Matching China’s Military Expansion Might Not Work as a Regional Deterrent, Panel Says

August 9, 2023 1:07 PM
Amphibious infantry fighting vehicle, soldiers assigned to an army brigade under PLA Eastern Theatre Command stay on alert and prepare for landing during a ferrying and assault wave formation training exercise on May 7, 2022. PLA Photo

Matching Beijing’s military might does not appear to work as a deterrent, some experts said this week, as China’s military expansion continues to increase regional tensions.

The United States needs to work to shape Chinese President Xi Jinping’s thinking that violence is not the only option, said Ezra Cohen, an adjunct fellow at Hudson Institute. Overwhelming force is not working as a deterrent against China’s across-the-board military modernization and expansion.

Dan Platt, a co-author of a recent Hudson paper on deterrence, said military build-up is a “narrow view” of what can be done. He added deterrence by denial, a strategy followed for years by Washington, “ends up being a prevent defense.”

There are many other scenarios that could be put into play, Platt said. Those scenarios involve departments like Justice and Treasury as well as State and Defense and new emphasis on technology.

While the approach in the Hudson paper does not mean abandoning military capabilities, it encourages using emerging technologies in the competition with China.

“Rather than narrowly focusing on sinking PLA [Peoples Liberation Army] amphibious ships, the DoD should equip U.S. forces to attack the approach of systems destruction warfare itself by complicating and degrading PLA sensemaking through electromagnetic and cyber warfare, targeted attacks, and unexpected US force compositions or tactics,” reads the report. “By attacking the PLA strategy more than its forces, this line of effort would enable more cost-effective US intervention and provide a better toolbox for persistent and sustained campaigning activities.”

One possibility would be “engaging in probing and adaptation to assess the level of uncertainty or confidence among PRC [Peoples Republic of China] leaders regarding various scenarios,” like the odds of success in an amphibious invasion of Taiwan, according to the paper, co-written with Bryan Clark.

China remains “tone deaf” as to why nations would ramp up their military capabilities after incidents like last week’s water cannon firing on Philippine resupply vessels operating in the South China Sea, the former commander of the Office of Naval Intelligence said Monday.

Philippine Coast Guard ship interdicted by a China Coast Guard Ship on June 30, 2023. Philippine Coast Guard Photo

China’s behavior “is the most destabilizing element [for] everybody west of the date line,” Rear Adm. Michael Studeman said at the Hudson Institute event.

Strategy “needs to go into the shaping element, so [Chinese leaders] don’t take the most extreme action.” Using Taiwan as an example, he said the islanders understand from what’s happened in Ukraine “there will be a certain level of devastation” in an attack, Studeman said.

Another lesson from Ukraine and Beijing’s crushing of dissent in Hong Kong is to be “on task to defend their own democracy,” implying any invasion would be met with strong resistance.

Studeman added Xi’s legacy could vanish if an armed takeover failed and it would undermine China’s larger regional and global ambitions.

Xi’s current strategy focuses on highlighting to the international public China is willing to take aggressive actions such as the most interdicting the Philippine resupply mission as another way of deterrence.

“We are underestimating this information dominance” that China uses to explain incidents like the one near the Spratlys or dangerous air and naval maneuvers narrowly avoiding collisions, he said. As an example of another aspect of information dominance, Studeman cited the National Basketball Association and the entertainment industry bowing to PRC pressure not to question Chinese actions or lose that nation as a market.

Studeman and the other panelists called this “cognitive warfare” that is one part of a decades-long information campaign to extend its influence .

“We need to use information for effects” to counter China in this arena, Studeman said. “We need to do appetite suppression” on activities like congressional delegations visiting Taiwan that “are creating more unnecessary friction” with Beijing.

The natural response for the U.S., Japan, Taiwan and allies is “to invest in prevention [with a] clear understanding they need to have capabilities to prevail,” like long-range strike in a conflict with Beijing.

Under Xi Jinping’s “very totalitarian government,” China views those reactions as trying to build a NATO in the Indo-Pacific, Studeman said. Although the United States has a great deal of intelligence on Beijing’s operations, “how information moves” to Xi and “who speaks truth to power” is opaque in China. “That system is clunky.”

Washington needs to better understand Xi’s risk tolerance in pushing ahead to bring self-governing Taiwan under China’s control, Cohen said. He added sending an aircraft carrier strike group as a signal to Beijing or improving the island’s defenses “is not creating the effect we want.”

China’s cutting off direct communications with the United States that could peacefully resolve an incident was “a scary thing,” Studeman said. He said the Chinese attitude is: “don’t give America a safety net” with a hotline.

In the long run, the economy may be the best way to move China “to the epiphany” that bullying and threat is not the best way to succeed. It “requires carrots and sticks” that would lead Beijing to “course correct” and see the value in rules-based order rather than coercion to sustain economic growth, Studeman said.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox