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Prospective Biden Defense Secretary Wants Tighter ‘Deterrence’ of China

Aug. 31, 2020 (EIRNS)—If Joe Biden is sworn in as the next U.S. President on Jan. 20, 2021, will his administration’s strategic policy toward China be any different from that architected by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper? A June 18 article by former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy in the Council on Foreign Relation’s flagship journal Foreign Affairs, entitled “How to Prevent a War in Asia: The Erosion of American Deterrence Raises the Risk of Chinese Miscalculation,” suggests that it won’t, except for having even more military muscle behind it.

Flournoy, who has made no secret of her interest in being Secretary of Defense in a Biden Administration, argues that U.S. deterrent power has been eroded not only by the growth in Chinese military and economic power but also by the failure of the United States under President Trump to really carry out the Asia Pivot initiated by Barack Obama in 2012. “For the past two decades, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been growing in size, capability, and confidence,” Flournoy writes. “China is also emerging as a serious competitor in a number of technological areas that will ultimately determine military advantage. At the same time, the credibility of U.S. deterrence has been declining. For Beijing, the 2008—9 financial crisis gave rise to an enduring narrative of U.S. decline and Chinese superiority that has been reinforced by perceptions of U.S. withdrawal from the world—as well as, more recently, by its perception of bungled U.S. management of the pandemic and societal upheaval over systemic racism.”

Flournoy was also the architect of the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Libya in 2011. She complains that America has had no answer to China’s Belt and Road, nor to China’s alleged “gray zone” activities in the South China Sea. “All of this spells trouble for deterrence,” she writes. “The more confident China’s leaders are in their own capabilities and the more they doubt the capabilities and resolve of the United States, the greater the chance of miscalculation—a breakdown in deterrence that could bring direct conflict between two nuclear powers.” This, she says, will require “a concerted effort to rebuild the credibility of U.S. deterrence in order to reduce the risk of a war that neither side seeks.”

Flournoy goes on to describe, in great detail, the capabilities that the PLA has developed in its drive for modernization, the upshot of which is “dangerous new uncertainty about the U.S. ability to check various Chinese moves, which could invite risk-taking by Chinese leaders.” As a result, deterrence could break down. Flournoy’s answer is to tighten the U.S.-made ring of steel around China. “To re-establish credible deterrence of China, the United States must be able to prevent the success of any act of military aggression by Beijing, either by denying the PLA’s ability to achieve its aims or by imposing costs so great that Chinese leaders ultimately decide that the act is not in their interest,” she writes. “And Xi and his advisers must believe that the United States has not just the capability but also the resolve to carry through on any deterrent threat it makes.”

Because of China’s military advantages in its own backyard, “U.S. policymakers need to start thinking more creatively about how to shape Beijing’s calculus,” she continues.

“For example, if the U.S. military had the capability to credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours, Chinese leaders might think twice before, say, launching a blockade or invasion of Taiwan; they would have to wonder whether it was worth putting their entire fleet at risk.”

Washington also needs to demonstrate its commitment to the region by deploying more senior officials to the region to build military alliances, deploying more military forces to the region, and sponsoring more military exercises.

Flournoy concludes by calling for increasing strategic dialogue with China. “Reestablishing a forum in which China and the United States could regularly discuss their respective interests and perspectives, identify areas of potential cooperation (such as nonproliferation and climate change), and manage their differences short of conflict is essential; tactical discussions on trade issues are simply not enough,” she writes. Thus, through this “dialogue,” America will lecture the Chinese on all the consequences they will suffer if they don’t behave according to U.S. diktat.

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