence Concepts and Combat Capabilities, found that as a part of the PLA reorganization begun by Xi in late 2015, China is building a military force more capable of conducting joint combat operations in a regional contingency. The PLA previously could not be relied on to defend China's regional interests but now is increasingly capable of doing so, with significant implications for U.S. forces that might be ordered to respond to such contingencies. The report also found that China's expanding interests increasingly require a capacity to provide security for investments and business ventures around the world. China's engagement with the developing world and Xi's Belt and Road Initiative are also important components of China's overall strategy for increasing its regional and global influence. According to a 2018 RAND report, At the Dawn of Belt and Road: China in the Developing World, China's pursuit of these initiatives offers it opportunities for economic growth and global influence but also comes with new challenges for Beijing, and appears to be encountering setbacks as some countries question the terms of Chinese investment or the risks of excessive debts to Beijing. China's strategy now appears to focus on establishing its position as the most powerful and influential country in the region and, ultimately, as a global superpower, but the United States and other countries are pushing back against Chinese activities that they see as aimed at undermining their influence and challenging their diplomatic, economic, and security interests.
U.S. Strategy and Capabilities for Countering China
As China has increased its military capabilities and pursued a more assertive foreign and security policy regionally and beyond, the United States has shifted its focus to strategic competition and developing strategy and capabilities for responding to China. As this debate has emerged and U.S. policy has emphasized competition, RAND research has also focused on U.S. strategy and capabilities for countering China. A 2014 RAND report, The U.S. Army in Asia, 2030-2040, found that U.S. military strategy will need to be flexible and resilient given China's increased capabilities, which will place significant demands on the U.S. Army. Although armed conflict between the United States and China is not likely, the possibility requires effective deterrent measures, according to a 2017 RAND report, Conflict with China Revisited: Prospects, Consequences, and Strategies for Deterrence. Potential flashpoints include the Taiwan Strait, East and South China Seas, and the Korean Peninsula. However, the United States faces serious challenges as it seeks to develop and resource a strategy for countering China and meet all of its other national defense requirements. A 2018 RAND report, America's Strategy-Resource Mismatch: Addressing the Gaps Between U.S. National Strategy and Military Capacity, highlights technological, doctrinal, and budgetary gaps between the stated U.S. strategic and defense policies and the resources and capabilities that would be required to implement those policies. These policy-resource gaps present challenges in terms of deterring or, if necessary, defeating aggression against U.S. interests by different adversaries in multiple parts of the world, including such scenarios as possible Chinese use of force against Taiwan.
In terms of capabilities, a 2017 RAND report, What Role Can Land-Based, Multi-Domain Anti-Access/Area Denial Forces Play in Deterring or Defeating Aggression? examines the role that land-based capabilities can play in deterring or defeating aggression, primarily by China. The report found that anti-access/area denial capabilities would allow allied forces to contest maritime areas without exposing U.S. forces to easy attack. Along these lines, U.S. allies and partners could field a mix of anti-ship, anti-aircraft, and surface-to-surface missiles. In addition, the U.S. joint force could support U.S. allies.
In all, RAND research highlights the challenges involved in countering China as it becomes more powerful, and in deterring Chinese aggression against its neighbors. RAND's work in this area indicates that the United States will need to continue working to develop new operational concepts and capabilities and work more closely with its allies and partners to help them strengthen their own capabilities. Additionally, because great-power competition is likely to be played out primarily below the threshold of armed conflict, the United States must be prepared to respond to efforts that seek strategic advantage through coercive actions in this gray zone. A 2019 RAND report, Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Gray Zone: Response Options for Coercive Aggression Below the Threshold of Major War, highlights China's unprecedented expansion of artificial islands, use of law enforcement and maritime militia vessels in an unprofessional and escalatory manner, and growing employment of economic coercion and political subversion. The report found that, in response to these actions (and Russian gray zone activities), the United States should seek to shape a context supportive of U.S. and partner objectives over the long term; deter a handful of very extreme forms of gray zone aggression; dissuade the day-to-day use of more elaborate gray zone techniques; and sustain resilience in the lower-level, persistent competition areas.
Chinese Engagement and Competition with Others
In the Indo-Pacific region, China's economic, military, and diplomatic power has been on the rise, and many observers worry that it is undermining U.S. influence, perhaps with the aim of establishing a China-dominated regional order. Chinese engagement and competition with other countries have thus been the subject of a considerable amount of RAND research over the past two decades. This research has assessed the implications of Chinese engagement close to home and further afield. To explore this issue in the Indo-Pacific region, the authors of a 2008 RAND report, Pacific Currents: The Responses of U.S. Allies and Security Partners in East Asia to China's Rise, examined the perceptions and responses of U.S. allies and partners, including Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand. The report found that the countries view China primarily as a source of economic opportunity, although they have concerns about China's regional goals and do not want to allow China to replace the United States as the dominant power. U.S. allies and partners find U.S. security commitments reassuring, and they want U.S. involvement in the region to continue for the general reassurance its long-standing power and influence provide and to check Chinese power and aspirations that in several cases run contrary to allied and partner interests.
RAND research has also analyzed growing Chinese engagement and competition in more distant regions, including South and Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. A 2015 RAND report, China's Strategy Toward South and Central Asia: An Empty Fortress, found that China's engagement in the region is driven by a combination of domestic and international security concerns, economic interests, and access to energy resources. The report found that China's promotion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and its involvement in Afghanistan and other countries in the region can best be understood in the context of these interests. As for the Middle East, a 2016 RAND report, China in the Middle East: The Wary Dragon, examined China's regional interests and activities, found that Beijing is generally wary in its approach to the region, endeavoring to protect its expanding interests while avoiding taking sides in conflicts and controversies. Finally, according to a 2015 report, China's Expanding African Relations: Implications for U.S. National Security, Beijing's engagement with Africa has increased dramatically in recent years as it steps up its pursuit of Chinese political, economic and security interests, creating challenges and potentially opportunities for the United States.
Chinese Domestic Trends: Economy, Industry, and Military
Even as China increases its power and influence abroad, however, it is important to examine domestic trends, including economic, industrial, and military developments. Indeed, in addition to looking at competition with the United States and strategies for external engagement, RAND work has explored domestic trends in China and their implications for Chinese foreign and security policy. RAND research has focused on Chinese economic and industrial developments that support China's growing military power. A 2005 RAND report, Modernizing China's Military: Opportunities and Constraints, assessed the resources that China is likely to have available to spend on its military. The report found that, although economic growth in China is destined to slow, it will be sufficient for China to continue increasing its defense spending. Another 2005 report, A New Direction for China's Defense Industry, assessed changes in China's defense-industrial complex, which was once rife with weaknesses and limitations. The report highlighted gradual improvements in and the future potential of China's defense-industrial complex. It found that China's defense sectors are designing and producing a wide variety of increasingly advanced weapons.
RAND research has also tracked developments in Chinese military capabilities and operational concepts. A 2016 RAND report, China's Incomplete Military Transformation: Assessing the Weaknesses of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), found that the PLA's capabilities aimed at deterring or, if necessary, countering U.S. military intervention have improved markedly since the 1990s. Nonetheless, the report found that Chinese strategists remain concerned about perceived gaps between current PLA capabilities and the demands of winning a local war under informatized conditions and successfully executing the PLA's other missions. China continues to improve its military capabilities to fill these gaps, as highlighted in a 2018 RAND report, Defeat, Not Merely Compete: China's View of Its Military Aerospace Goals and Requirements in Relation to the United States, which found that the main driver for China's development of military aerospace power is the PLA's view that it needs to be prepared to deter and, if necessary, defeat the United States in a high-end clash over Taiwan or maritime disputes with its neighbors. Such a requirement is driven not only by China's pursuit of its security interests but also by nationalism and domestic politics. In addition, RAND has analyzed the evolution of Chinese operational doctrine and concepts as represented by a 2018 RAND report, Systems Confrontation and Systems Destruction Warfare: How the Chinese People's Liberation Army Seeks to Wage Modern Warfare, which explored how the PLA views militarized conflict as a contest between opposing operational systems. The report found that system-of-systems thinking pervades almost every aspect of the PLA's approach to training, organizing, and equipping for modern warfare and identified the importance of systems thinking and systems concepts as key drivers of the PLA's recent organizational reforms.
Nuclear, Space, and Cyber Issues
China is rapidly closing what was once a substantial gap between the PLA's strategic weapons capabilities and its strategic deterrence concepts. As China has modernized and expanded its strategic deterrence capabilities, nuclear, space, and cyber issues have become more prominent in the U.S.-China security relationship. RAND research has also examined China's evolving approach to strategic deterrence, and highlighted the growing importance of nuclear, space, and cyber issues in the U.S.-China security relationship. A 2016 RAND report, China's Evolving Approach to "Integrated Strategic Deterrence," found that China's strategic deterrence concepts are evolving in response to a changing assessment of its external security environment and a growing emphasis on protecting its emerging interests in space and cyberspace. According to the report, China has a broad concept of strategic deterrence, one in which a multidimensional set of military and nonmilitary capabilities combine to constitute the "integrated strategic deterrence" posture required to protect Chinese interests. For China, powerful military capabilities of several types—including nuclear, conventional, space, and cyber capabilities—are all essential components of a credible strategic deterrent.
RAND research has further explored the dynamics of U.S.-China competition in the nuclear, space, and cyber arenas. A 2017 RAND report, China's Evolving Nuclear Deterrent: Major Drivers and Issues for the United States, assessed the evolution of Chinese nuclear policy and presents an analysis of possible future trends. The report concluded that China's overall approach to nuclear deterrence has been broadly consistent over the long term and remains predicated on China's no-first-use policy, but that China has recently accelerated nuclear force-building and modernization. Chinese strategists are especially concerned about the development of U.S. missile defenses and conventional prompt global strike capabilities. Additionally, bureaucratic processes and domestic politics influence the development of Chinese nuclear forces and thinking. As a result, China is likely to increase emphasis on nuclear deterrence and force modernization in the coming years.
RAND research has examined China's growing military space capabilities and the challenges competition in space poses for U.S. efforts to maintain deterrence and stability. A 2017 RAND report, The Creation of the PLA Strategic Support Force and its Implications for Chinese Military Space Operations, explored the missions and organization of the PLA's space enterprise following the major reorganization of China's military announced in December 2015. The report found that the PLA is increasing the prioritization of space and envisioning an expanded role for military space capabilities and operations, which it views as a key component of strategic deterrence, critical to enabling the PLA to fight informatized local wars and countering U.S. military intervention in the region, and essential for supporting operations aimed at protecting China's emerging interests in more distant parts of the world. A 2010 RAND report, Deterrence and First Strike Stability in Space: A Preliminary Assessment, highlighted how challenges to space deterrence and stability are increasing because potential adversaries, including China, understand the high degree to which space systems enhance U.S. conventional warfighting capabilities, and are developing the ability to hold those U.S. space systems at risk. The report argued that the United States can respond by attempting to influence both sides of a potential adversary's cost-benefit decision calculus simultaneously. According to the report, this strategy should include declaring that the United States will punish space aggressors and reduce the benefits an enemy might expect to gain in attacking U.S. space systems.
Still another thread of RAND research has focused on the emergence of cyber issues as a source of tension in the relationship between the United States and China. The cyber domain has become a growing source of friction as a result of Chinese cyber-enabled economic espionage and other forms of hacking against the United States and other countries. Recent disputes over 5G technology and its national security implications have further increased attention to this area. Against this backdrop, a 2016 RAND report, Getting to Yes with China in Cyberspace, explored the question of whether the United States and China can achieve meaningful outcomes through formal negotiations over norms and rules in cyberspace. The report found that the United States and China have very different perspectives on cyberspace. The United States emphasizes extending the rule of law internationally, whereas China stresses the maintenance of state sovereignty. The report also explored the possibility of establishing norms against countries attacking one another's critical infrastructure, but assessed that Beijing is apprehensive of any agreement that it perceives as potentially putting China at a disadvantage.
Conclusion: Taking Stock and Looking Ahead
Over the past two decades, RAND research has helped inform policy debates on U.S.-China strategic competition, Chinese strategy, U.S. strategy and capabilities for countering China, important domestic trends related to China's economic and industrial policies and military modernization, China's growing engagement and competition with other countries, and nuclear and cyber issues. During this time, the U.S.-China relationship has taken on an increasingly competitive tone and, especially over the past few years, has become characterized by intensifying friction over a wide variety of diplomatic, economic, political, technological, and security issues. Many U.S. allies and partners in Asia are concerned that they will be caught in the middle as U.S.-China competition intensifies, raising uncomfortable questions about how to successfully manage their economic and security ties with the two great powers. All of this portends challenging times ahead for the United States, and U.S. policymakers will likely need to make difficult decisions. Indeed, as the United States increasingly focuses on strategic competition with China, several key questions require further study, and some new questions will need to be addressed: Will China adjust its strategy and tactics in response to balancing behavior by the United States and other countries, or double down on the more assertive foreign and security policy it has pursued in recent years? How quickly will China advance militarily and how expansive are its goals? Will it be possible for Washington and Beijing to maintain some level of cooperation in areas of shared interest as the U.S.-China relationship becomes more competitive? How will U.S. allies and partners and other countries respond to the challenges presented by U.S.-China strategic competition? What strategies and capabilities will the United States need to develop in the context of a more competitive relationship with an emerging superpower that has the willingness and ability to challenge U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond?
Sources of This Research
The studies highlighted and synthesized here were sponsored by the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted in three federally funded research and development centers managed by RAND: RAND Arroyo Center, Project AIR FORCE, and the National Defense Research Institute.
RAND conducted each of the analyses at the request of a senior leader, uniformed or civilian, who faced a major decision and required high-quality, objective research to help inform it. As a result, each analysis was designed to be not only rigorous and reliable, but also responsive, relevant, and immediately useful.