Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 4, Issue 1  /  

Balanced Deterrence for the Asia-Pacific Region

Balanced Deterrence for the Asia-Pacific Region Balanced Deterrence for the Asia-Pacific Region
To cite this article: Pillai, Chad M., “Balanced Deterrence for the Asia-Pacific Region,” Infinity Journal, Volume 4, Issue 1, summer 2014, pages 4-8.

The U.S. preoccupation with the war on terror in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia since 2001, along with the financial collapse of 2007-08, has emboldened China to act more assertively in the Asia-Pacific region. This led to the administration’s announcement of the “Rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific Region.”[i] The foreign policy announcement is viewed negatively by China stating it would increase tensions[ii] and has created a sense of unease by Asian nations due to the perceived lack of commitment.[iii] In response, there have been an abundance of possible strategies and military concepts to deal with a more assertive China. However, most are without the foundation of a comprehensive national approach with a clear political objective that drives necessary policies and the supporting military strategies tied to the threat or use of force that can achieve such policies. This article attempts to offer a concise explanation of the political issue at hand, a possible long-term policy that could achieve a reasonable political objective, and various military concepts appropriately interwoven that could support the proposed policy through the threat of violence.

Understanding the Duel

War, as Clausewitz defined it, “is nothing but a duel on a larger scale. Countless duels go to make up war, but a picture of it as a whole can be formed by imagining a pair of wrestlers.”[iv] In this analogy, the pair of wrestlers engages each other in a physical and mental duel because of “hostile feelings and hostile intentions” created through iterative interactions and competing interests.[v] In developing an approach to overcoming an adversary, one must understand the root cause of hostile feels or intentions between the two wrestlers. In the case of the U.S. and China, to begin to understand the strategic environment an examination of both China’s and the U.S’s core national interests is in order. While each interaction between the two actors is unique, an examination of national interests that can be seen as largely enduring across governments and strategic history, and therefore can be considered “core”, can be illustrative of overlapping areas of interest and/or areas of friction that could lead to conflict. When looking across the strategic history of China, some enduring interests could be argued to be: upholding the stability created by the current system of governance; maintaining national sovereignty and territorial integrity; and sustaining economic and social development.[vi] In comparison, some U.S. enduring national interests are: providing security of the U.S. and its citizens abroad; increasing the prosperity of the U.S; championing a respect for universal values as a part of the international order; and a peaceful and stable international order to ensure the previous interests.[vii]

With these competing interests in mind, one could apply Thucydides’ primary motivators of fear, honor, and interest to determine similarities or differences. China’s motivators could be seen as largely derived from fear and honor. They fear encirclement and loss of territory,[viii] especially from threats emanating from historical invasion routes from its western and northern borders.[ix] Additionally, China fears it will not be able to maintain access to markets, raw materials and energy to support economic growth and social development.[x] However, China also wishes to restore its honor through recapturing its historical preeminence in the Asia-Pacific and undo the impact of the last century’s “unequal treaties”.[xi] These motivators are driven by the political imperative of China’s leadership to maintain their regime and “mandate of heaven” to hold together its vast territory.

In comparison, the key motivators of the U.S. are fear and interest. The U.S. fears that the currently unstable political and security environment will adversely affect the favorable international order it has enjoyed for over half a century. As such, the U.S. has great interest in maintaining its military and political power globally to ensure access to global markets and its economic prosperity, as well as national security. These motivators are largely driven by the need of the U.S. to maintain the current liberal international order it built and from which it continues to prosper.

While this is a broad look at the generally enduring interests of China and the U.S., it does provide a starting point to determine similar and competing interests of the two states. It also, however, fails to illustrate obvious friction points, but instead to a “convergence of shared interests that is driving the U.S. and China apart.”[xii] In simple terms, what is creating the friction is the fear of unknown intentions towards one another as they seek to achieve convergent goals. China fears its ability to maintain its current regime and that the international community will deny the honor it seeks in re-establishing its historical preeminence in the international landscape. The U.S. fears the loss of its leverage over the international order, as well as its status if its global superpower status is challenged and superseded.[xiii] China’s apparent abandonment of its “Peaceful Rise” strategy for a more forceful behavior depicted in the recent friction over the South China Sea and its establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone raises the prospect of increased hostile feelings and intentions for all participants in the region. The central political question now for the U.S. will be how, as an established global power, it manages the aspirations of China, a rising regional power, while not sacrificing its core national security interests and not “ameliorating the growing U.S.-China security dilemma.”

The Political Objective: Responsible Regional and Global Partner

The political objective for the U.S. is ensuring that China becomes a responsible regional and global partner that works within the established international order and respects the interests of the allies of the U.S. The challenge will be convincing the Chinese of the benign intentions of the U.S. while not allowing our interests to be compromised. Fareed Zakaria best articulates the political challenge regarding U.S.-China relations:

How to strike this balance – deterring China, on the one hand, accommodating its legitimate growth, on the other – is the central strategic challenge for American diplomacy. The United States can and should draw lines with China. But it should also recognize that it cannot draw lines everywhere. Unfortunately, the most significant hurdle for the United States faces in shaping such a policy is a domestic political climate that tends to view any concessions and accommodations as appeasement.[xv]

Richard K. Betts recently posited that the U.S. will have to choose whether it wants to contain China as a threat or accommodate it as a rising super power. He further stated that it is wrong for policymakers to want both, unless China acts with sustained humility compared to previous rising powers.[xvi] Alternatively, Aaron L. Friedberg offered that the U.S. can and should attempt a “Balance and Engagement” strategy towards China that seeks to “gradually mellow” Chinese power while preserving our interests.[xvii] Such an approach aligns itself with the former Nixon Doctrine. President Nixon understood that China could play a pivotal role in the international scene and that it was better to engage instead of continuing to isolate a nation of a billion people. Nixon also understood that in order to ensure peace and stability, the world not only needed a strong U.S, but a strong Soviet Union, China, Japan, and Europe “balancing the other, not playing one against the other, an even balance.”[xviii] According to Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell, the diplomatic opening with China created by the Nixon Administration, and the subsequent economic reforms China instituted to join the global community, required sacrifices to China’s security and its engagement with the world made it vulnerable to pressures from the rest of the world. They eloquently described China’s predicament, “By moving from Autarky to interdependence, China increased not only its power over the destinies of others, but also the power of others over its own destiny.” They further emphasized the impact of China’s engagement:

In this sense, the engagement policy pursued by the United States since 1972 achieved its strategic goal of tying China’s interests to the interest of the U.S.-created global order. Although China is in many respects dissatisfied with its level of economic, political, and military security and seeks to improve them, it has acquired too large a stake in the stability of the world order and the prosperity of the West to believe it can serve its own interests by frontally challenging the existing world order.[xix]

Based on the competing interests of the U.S. and China, as well as the strategic history detailed above, the U.S. should pursue a political objective that focuses on a middle way – one in which there is a balanced approach that will encourage China to take greater responsibility as a global partner while ensuring the interests of other nations are not infringed upon by enhancing their limited deterrent capabilities.

U.S. Foreign Policy towards China – Restrain, not Contain, China’s Power

U.S. policies should focus on restraining, or mellowing, China’s power. The objective of such a “restraining policy” is to disarm the Chinese both psychologically and physically. Working through a bilateral and multilateral construct, U.S. policy would provide incentives for greater collaboration to resolve political and economic disputes while discouraging China’s saber rattling. In essence, the policy is to convince Chinese leaders that the enemy of their own interests is the unpredictability of war in the nuclear age.

To encourage collaboration, U.S. diplomatic engagements with China and its neighbors should seek greater integration by promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.[xx] Additionally, the U.S. could offer resource sharing mechanisms to the competitions in the East and South China Seas akin to the Schuman-Monnet plan that diffused tensions post-WWII between France and Germany and laid the foundation of the European Union.[xxi] Such a plan would seek to balance competing interests between China and its neighbors with a more cooperative approach vice a zero-sum one. Moves toward economic integration alone will not serve as the ultimate guarantee of peace and stability, however. The economic interconnectedness of the European powers prior to WWI require one to be ever-observant of a shift where the perceived gains from interconnectedness is outweighed by the prospects and benefits of attaining preeminence.

In the end, the final arbiter of international peace and regional stability is the threat or use of violence to achieve desired political effect. In the case of the U.S. and China, the political effect desired is a restrained China that is not threatening U.S. allies or interests in the Asia-Pacific region. To achieve this policy, a possible military strategy is a balance between deterring Chinese military aggression while assuring regional partners as to U.S. capabilities and their own capacity for military power. The U.S. should seek to create a situation whereby the risk of challenging its power is not advantageous, presenting an unacceptable sacrifice to Chinese leaders.

Military Strategy – Balanced Deterrence

In this journal, Adam Elkus rightfully pointed out the need to distinguish policy from strategy to ensure that policy sets the desired conditions and the supporting strategy is the instrument that gives it meaning.[xxii] Accordingly, to achieve the policy of restraining China’s ambitions, the end state for a “Balanced Deterrence” strategy by the U.S. is to deter conflicts over territorial disputes and restrain escalation to avoid armed conflict between China and the U.S. or its allies. The way the U.S. military strategy can achieve this end state is by utilizing three simultaneous pillars: building strong defensive capabilities of regional nations to legitimize the threat of violence against Chinese forces attempting to expand outside their territorial borders; improve U.S. capability and capacity to swiftly defend of regional partners, with a focus on reinforcing and supplementing the use of force by its allies; and reaffirming the nuclear triad and ensuring the nuclear umbrella over Asian allies to prevent proliferation. Additionally, concepts such as Air Sea Battle (ASB), T.X. Hammes’ “Off Shore Control”, and a Naval Blockade can each provide ways to approach a balanced deterrence. Examining each independently offers both opportunities and risks without meeting the core policy goal of restraining China to deter a war. However, examining the various concepts as ways of implementing unified military strategies through the “Utility of Force” construct to deter, assure, coerce behavior (articulated through tactics as the means to achieve the end state) will offer policymakers the options needed to manage relations with China and its neighbors.

Assure – Off Shore Control

Off Shore Control utilizing the first island chain provides immediate, enduring, and friendly A2/AD deterrence value as a result of China’s lack of force projection capabilities to move its land forces. [xxiii]The synchronization of air, sea, land, and cyber assets along a defined line allows the U.S. and partner nations to restrict the movement of Chinese naval and air platforms. Measures taken by the U.S. and its allies and partners to harden their facilities, invest in air and coastal defense platforms, and increase the mobility of their forces will increase the survivability rate to repel any Chinese attack and assure them of the U.S. commitment to their security.[xxiv] However, the long-term goal of the U.S. needs to include improving the capabilities and capacities of regional partners to better synchronize kinetic effects that will allow the U.S. to redistribute the burden of security – particularly in regards to providing credible threats of force against Chinese aggression by non-US forces.

Deter – Security Force Assistance

The most cost effective means to deter Chinese aggression is bolstering the regional capabilities of allies and partners with a focused Security Cooperation Strategy for the Western Pacific. By focusing on improving the capabilities of regional partners to rapidly mobilize, move from dispersed locations, and conduct joint and combined arms maneuver operations, the credibility of regional forces will be improved, increasing their deterrence value.[xxv] Tactically speaking, large professional and static armies represent a solvable challenge. However, armies that are well trained, adaptable, and mobile with the capacity and capability to mass the appropriate amount of forces at the right time and place present a higher level of complexity for the Chinese to overcome. And if the threat of force fails to deter, by increasing the capabilities of partner naval and air forces, the U.S. creates the space needed for the land forces of the U.S. to mobilize and deploy. U.S. and partner land forces provide the operational foundation for joint forces to operate freely behind interior lines of operation to posture, organize, prepare, and conduct offensive operations to coerce or compel a change in behavior.

Coerce – Framework for Air-Sea Battle (ASB) and Naval Blockade

The most controversial concepts for the Asia-Pacific Region are Air-Sea Battle and Naval Blockade. While its detractors have argued that ASB is not a strategy, its chief architects have correctly identified it as a part of the strategy development process and as an operational concept needed to overcome enemy A2/D2 capabilities in order to allow the U.S. to conduct offensive operations.[xxvoi] Properly integrated with the concept of “Offshore Control” to degrade enemy forces, the deterrence value of ASB increases due to the psychological stress placed upon the enemy who has to take into account the threatened force inherent in, as Army Chief of Staff General Odierno said, “kicking the door open” for land forces to seize the initiative, should the U.S. be required to compel China to modify its behavior through violence. Naval Blockade would provide the glue between Offshore Control and ASB, but its effects on China’s economy and will to fight would take longer to measure. The key element to avoid escalation is removing the threat to the regime’s survival or loss of mainland Chinese territory. When discussing the application of ASB and Naval Blockade, it must be limited to the threat and use of violence to deter Chinese aggression beyond their territorial boundaries.


The greatest risk inherent to conflict between the U.S. and China is the threat of nuclear escalation. To mitigate such a threat, the U.S. must reaffirm the nuclear umbrella in the region and maintain ambiguity regarding the posture of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and that of regional nuclear powers. While nuclear war is the least preferred option to resolve a conflict, the Chinese must believe there is not parity in the nuclear arsenals. Additionally, China must be made aware that any threat of nuclear escalation on its part would result in the U.S., India, or Russia acting beyond proportionality, resulting in national suicide by China.


As the preponderance of global power (political, economic, and military) shifts to the Asia-Pacific, both the U.S. national security interests and need to protect those interests will grow. Unlike the U.S.-Soviet Cold War competition, the U.S. cannot afford to outspend China, whose economy is expected to become the largest in the world by the end of the year, on military expenditures. Additionally, it cannot contain China due to the integrated nature of the global economy. As a result, the U.S. needs a strategy that restrains China’s ambitions in partnership with regional powers in the Asia-Pacific. The Balanced-Deterrence strategy offers such a solution in support of the Asia-Pacific Pivot to be effective by matching rhetoric with visible actions. The U.S. will need to evaluate its global interests and begin to prioritize resources accordingly.[xxvii] A balanced deterrence strategy integrating the various military concepts to restrain China’s militarism will serve all nations in the region in the long run, but only if forces opposing Chinese aggression are credible in their capabilities to use force for U.S. and partner nations’ interests.


Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the US Army, Department of Defense, or any other organization of the US Government.


[i] “U.S. Economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia, creating a mix of evolving challenges and opportunities. Accordingly, while the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific Region.” Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, Department of Defense, 2012, page 2.
[ii] The Chinese Defense White Paper published on 16 April 2013 observed that the U.S. Military pivot was making the regional situation in Asia tense. The Annaul Report of World Affairs: Strategic Survey 2013, Chapter 9 (Asia-Pacific), The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), (New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group), 2013, page 319.
[iii] Editors: Craig Cohen, Kathleen Hicks and Josiane Gabel, “Part Three: Sustaining the Rebalance: Should We Change Our Security Approach in Asia?”, 2014 Global Forecast: U.S. Security Policy at a Crossroads, Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), 2013, pages 38-50.
[iv] Clausewitz, Carl Von, On War, edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (United States of America: Princeton University Press), 1976, page 75.
[v] Ibid, page 76.
[vi] Caitlin Campbell, Kimberly Hsu, and Craig Murray, China’s ‘Core Interests’ and the East China Sea, U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Washington, D.C. , 2013.
[vii] The Four Enduring interests are: “The security of the United States, its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners; A strong, innovative, and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity; Respect for universal values at home and around the world; and An international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.” The National Security Strategy, The White House, 2010.
[viii] “Mao was determined to prevent encirclement by any power or combination of powers, regardless of ideology, that he perceived as securing too many wei qi “stones” surrounding China, by disrupting their calculations.” Kissinger, Henry, On China, (United States: Penguin Books), 2012, pages 103-104.
[ix] “The stabilization of China’s land borders may be one of the most important geopolitical changes in Asia of the past few decades…there is no longer a Soviet Army bearing down on Manchuria like during the Cold War, a time when under Mao Zedong China concentrated its defense budget on its army, and pointedly neglected the seas. The significance cannot be overstated. Since antiquity China has been preoccupied with land invasions of one sort or another.” Kaplan, Robert D., The Revenge of Geography,(New York: The Random House Trade), 2013, pages 212-213.
[x] Caitlin Campbell, Kimberly Hsu, and Craig Murray, China’s ‘Core Interests’ and the East China Sea, U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Washington, D.C. , 2013.
[xi] Referencing Mao’s quest to restore honor by stating “even though when he refrained from military measures, Mao would put forward claims to lost territories given up in the “unequal treaties” of the nineteenth century–for example, claims to territory lost in the Russian Far East in the settlements of 1860 and 1895.” Kissinger, Henry, On China, (United States: Penguin Books), 2012, page 100.
[xii] Mark Leonard states “competition has more to do with status than ideology. As a result, differences between great powers frequently lead to complementarity and cooperation, whereas convergence is often the root of conflict. As they rebalance their economies and recalibrate their foreign policy, Beijing and Washington are increasingly fighting over shared interests.” Leonard, Mark, “Why Convergence breeds conflict: Growing More Similiar will push China and the United States Apart,” Foreign Affairs, (September/October 2013), pages 125-135.
[xiii] “Indeed, China’s rise has led to fears that the country will soon overwhelm its neighbors and one day supplant the United States as a global hegemon.” Nathan, Andrew J. and Andrew Scobell, “How China Sees America: The Sum of Beijing’s Fears,”Foreign Affairs, (September/October 2012), pages 32-47.
[xiv] Three broad areas for U.S. Army in the Indo-Asia-Pacific theater: (1) Bolstering defense of allies and deterring aggression; (2) promoting regional security and stability through security cooperation; and (3) ameliorating the growing U.S.-China security dilemma. Deni, John R., “Strategic Landpower in the Indo-Asia-Pacific,” Parameters (Autumn 2013), pages 77-86.
[xv] Zakaria, Fareed, The Post-American World, (New York and London: W.W. Norton), 2008, page 236.
[xvi] Betts, Richard K., “The Lost Logic of Deterrence: What the Strategy that Won the Cold War Can -- and Can’t -- Do Now,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2013), pages 87-99.
[xvii] Friedberg, Aaron L., “Bucking Beijing: An Alternative U.S China Policy.” Foreign Policy (September/October 2012), pages 48-58.
[xviii] Kissinger, Henry, Chapter 28: Foreign Policy as Geopolitics: Nixon’s Triangular Diplomacy, Diplomacy, (New York: Simon & Schuster), 1994, pages 703-732.
[xix] Nathan, Andrew J. and Andrew Scobell, “Globalization as a Security Strategy: Power and Vulnerability in the China Model,” Political Science Quaterly: The Journal of Public and International Affairs (Fall 2013), pages 427-453.
[xx] Office of the United States Trade Representative. Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
[xxi] Chapter 13: “Europe Refashioned.” Berhman, Greg, The Most Noble Adventure: The Marshall Plan and the Time When America Helped Saved Europe, (New York: Free Press), 2007.
[xxii] Elkus, Adam, “The Policy-Strategy Distinction: Clausewitz and the Chimera of Modern Strategic Thought.” Infinity Journal Special Edition, Clausewitz and Contemporary Conflict, February 2012.
[xxiii] Crowther, Alex, The Army Should Embrace A2/AD
[xxiv] Hammes, T.X., A Military Strategy to Deter China,
[xxv] Deni, John R.,“Strategic Landpower in the Indo-Asia-Pacific,” Parameters (Autumn 2013), pages 77-86.
[xxvi] Finney, Nathan, “Air-Sea Battle as a Military Contribution to Strategy Development,” Infinity Journal, 31 October 2012. Also see (Greenert and Welsh 2013) Breaking the Kill Chain How to keep America in the game when our enemies are trying to shut us out, Admiral Jonathan Greenert and General Mark Welsh,
[xxvii] Kay, Sean, Getting the Asia Pivot Right,