Deterring China Isn’t Hard


My op-ed today in China US Focus gives five reasons why the United States and its Asian allies will deter Chinese military aggression for the foreseeable future. The argument responds to commentators who worry that U.S. military spending cuts or passivity elsewhere have damaged our credibility to defend Asian allies and thus encouraged China to use its growing military for conquest.

The bulk of the article concerns the particulars of U.S. military superiority in Asia, and why recent Pentagon cuts don’t much lessen it. One conclusion is that deterring war is easier than you generally hear.

Washington’s foreign policy elites have a narcissistic take on deterrence; they see it teetering with every foreign policy decision that troubles them. But East Asia’s stability remains robust—insensitive to the annual fights in Congress—because war remains a losing prospect for all major powers.

This is a good place to put that conclusion in historical context. Technology and economics have shifted the cost-benefit calculus of conquest, making it generally counterproductive. That is an explanation for the steep decline in interstate warfare. Cold War nuclear history, as I discussed in a recent co-authored report, supports that point. The balance of terror—mutual deterrence—between the United States and the Soviet Union was not delicate. Arms control agreements and shifting nuclear weapons plans barely affected stability. As John Mueller argues, conventional deterrence, reinforced by the memory of the world wars, was instrumental in keeping the peace. Nuclear weapons were largely overkill.

So the pundits now bellowing about the credibility lost because of crossed red lines or Crimea are using a theory of deterrence that lacks historical basis. Deterrence is especially robust in Asia, where water or mountains separate most major rivals, aiding defense of the status quo. Even a total withdrawal of U.S. forces and defense commitments from East Asia wouldn’t create a dangerous imbalance of power there.

Sadly, withdrawal faces high political hurtles today. For now, probably the best we can hope for is that all the beltway consternation about eroding credibility will accidently reduce free-riding: As I put it in the op-ed:

If allies take U.S. commentary about insufficient pivots and failed red lines too seriously, they may worry enough to pay more for their own defense and give U.S. taxpayers a break. Letting them sweat a bit is in the U.S. interest.

For more on these themes, come see Barry Posen discuss his book on U.S. military strategy next week at Cato.

Benjamin H. Friedman is a research fellow in defense and homeland security studies. He writes about U.S. defense politics, focusing on strategy, budgeting, and war.

Used with permission. Cato Institute / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0