While the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act acknowledges that China’s military is closing the capabilities gap with the United States, it also sows the seeds of an effective gray zone response to Beijing’s transnational influence apparatus. On this front, it is the NDAA’s centerpiece — the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, or PDI — which offers the U.S. its best opportunity to neutralize China’s malign activities.
That is, if defense planners can embrace the kind of innovation mindset needed to make the most of declining defense budgets.
China’s reliance on corruption, coercion and clandestine operations is nothing new. Over the years, China has developed a robust influence playbook that underpins everything from its Belt and Road Initiative to its political interference. What is evolving, however, is China’s increasing reliance on these operations to buttress its military aims, so much so that the People’s Liberation Army’s success appears increasingly tied to its ability to exercise all means short of war rather than engaging in war itself.
This intensifying gray zone threat is most acute regarding China’s reunification with Taiwan. While the U.S. tests the limits of a conventional strategy from a bygone era, there is increasingly less reason to believe that war is Beijing’s preferred means of achieving its security objectives. That is not to imply there is zero chance for miscalculation — just that the PLA’s growing gray zone confidence reduces its reliance on military might to secure a favorable resolution.
In other words, China need not provoke a potential military response from the United States when it can instead manage a protracted, debilitating influence campaign that slowly degrades Taiwan’s will to the point of capitulation.
If Beijing’s asymmetric success in Hong Kong is any indication, the U.S. is unprepared for what comes next, not only as it relates to Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific region, but also in the Arctic, Latin America and elsewhere.
The first test for defense planners will be to resist the urge to mirror key aspects of the PDI on its companion, the European Deterrence Initiative; this includes the EDI’s focus on rapid force mobilization in response to a conventional threat.
If history is any guide, once the PLA has decided to move on a target, it is because China has so effectively primed the asymmetric battlefield that its conventional success is assured.
Instead, the PDI should prioritize efforts aimed at asymmetrically undermining China’s confidence in the PLA’s ability to achieve its desired end states. Central to that objective should be significantly increasing intelligence collection not only on China but also regional host countries’ receptivity to Beijing’s overtures, the Achilles’ heel of China’s strategy.
While hundreds of analysts track the PLA’s every move, few monitor Melanesia, Micronesia or Polynesia — the places where China is searching for its next foothold. The U.S. Defense Department’s leadership need not waste months waiting for its intelligence prioritization process to catch up to reality. Rather, it should immediately deploy intelligence assets and personnel throughout the region, as well as realign technical collection platforms to support this mission. Corresponding reform at the departments of State and the Interior should follow, owing to the latter’s mandate throughout Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.
With improved intelligence, PDI planners should seek to align our asymmetric force posture and that of our allies against China. While Beijing has benefitted from a head start, there is time to transform environs seemingly hospitable to China into inhospitable ones. Central to America’s PDI arsenal should be better leveraging nontraditional and less costly expeditionary platforms whose missions can support the Defense Department’s growing cyber capabilities, foreign military training assistance programs, anti-corruption initiatives and other Title 10 authorities. These asymmetric investments will need to come at the expense of conventional programs.
PDI planners will also be hard-pressed to redefine what it means to be an “ally,” a term more germane to Europe than the Pacific. Stress testing our defense relationships will likely reveal that we have been over- or under-estimating their strength, having previously evaluated them through a conventional prism. PDI planners must also modify their risk tolerance to enable covert collaboration with certain partners, particularly those with close economic ties to China. Some partners, such as New Zealand, may come to surprise us with their ability to wield unconventional power in ways that other regional heavyweights cannot.
Lastly, the department’s internal machinery must be modernized to account for a China challenge that extends far beyond the Taiwan Strait. While the PDI nests within the department’s Indo-Pacific architecture, the same cannot be said for the PLA’s pursuits globally. Along with establishing new positions and processes to coordinate the department’s China-related efforts, the defense establishment must do better incorporating its cyber and special operators into these discussions.
While China has long valued out-of-the-box thinking, turning perceived weaknesses into strengths, the same cannot be said for the United States. If executed smartly, however, the PDI provides the U.S. with an opportunity to do just that.
Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he contributes to the think tank’s Center on Military and Political Power as well as its China Program.