Is a Deadly U.S.-China Arms Race Impossible to Stop?
While the chances of a U.S.-China war are thankfully low, the challenges presented by a slowly brewing high-tech security dilemma keep growing. Is there any way Washington and Beijing can change course before such a contest becomes so ingrained in Asia that reversing it will prove next to impossible?
I offer three possible pathways to help freeze the current security dilemma where it stands, limit its impact over time and begin to dial back its influence throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
The first pathway would be to freeze the dilemma where it is now in terms of introducing any new “game changing” weapons platforms that can only add to the problem. A clear method to halting in place this security dilemma’s self-reinforcing “cause and effect” dynamic would be to limit the impulse of Washington or Beijing to feel the need to react to new and possibly transformative weapons, like China’s DF-21D “carrier-killer” missile. One way to move in this direction would be to ban a new and even more dangerous weapons platform from becoming part of the mix: hypersonic long-range strike weapons. Such weapons, now under development by China, the United States and also Russia, could be “game changers.” Such weapons could be adapted to give a nation a true, conventional global strike capability. If used at shorter ranges, they would give little to no time for a defender to react with protective measures and may reinforce the dynamic in the A2/AD vs. ASBdilemma to reward the party that strikes first. Such weapons could create another dangerous “move, counter move” effort to defeat such weapons using technologies such as a new generation of costly missile-defense platforms, electromagnetic rail guns, directed-energy technologies systems, sophisticated jammers and other electronic countermeasure techniques to deny or limit targeting information. If such an effort were successful, such a template could be used for other such weapons systems that could present challenges for the U.S.-Sino relationship.
The final pathway I would offer is to work towards ways to lessen tensions over territorial and sovereignty issues—specifically in the East and South China Seas—that could spark a crisis where A2/AD and ASB would likely be used. Chinese officials specifically list issues involving territorial claims as a reason why they are increasing their military capabilities—based on a fear that the United States would intervene in a crisis on behalf of an ally—and by default driving their A2/AD capabilities along with a U.S. counter-response. One formula that could serve as the basis for lessening tensions would be to pursue areas of opportunity where joint economic and resource development is possible, working to shift the costs of tensions into other domains, while creating a more mutually beneficial dynamic in disputed areas. While no side would abandon their own sovereignty claims, an emphasis would be placed on developing deposits of oil, natural gas and other resources jointly. This could provide a basis where confidence is built over time, which could lead to less emphasis on who owns a particular maritime feature, but sharing the mutually beneficial fruits of disputed territories. In the 1970s, Japan and China both agreed to deemphasize territorial disputes in the East China Sea as a means crafting a mutually beneficial bilateral relationship. Here Washington could work behind the scenes encouraging such a possible pathway, which could lessening tensions, reduce the perceived need for U.S. allies to increase their military expenditures in a time of strategic uncertainty and by default work to reverse the U.S.-Sino security dilemma in the process. While such ideas have been advocated in the past, I would advocate a new approach: the enlistment of various multinational energy companies in an effort to demonstrate to claimant countries the possibilities and benefits of joint resource exploration and energy extraction, shared pipelines and energy transportation modes.