Cover: The Limits of Restraint

The Limits of Restraint

The Military Implications of a Restrained U.S. Grand Strategy in the Asia-Pacific

Published Mar 31, 2022

by Miranda Priebe, Kristen Gunness, Karl P. Mueller, Zachary Burdette


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克制的限度: 美国克制战略在亚太的军事影响

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Research Questions

  1. When would advocates of restraint support the use of force to defend U.S. interests?
  2. What military posture would the United States need in the Asia-Pacific region to respond to threats in the next decade?

In recent years, there has been growing interest among policymakers and foreign policy analysts in rethinking U.S. grand strategy, or the U.S. approach to the world. One of the most prominent alternatives to current U.S. grand strategy is a grand strategy of restraint, an approach that would define U.S. interests more narrowly, place a greater emphasis on diplomacy, reduce the size of the military and U.S. forward military presence, renegotiate or end U.S. security commitments, and raise the bar for the use of force.

Advocates of restraint have broadly outlined their views, but there is a lack of detail about what a strategy of restraint would mean in practice for U.S. security policy. In this report, RAND researchers describe when the United States might use force in the Asia-Pacific region under a grand strategy of restraint, propose possible warfighting scenarios involving the defense of Japan that could guide U.S. Department of Defense planning, and describe how U.S. military posture in the region would change under such a strategy.

Key Findings

  • Restrainers have a variety of views about when to use force in the Asia-Pacific.
  • For many restrainers, the primary driver of U.S. posture in the region would be the defense of Japan.
  • Defending Japan against a major Chinese attack would likely require maintaining some forward-deployed U.S. naval forces and pre-positioned materiel in the Asia-Pacific.
  • Restrainers would need to prioritize strategic airlift and sealift to deploy air and naval forces quickly and in large numbers from the United States.
  • Restrainers' limited objectives in the Asia-Pacific would be consistent with reductions in forward-deployed ground forces and, possibly, land-based air forces.
  • Given China's ability to target bases and ports, the United States would still need access to a large number of wartime operating locations in partner countries to increase the survivability of its forces involved in the defense of Japan.
  • To have the capability to impose a distant blockade on China, the United States would need to maintain a large navy and have wartime access to ports in the region.
  • Like current policymakers, restrainers would face trade-offs between maximizing U.S. preparedness for conflict and incentivizing burden-sharing by other states.


  • Future research should assess Japan's ability to defend its coasts and airspace against a major Chinese attack without U.S. support. This would inform how much and what types of support the United States needs to provide to preserve Japan as an independent power, which many restrainers consider a vital objective.
  • Analysts should calculate force and logistics requirements and timelines for deploying U.S. air and maritime forces to and within the Asia-Pacific to assess which forces could usefully be based outside Japan. Many restrainers prefer to keep forces in the United States during peacetime, but more-detailed analysis is necessary to assess where the United States would need to station its forces in peacetime to achieve restrainers' wartime objectives related to the defense of Japan.
  • Researchers should evaluate the implications of emerging technologies for a restraint-oriented posture in the Asia-Pacific. Technological advances may change the regional balance of power, options for how China could attack, and how Japan and the United States could defend against such aggression. Restrainers should address the implications of these technologies when making recommendations about force posture and wartime operational approaches.

The research in this report was conducted by the RAND Center for Analysis of U.S. Grand Strategy within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division.

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