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Opinion To avoid conflict, the United States must deter Chinese aggression

The flags of China and the United States outside a hotel in Beijing in September 2012. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)

Despite what you may have read, the United States’ strategy toward China does not entail launching another Cold War, imposing a zero-sum game or even winning a “clash of civilizations.” In fact, the entire objective of the Trump administration’s Asia approach is to avoid outright conflict with China. But to do that, Beijing must be deterred from continuing on its aggressive path.

The idea that the White House’s new approach to confront China’s economic aggression and military expansion represents a “Cold War mentality” is popular with pundits both in Washington and in Beijing. But that accusation misunderstands what the United States is trying to do with China. It also mistakenly absolves Beijing for its malign actions, which the United States is trying to counter — or, better yet, prevent.

“A competitive strategy isn’t meant to take us to conflict,” Adm. Philip S. Davidson, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told me during an interview last weekend at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a security conference in Singapore hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “A competitive strategy is defined as a deterrence strategy, to prevent conflict going forward.”

The U.S. military is just one part of the government that is trying to reorient away from decades of focus on the Middle East and terrorism-related conflict to focus on the strategic competition with China. There’s a widespread recognition that China is accelerating its efforts to expand its influence across its region and around the world.

Davidson said the goal of U.S. military strategy in Asia is “to dissuade China from pursuing their ambitions, which are centered on the first island chain in the near term but are much more broadly and globally ambitious in the long term.”

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There’s overwhelming evidence that China’s military expansion is spreading well beyond Asia. Last weekend, the People’s Liberation Army tested a new submarine-launched ballistic missile that drastically expands China’s worldwide nuclear capability. On Wednesday, Beijing announced it had launched a rocket bound for space from a ship for the first time. Chinese naval ships have visited more countries in the past 28 months than they did in the previous 28 years, Davidson said.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe defended Beijing’s militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea — which has broken a promise made by Chinese President Xi Jinping and flouted international law — as a response to U.S. aggression. Wei also criticized countries coming from “outside the region” to interfere in Asian security and stability, a comment clearly directed at the United States.

Davidson said Wei’s remarks show that China’s leaders are looking to overturn the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision that underpins the current order in the region and replace it with their own. “They’ve made quite plain that they would like to supplant the U.S.-led international order and lead one with Chinese characteristics,” Davidson said. “When you think about that, being led by a nation that has a closed and authoritarian internal order, it’s got to send a chill down everybody’s spine across the globe.”

That raises the crucial question of whether China can be deterred, and how. Davidson called for more investments in cyber defense, electronic warfare, long-range precision fire, and integrated air and missile defense. Congress also hasn’t funded several other items the U.S. military needs to counter China in the Pacific, including funding for troops, military construction and technology in the region, Davidson wrote in a letter to Congress in April.

A new report by the Center for a New American Security warns that China is trying to “leapfrog” U.S. capabilities by rapidly developing the technologies needed to “offset” the military advantages the United States has enjoyed for decades. The report was written by former deputy defense secretary Robert Work, who was in charge of the U.S. project to offset China’s technology during the Obama administration.

“Chinese technological capabilities are growing as rapidly as its economic power,” the report states. “The Soviets were never able to match, much less overcome, America’s technological superiority. The same may not be true for China.”

Those who criticize U.S. policy on China argue that the United States went looking for another enemy after the fall of the Soviet Union. Some point to the unfortunate remarks by Kiron Skinner, the State Department’s policy planning director, who called the U.S.-China competition “a fight with a really different civilization and ideology.” That was an error, not a defining statement on U.S. policy.

The U.S.-China competition is completely different from the Cold War for many reasons. China is more economically integrated than was the Soviet Union. The world can’t be divided into two camps. The competition extends to technology and commerce.

But there is one lesson from the Cold War that can be applied to China. If the United States and its partners want to avoid a hot war, we must try to deter the authoritarian power from expanding aggressively without pushback. One thing is clear: China is not yet deterred. One thing is not clear: whether it can be.

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