Written by James Johnson.

International relations (IR) scholars of various stripes generally agree that the security dilemma is an inescapable condition in world politics, and at best, may only be ameliorated or mitigated.

Broadly defined, defensive-realist IR scholars posit that a variety of ‘material regulators’ can reduce the intensity of the dilemma, which may improve the prospects for cooperation (arms control measures, and moderate military policies) and strategic stability between states. The ‘regulators’ most relevant to conceptualize U.S.-China emerging weapons technologies and systems (i.e. cyber-warfare, electronic warfare, precision strike munitions, and counter-space) include: the offence-defence balance, and in particular, sharpening the delineation between offensive and defensive capabilities and operating doctrines; the prevailing military balance; and closely related, the asymmetric distribution of military power.

The brief honeymoon in U.S.-China relations culminated in a display of bromance between Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in April 2017, which despite the shadow of U.S. military strikes in Syria struck a pragmatic tone. Shortly after this meeting, however, the pendulum swung sharply in the opposite direction.

Prospects slim for avoiding a technologically driven arms race

Unfortunately, for several implacable reasons, the hopes of restraining the emerging U.S.-China technologically driven arms race appear bleak.

First, the offence-defence line in the cyberspace is inherently an obscured one. Network intrusions (or hacking), for example, are equally useful for defensive as for offensive operations; thus cyber espionage could be interpreted (accurately or otherwise) as a precursor for an offensive pre-emptive cyber-attack. As the former head of the U.S. National Security Agency, General Michael Hayden opined: “operationally and technologically cyber espionage is not distinguishable from cyberattack”. It is intuitive that in cases where the offence-defence line is blurred states’ intentions are harder to fathom; creating space for misperceptions and worse-case scenario defence planning, that in turn, worsens the security dilemma. In the cyber domain, the prevailing conventional wisdom is that the offence has the advantage. That is, it is much easier and cheaper to create malicious code than to develop effective counters; which reinforces the doctrinal preference for pre-emptive and first strikes, and increases the risks of cross-domain (and possibly inadvertent) military escalation. There is little agreement, however (either within the beltway or scholarly circles), on what the appropriate balance is between offensive and defensive cyber capabilities.

Second, and closely related, this issue is compounded by the opacity surrounding both U.S. and Chinese cyber (offensive and defensive) capabilities, and their evolving doctrines, which have made their cyber capabilities (and related technologies) particularly difficult to verify. Moreover, given the diverse range of actors (state and non-state) involved in cyberspace; the increasingly sophisticated and integrated nature of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems; the absence of well-defined international norms governing cyberspace and ‘cyber-warfare’; and finally, the implications of emerging technologies for the survivability (especially the hardening and concealment) of states nuclear weapons will likely reduce the prospects for arms reductions, and increase the risks of arms racing and conflict.

Third, as C4ISR systems become further integrated with U.S. and Chinese war-fighting capabilities, and as both sides’ dependencies upon these systems increases, these risks will likely be amplified. Thus, a non-kinetic cyber attack could be combined with a kinetic (conventional or nuclear) military force. For example, C4ISR enabled precision-guided munitions or a blinding denial-of-service cyber attack on U.S. communication satellites as a precursor to an ASAT strike. Chinese analysts at the National Defense University recently reported that even though U.S. military satellites operate independently of the wider internet infrastructure, advancements in network intrusion technologies (i.e. quantum computing) has meant that electronic warfare capabilities can be used as a “spring board” to attack hitherto U.S. secure command and control networks.

In short, the diffusion and integration of emerging technologies into broader war-fighting capabilities, the challenges posed by cross-domain (or ‘multi-domain’) warfare to traditional (war and intra-war) deterrence models, and the proliferation of C4ISR dependent weapons continue to shift the asymmetric distribution of military power (or the information center of gravity) in China’s favour.  This shift will likely reduce the prospects for successful measures to restrain a U.S.-China technology-driven arms race, and mitigate a intractable security dilemma. To be sure, if the present trajectory in several strategic defence innovations holds, China will soon challenge the U.S. lead in several emerging military-technological strategic fields (i.e. A.I. and quantum computing); which will likely accelerate the Pentagon’s drive for offsetting initiatives and concepts, and put viable solutions to restrain ‘great power competition’ and a technologically-driven arms race further out of reach.

Finally, the rapidly maturing precision strike missile regime in the Western Pacific, the emerging U.S.-China arms racing dynamics is inherently multipolar and qualitative in nature; characterized by prominent (and increasingly populist) domestic-political agendas. In addition, the absence of a broader multilateral framework for conventional (or nuclear) arms-control in the Asia-Pacific (such as an INF or START regime) will likely accelerate the proliferation of precision strike munitions. How the new Trump administration approaches these challenges will have significant implications for future regional arms control, strategic stability; and more broadly, the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence policies and commitments to its Asian-based allies and partners.

A dangerous crossroads in U.S.-China relations

After Donald Trump’s inauguration as U.S. President in late January 2017, the new administration’s approach to China has reflected the Trump administration’s unpredictable, uncertain, and erratic approach to American foreign policy.

President Trump’s ‘American First’ slogan prompted vigorous debate about Washington’s benevolent oversight of the post-1945 ‘liberal world order’; suggesting an experiment in retrenchment-based realism, an insular shift in U.S. grand strategy, a radical shift away from America’s decades-old security commitments; in extremis, a fundamental reallocation of global security burdens and power to other states – notably Russia, China, and to a lesser degree NATO. More recently, however, these early fears have been partly assuaged by an apparent voltre-face in Trump’s foreign policy; signaling continuity rather than change to U.S. grand strategy. Thus, despite Trump’s firebrand maverick campaign rhetoric (e.g. branding China a currency manipulator; threatening to dismantle U.S. alliance structures; tolerating nuclear proliferation; making strategic concessions to Russia; and welcoming the North Korean leader to the U.S.) the new President’s early months in office have been surprisingly conventional in substance; if capricious in style.

Illustrative of the erratic nature of Trump’s foreign policy, the pendulum of U.S.-China relations has already swung to the extremes. Early on, observers feared that a more hawkish posture towards Beijing over trade policy, Taiwan, and the South China Seas would cause increased tensions in the region, unsettle U.S. allies, and decrease strategic stability. This hawkishness, however, quickly reverted to a more traditional stance: the new administration has embraced the ‘One China’ policy; demurred from declaring China a currency manipulator; and in an apparent quid-pro-quo to secure Beijing’s support in tackling the North Korea crisis, refused to give the green light to the U.S. Pacific Command’s request to conduct further freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Seas.

The brief honeymoon in U.S.-China relations (if there actually was one) culminated in a display of bromance between Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in April 2017, which, despite the shadow of U.S. military strikes in Syria, struck a pragmatic tone. Shortly after this meeting, however, the pendulum swung sharply in the opposite direction. Evidence of this shift included the resumption naval FONOPs in the South China Sea, criticizing Beijing for its perceived reluctance to restrain Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, approving new sanctions on Chinese banks conducting business with the pariah state; and much to Beijing’s chagrin, a new (‘defensive’) arms package for Taiwan.

In his keynote speech at the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis underscored continuity in America’s most fundamental security commitments in the Asia-Pacific. Mattis’ speech was carefully calibrated to reassure U.S. regional allies and deter China from unilaterally challenging the status-quo; he reaffirmed Washington’s ‘enduring commitment’ to the security of the region and scolded China for its ‘disregard for international law’ and contempt for other nations’ interests.

Whether regional anxieties caused by Trump’s capriciousness prompts states to engage in ‘self-help’ strategies including hedging, bandwagoning, and balancing will ultimately depend on: how states’ perceive the resilience America’s long-term orchestration of power and commitments in the Asia-Pacific, and juxtaposed, existential threat posed by a rising China; poised to exploit any U.S. strategic deficit in the region. Unfortunately, given the logic of the ‘Hobbesian trap’, the danger exists that states fearful of becoming outnumbered, abandoned, or encircled by a rising power (i.e. China) forge alliances and accumulate weapons to contain the growing menace. Since one man’s containment (or ‘security’) is another’s encirclement; if these emerging sources of regional anxieties are not carefully managed, by both Washington and Beijing, they will likely create self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing spirals of mistrust and arms racing; in a strategic environment highly susceptible to instability, and security dilemmas.

James Johnson is a Post-Doctorate Scholar at the University of Leicester. His areas of interest are Security and Strategic Studies; US-China Relations; Nuclear Proliferation; China Foreign Policy; and East Asian Security. He tweets @James_SJohnson. Image credit: CC by U.S. 7th Fleet/Flickr.

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