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Research Questions

  1. How can the sea-power rivalries of the 19th and 20th centuries inform the relationship between the United States and China in the 21st century?
  2. What are the United States' and China's capabilities and intentions in the Western Pacific?
  3. How are technological advances affecting the sea-power dynamics between the United States and China?
  4. What are the prospects for regional cooperation, including the United States, on maritime security in the Western Pacific?
  5. How can the United States advance its interests in the Western Pacific without wasteful competition and dangerous confrontation?

China sees American sea power in East Asian waters as threatening to itself, its regional aspirations, and possibly its global access. So it is mounting a challenge with anti-ship missiles, submarines, and a growing fleet of its own. However, the United States will not relinquish its sea power, which it sees as needed to maintain its influence and stability, despite China's growing might, in this vital region. History shows that rivalries between established and rising sea powers tend to end badly, to wit: Britain versus Germany before World War I and the United States versus Japan before World War II. In this case, technology that enables the targeting of surface ships, especially aircraft carriers, favors the challenger, China. The United States can exploit technology more boldly than it has previously to make its sea power less vulnerable by relying more on submarines, drones, and smaller, elusive, widely distributed strike platforms. Yet, such a U.S. strategy could take decades and even then be vulnerable to Chinese cyber-war. Therefore, in parallel with making its sea power more survivable, the United States should propose an alternative to confrontation at sea: East Asian multilateral maritime-security cooperation, with China invited 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.

Key Findings

The Nature of Sino-U.S. Competition in the Western Pacific and the Prospects for Cooperation

  • China is intent on establishing sea power in the Western Pacific, and the United States is just as intent on refusing to relinquish such power.
  • The sea-power rivalries between the United States and Britain and between Imperial Germany and Britain in the 19th century, and between Imperial Japan and the United States in the 20th, provide important lessons for the relationship between China and the United States in the 21st century. Each is an example of a rising sea power challenging an established one.
  • Technological advances have made it clear that sea power is power of the sea, which may or may not be achieved via power on the sea. China will likely seek to establish sea power by building up anti-naval capabilities rather than trying to replicate the United States' naval capabilities — i.e., its surface fleet, which is increasingly vulnerable.
  • Although traditional theory holds that establishing and maintaining sea power inherently involves competition between nations, a newer school of thought suggests that nations should cooperate on maritime security to promote global trade. The integration of the global economy — and in particular the economic interdependence between the United States and China — means that cooperative maritime security stands a better chance of overcoming rivalry today than ever before.


  • The United States should pursue a strategy of making its sea power less vulnerable by relying more on submarines, drones, and smaller, elusive, widely distributed strike platforms.
  • The United States should also pursue a political alternative to head-to-head sea-power rivalry — one that engages its partners in the Western Pacific and, ideally, China itself.
  • The United States should propose and pursue an East Asian maritime security partnership. If China joins such a partnership, it may provide a path for the United States and China to avoid sea-power competition in the region; and if China does not join, such a partnership will still solidify U.S. leadership among allies in the region and provide a political and operating framework for American sea power in the Western Pacific.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    Theory and Lessons of History

  • Chapter Three

    U.S. and Chinese Interests and Sea Power in the Western Pacific

  • Chapter Four

    Technological Change

  • Chapter Five

    Regional Maritime Security

  • Chapter Six

    Conclusions and Recommendations

The research described in this report was conducted within the 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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