China's Growing Sea Power Can Be Countered by Technology, Maritime Cooperation

For Release

April 26, 2013

The United States should respond to China's increasing sea power in the Western Pacific region by exploiting technology to make its naval forces less vulnerable, while also pursuing regional maritime security cooperation that includes China, according to a new RAND Corporation report.

Current tensions in the East China Sea underscore the importance of these and other waters of the Western Pacific Ocean. Looming behind these tensions is a brewing contest for sea power between China and the United States.

China has been increasing its anti-naval and naval capabilities in East Asian waters to back its expansive territorial claims, to secure trade approaches and to extend its influence, the report says. It views U.S. sea power in these same waters as a threat to its regional aspirations and possibly to its global access, which is essential to its economy. At the same time, the United States has no intention of scaling back its sea power, which helps keep its interests secure and this vital region stable.

History shows that rivalries between established and rising sea powers tend to end badly. Examples include Great Britain versus Germany in the run-up to World War I and the United States versus Japan leading to World War II. While Great Britain did not oppose growing U.S. sea power in the late 19th century, in effect it ceded dominance in the Western Hemisphere to the United States — something the United States will not do to China in East Asia today.

"The problem in the Western Pacific is not that China is replicating the U.S. Navy, but that it is exploiting advanced technologies to hold U.S. naval forces in the region at risk," said David C. Gompert, author of the study, distinguished visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and a senior fellow at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

Although the U.S. Navy will remain far stronger than China's, there is growing vulnerability in the surface ships of American sea power, especially the few, large aircraft carriers in which U.S. war-fighting capabilities are concentrated. Defenses against new Chinese submarines, anti-ship missiles and cyber attack are difficult, costly and potentially futile.

While U.S. defense spending is far greater than China's, the United States must allocate resources to meet security needs in every region, whereas China is concentrating its military investments on its highest priority — countering U.S. capabilities in East Asia.

"Despite the superiority of the U.S. Navy, the core of its strike power in the Western Pacific is faced with an increasing risk of being found, targeted and disabled — if not destroyed — in a major war with China," Gompert said. "While Sino-U.S. war is improbable, such a shift in the balance of forces could undermine regional confidence in U.S. strength and steadfastness, and tempt China to use force against its neighbors."

In response, the United States can make its sea power less vulnerable by making a fundamental shift to a more diverse and distributed force, including more submarines, drones and smaller, more elusive, surface vessels that are all connected via computer networks.

Such a new posture would present China with targeting problems far more complex and difficult than the current U.S. fleet, with its reliance on a few and conspicuous vessels. But that kind of shift could take decades to implement, and even then could still be vulnerable to cyber attacks, according to the RAND study. So a new U.S. technological response should be combined with a new U.S. political initiative.

Gompert says the United States should establish an East Asian multilateral maritime-security partnership and invite China to join. While China might be wary that such a regional arrangement would be designed to contain and constrain it, the alternative of exclusion and isolation could induce China to join. If China doesn't join, such a partnership will still solidify U.S. leadership among allies in the region and, in any case, provide an enduring political and operating framework for U.S. sea power in the Western Pacific.

The report, "Sea Power and American Interests in the Western Pacific," can be found at

The project was conducted within the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the unified combatant commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense intelligence community.

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