We have China’s ‘anti-access’ challenge exactly backward
Stronger regional security depends on getting this right—then setting aside our wants for our needs.
When one looks across the span of the Pacific, one fundamental strategic truth stands out: the U.S. and every single one of our partners in the region—traditional allies such as Japan and Taiwan, off-and-on allies like the Philippines, new and would-be partners like Vietnam and Indonesia—are what are known as “status quo powers.” None are driven by expansionist ambitions; rather, each seeks simply to safeguard their territories.
Understanding this is crucial because it flips the way that U.S. defense analysts typically talk about the challenge of China. They constantly frame it around the problem of “anti-access, area denial,” or A2AD, capabilities that the growing Chinese military has built up over the last decade, where they are the ones with the cost-imposition advantage.
Yet, our core challenge is not actually how to pop that A2AD bubble; we do not actually want to seize and hold any territory currently held by the People’s Liberation Army. It is actually the inverse: how can we create our own robust anti-access aerial denial around our bases and allies, with our own cost advantages? This is the actual path to ensure that China is deterred from ever choosing the path of conflict.
When the situation is viewed this way, it reveals three lines of effort that we would do well to bolster.
The first is to recognize the shared challenge for every nation now contending with the Chinese military: Defense of territory and effective and affordable aerial and maritime domain awareness. Gray-zone operations have become the norm. Daily incursions test the defenses of nations, whether by forcing Japanese and Taiwanese fighter jets to scramble to escort yet another PLAAF jet flying into their air zones to Chinese fisheries and militia harassing the Philippines. The goal of our adversary is to wear us down gradually, to strain our systems, exhaust our people and budgets, and, most of all, erode the norms, until it is the incursion zones that become the new borders.
The second is the need for the real networks that underscore the kind of meaningful partnerships to meet this challenge. Look at the U.S.-Japan alliance; it goes beyond mere treaties and shared military hardware. Its strength lies in both the human relationships and shared information networks. These extend from air defense computer and sensor networks to officer exchanges into joint staffs. This interconnectedness improves deterrence, sending a clear message to potential aggressors. Extending this model beyond Japan and Australia to more of our Southeast Asian nations is not just strategic; it is essential.
Finally, our spending to meet these challenges should align with the real needs of our allies. If we want to succeed, we must resist the allure of expensive capabilities that can be operated only in limited numbers and by only the wealthiest of nations.
If we want aerial and maritime domain awareness, it needs to be a plug-and-play network, open and accessible to every state. Think of NATO’s Maritime Unmanned Systems Initiative. (MUSI), or the Task Force 59 model now being tested out by the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and its partners in the Middle East, which are working to turn the region’s seas transparent. Rather than a handful of sensors, what these point the way to is a network of thousands of sailors and hundreds of businesses, from tens of nations, deploying scores of cheap aerial and naval drones. This network and scale not only foster cooperation, but also facilitate the rapid sharing of information and human expertise, building the real kind of partnerships that matter in times of conflict.
The same holds for the systems that don’t merely sense but strike, which is also needed to make real these networks and partnership. It certainly appeals to sell our partners expensive warships, high-performance jets and drones, and exquisite missiles; every product they buy not only creates profits for American firms, but also drives down our own military’s purchase costs. But large, costly systems are neither what the lessons of the Ukraine war are teaching is good for them or us. Nor are they what our partners can afford in scale.
Instead, mobile, cost-effective air defense and coastal anti-ship missiles that are hard to find and destroy, but deny China air and sea superiority, would be invaluable to every partner state. These capabilities are also inherently defensive and thus less controversial to buy, a key issue both for their own governments and publics and their interplay with a China constantly seeking to divide. These systems take away a key opposing argument, as only pose a threat to China if it is the one that chooses aggression.
Similarly, it is notable how little discussion of nor budget spending has been on the weapon that has sunk more warships than any other over the last 50 years: the humble naval mine. Here again, it may not drive major corporate profits or fulfill the dreams of an Air Force pilot from either the U.S. or our partners to do something as basic as drop mines. But, the availability of sea mines, in heavy numbers, able to be deployed rapidly to close off access to harbors and invasion sea lanes would complicate the plans of China’s generals and admirals, far more than the fear of losing a few planes in a dogfight. Indeed, it lies within the history of the region, as it is what the U.S. did in WWII and Vietnam, while the North Koreans did it back to us so successfully, that a message to the commander of the U.S. fleet in 1950 lamented, “The U.S. Navy has lost control of the seas in Korean waters to a nation without a Navy, using pre-World War I weapons.”
In conclusion, our shared challenges in Asia demand acknowledging the realities of our situation and investing wisely in accessible, effective solutions. Through this, we can forge deeper partnerships, increase regional security, and send a resolute message that complicates any plan for aggression in the region.
P.W. Singer is Strategist and Senior Fellow at New America and Managing Partner at Useful Fiction.