Meeting China’s Military Challenge: Collective Responses of U.S. Allies and Partners (Introduction)
This is the introduction to the report “Meeting China’s Military Challenge: Collective Responses of U.S. Allies and Partners.”
The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy identified the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a principal challenge and long-term strategic competitor to the United States. According to the strategy document, China is “leveraging military modernization…to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region” to Beijing’s advantage. Echoing these themes, the Biden administration has emphasized that strategic competition with an increasingly assertive China is the number one “pacing challenge” for the United States.
The military aspects of this challenge arise from Beijing’s aspirations to transform the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a force far more capable of conducting high-end joint operations that combine maritime, air, land, space, and cyberspace capabilities to dissuade, deter, and, if necessary, defeat technologically advanced adversaries such as the United States. Of greatest concern are such coercive, deterrent, and warfighting capabilities as precision-strike ballistic and cruise missiles, offensive cyber and counterspace weapons, and coercive “gray zone” tactics short of war.
As the Pentagon recognizes, the PLA has made critical progress toward its goals, advancing from a “mostly obsolete” force to one that has the “resources, technology and political will…to strengthen and modernize the PLA in nearly every respect,” even surpassing the United States in important military-technical areas. As a result, these capabilities “provide options for the PRC to dissuade, deter, or, if ordered, defeat third-party intervention during a large-scale, theater campaign.”
But the United States is not alone in facing this growing challenge. Other countries in the Indo-Pacific region, including U.S. allies and security partners, confront similar concerns and sometimes face them more acutely. China’s burgeoning military capabilities, particularly within the “first island chain,” pose an increasing threat to the sovereign and territorial interests of U.S. allies and partners such as Japan, South Korea, the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Even countries beyond the first island chain, such as Australia, India, and Singapore, are increasingly vulnerable to Chinese coercion as the PLA enhances its long-range strike, joint operations, amphibious warfighting, and information warfare capabilities.
HOW TO RESPOND?
The PRC’s growing military capabilities are formidable, and the challenges they present are clear. What is less clear is how the United States can respond most effectively in association with its allies and other security partners in the region.
To tackle this question, the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), with the support of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency Strategic Trends Research Initiative, conducted an innovative year-long Track 1.5 strategic dialogue project entitled “Meeting China’s Military Challenge: Identifying Collective Responses among U.S. Allies and Security Partners in the Indo-Pacific Region.” Engaging experts and government officials from across the Indo-Pacific region, the project’s research, analysis, and dialogue exchanges generated valuable insights and recommendations on the following dimensions of China’s military challenge:
- specific elements of China’s deterrent, coercive, and warfighting capabilities deemed most threatening to regional security;
- specific scenarios in which China might employ these capabilities;
- specific military-related responses, policies, and operational capabilities that regional governments have employed in response; and
- specific proposals for how the six Indo-Pacific governments covered in this report could partner with the United States and each other to effectively counter China’s most threatening deterrent, coercive, and warfighting capabilities.
At the heart of the project, NBR commissioned in-depth studies by leading regional experts from Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. On behalf of the entire NBR team, I would like to thank Paul Huang (Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation), Yuka Koshino (International Institute for Strategic Studies), Nguyen Hong Thao (Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam), Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan (Observer Research Foundation), Michael Shoebridge (Australian Strategic Policy Institute), and Andrea Chloe Wong (Pacific Forum) for their superb contributions to this report and collegiality over the course of the project. Taken together, the six highly detailed, country-specific studies that follow provide a set of insights that broadly align with U.S. interests. But more importantly they also underscore continuing gaps between U.S. and regional security perspectives and expectations, on the one hand, and divergent views across these six U.S. partners, on the other.
CONTRADICTION AND COMMON GROUND
The project’s commissioned research and strategic dialogue discussions gave rise to five overarching and cross-cutting themes that define the six countries’ perspectives on China’s military challenge and how, in partnership with the United States and each other, they can counterbalance China’s unwelcome advances. These five themes—discussed briefly below—cannot do full justice to the in-depth studies in this report. Rather, they provide a distillation of the most important areas of contradiction and common ground that U.S. policymakers must address with regional partners in response to China’s growing coercive, deterrent, and warfighting capabilities.
Concerns, plans, and responses regarding an attack on Taiwan vary widely. A PRC attack against Taiwan was prominently flagged as a first- or second-order concern in two of the six country studies—Australia and Japan—in addition to being the central focus of the analysis from Taiwan itself. However, the commissioned analyses from India, the Philippines (a U.S. ally), and Vietnam did not mention the security of Taiwan or the possibility of the PRC’s use of force against the island, as a matter of primary concern. Most importantly, the project’s research and dialogue about Taiwan revealed serious deficiencies in its ability to defend itself and a wide range of views as to how Taiwan and U.S. allies should respond to a PRC attack across the Taiwan Strait.
A high level of concern exists about non-kinetic forms of Chinese coercion and deterrence. In nearly all the country studies—with Taiwan being the one exception—the most frequently flagged concerns were expressed about the PRC’s non-kinetic threats and activities beneath the threshold of war: gray-zone tactics, including aggressive deployment of the coast guard and maritime militia in disputed maritime areas, political and economic pressures, information warfare, and cyber threats. As such, Indo-Pacific regional security can be enhanced considerably when countries have effective strategies to limit, deflect, and neutralize China’s gray-zone tactics.
Where the threat of PRC kinetic use of force was identified and discussed, it mostly focused on the potential use by the PLA of short- and medium-range precision-strike missiles, enabled by an increasingly sophisticated space-based intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting capability. Importantly, at least three of the six country analyses (Australia, Japan, and Taiwan) identified the possibility of kinetic conflict across the Taiwan Strait as a key threat emanating from China and one that would directly affect those countries’ national security interests.
This conspicuous concern with gray-zone and other non-kinetic threats was especially true of the analyses from India, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, but also was flagged in the research from Australia and Taiwan. These threats included such tactics as the following:
- building military and other infrastructure near and within territorially disputed areas;
- using cyber and space assets to disrupt critical systems and extract sensitive data in peacetime, as well as to disrupt or destroy civilian and military systems in times of tension and conflict;
- deploying the China Coast Guard and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, backed by the PLA Navy, to establish facts on the water, harass other claimants’ government and commercial vessels, and potentially occupy disputed maritime features;
- gaining information awareness dominance through Chinese commercial enterprises; and
- conducting misinformation and political warfare activities.
At the same time, the project’s dialogue discussions revealed gaps between regional concerns with such tactics and concerns within the U.S. policy community. This exposes a potential rift in perceptions and priorities between the United States and its regional partners—one that Beijing will readily exploit.
Stronger regional defense capabilities with U.S. support are urgently needed. The PRC armed forces increasingly pose an overwhelming quantitative and qualitative threat to regional militaries. This provides Beijing with an expanding spectrum of coercive, deterrent, and warfighting options and attendant ability to achieve its strategic ambitions, especially against weaker, disadvantaged neighbors. Regional militaries are unlikely to match Chinese capabilities one for one. However, backed by U.S. capabilities and resolve, the deployment of key systems—often asymmetric in nature—can serve to stabilize the region by deterring PRC threats and allowing regional countries to protect their national interests.
Regional countries are taking action on their own to bolster their defenses in the face of the PRC’s growing capabilities. But more can be done in collaboration with the United States, including through joint training and operations, U.S. transfers of arms and defense equipment, and joint research, development, and production of weapons and other defense systems.
U.S. bilateral engagement is welcomed, but the desired degree of that engagement varies. Across the project’s six country studies, there is clear acknowledgment of a more uncertain and contested security environment, largely brought on by China’s growing military power and willingness to brandish it in pursuit of Chinese interests. However, given their own sets of domestic and external security concerns, these countries assess Chinese threats differently and likewise differ about appropriate responses for their defense and security.
As such, the United States’ increased presence in the Indo-Pacific is welcomed both bilaterally and multilaterally. However, U.S. policymakers must also understand that regional countries hope that an expanded U.S. presence and the collaborations it builds with partners will unfold in ways that stabilize regional circumstances, do not provoke—or can withstand—retaliation from China, and are consistent with their own domestic political imperatives.
U.S. investment in multilateral collective action is needed. U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific wish to expand and diversify their security partnerships, including with the United States, as a means to signal political solidarity, underscore common interests and concerns, build collective resilience, and spread risk in the face of PRC threats. Most regional governments will wish to avoid accusations of “containment” emanating from Beijing, concerns to which Washington should remain sensitive. Nevertheless, the United States has a major opportunity to build on current multilateral defense networks and establish new ones, with the longer-term aim of enhancing multinational communication and interoperability as a counterweight to China’s growing regional military capabilities.
The six studies in the report present a wide range of specific and practical policy measures for the U.S. government. Collectively, they call for more robust U.S. security engagement in the Indo-Pacific. In some cases, these recommendations call on Washington to break long-held taboos and take greater advantage of favorable circumstances. In other cases, the recommendations warn the United States against overreaching or having overly high expectations about collective pushback against China.
In short, the next steps proposed by the project’s regional experts should be a source of both consolation and concern for U.S. policymakers. They are intended as a constructive call to collaborative action and should be read with care. Without going into the specific recommendations, the following key ideas emerged from across the six studies:
- The United States should take urgent steps to mitigate Beijing’s intimidation and isolation of Taiwan, support a more robust defense strategy for the island, and plan more concrete military, economic, and diplomatic responses for a Taiwan contingency with U.S. allies and other countries in the region and beyond. U.S. government agencies can make critical contributions to this effort through assessing and responding to advanced PRC deterrent and warfighting capabilities vis-à-vis Taiwan, including through tabletop exercises, especially among the partners most concerned with PRC activity, Australia and Japan.
- A coordinated U.S. government interagency effort is needed to expose, deter, and counteract PRC gray-zone activities. Deeper consultations with allies and key partners in the Indo-Pacific should follow in order to narrow any perception gaps about these gray-zone challenges and implement appropriate measures in response. Work by NBR and other organizations in conducting multilateral research, strategic dialogues, and tabletop exercises should continue to bring a variety of regional actors together to examine non-kinetic challenges and develop coordinated responses.
- Given its growing concerns with certain PRC military capabilities, the United States should accelerate region-wide consultations regarding developments in such critical areas as nuclear and missile technology (e.g., hypersonic weapons), cyberoperations, counterspace, and autonomous systems and their contributions to China’s coercive, deterrent, and warfighting capabilities. These discussions should explore cooperative options with U.S. allies and partners through measures such as strategic reassurance, joint deterrence, and counterproliferation.
- The United States must redouble efforts to improve U.S., allied, and partner defense, deterrent, and warfighting capabilities in the region in the face of rapid advances in PLA capabilities, especially across air and sea power, missilery, and the cyber and space domains. This should include accelerated transfer of offensive and defensive systems to partner governments, improved infrastructure and societal resilience against cyberattack, augmented joint training, capacity-building and exercise activities, more regularized and expanded rotations of U.S. military personnel and platforms in the region, and increased, dispersed pre-positioning of critical military stores.
- The United States needs to re-engage not only more robustly but more effectively at a bilateral level. It must be responsive to the differing security perceptions and needs of individual countries, while developing a greater sense of common purpose across the region. This more nuanced approach is especially important for relations with India, the Philippines, and Vietnam, but it also should define U.S. ties with Australia, Japan, and Taiwan.
- The United States should encourage a range of multilateral defense partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, which enhance regional stability and security by discouraging and deterring PRC threats. The U.S. approach should be framed as delivering strategic public goods while shaping China’s behavior to respect its neighbors’ legitimate interests according to a common set of rules embraced by the region.
Assuming that the United States is serious about engaging regional partners more effectively in response to China’s military advances, the diplomatic challenge going forward will be responsively balancing the range of security perceptions and expectations among those partners while building on the common concerns they share about Beijing’s ambitions. Individually and collectively, the studies presented in this report encourage and contribute to that critically important process.
Bates Gill is Professor of Asia-Pacific Security Studies and Head of the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He is the principal investigator for the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) project “Meeting China’s Military Challenge: Identifying Collective Responses among U.S. Allies and Security Partners in the Indo-Pacific Region.” Dr. Gill previously directed the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and held senior research positions with the Brookings Institution and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
 U.S. Department of Defense, “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge,” January 2018, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.
 See, for example, Joseph R. Biden Jr., Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (Washington, D.C., March 2021), https://www.whitehouse. gov/wpcontent/uploads/2021/03/NSC-1v2.pdf; and Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, “Pacific Deterrence Initiative,” May 2021, https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/FY2022/fy2022_Pacific_Deterrence_Initiative.pdf.
 U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, September 2020), i, 72, and appendix 1, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF.
 The “first island chain” refers to the line of archipelagic features roughly extending from the Japanese islands, through Taiwan and the Philippines, and across the northern reaches Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia.