Military historian and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Bing West is scheduled to speak on a morning panel about conventional deterrence strategies involving China on Friday, Aug. 19, at the 2022 Newport National Symposium. It’s the topic of his latest piece, co-written with former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, published online in National Review on Thursday, Aug. 18. The Naval War College Foundation is grateful to West for granting permission to reprint the article here.
August 18, 2022
Deter China through Strength and Confidence
The U.S. is the dominant maritime power in the Pacific; let’s keep it that way.
by John Lehman and Bing West
American policy toward Taiwan is one of “strategic ambiguity.” If China attacks Taiwan, U.S. forces may fight or not fight. Chairman Xi’s bellicosity signals that he believes we wouldn’t fight. By seizing Taiwan, China would control $6 trillion in seaborne trade and cut us off from South Korea and Japan. Simply put, our own security depends upon a willingness to fight for Taiwan’s freedom.
To ensure that Xi believes that the U.S. would fight, three actions are necessary. First, make it clear that America would defeat a Chinese invasion. A few years ago, a senior Pentagon official claimed that China defeated us in a series of war games. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a war game conducted by a think tank. After “horrific [U.S.] losses,” one of its participants concluded, “Nobody won, but nobody lost either.” That is scarcely reassuring. The chairman of our Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, has said, “We’re witnessing one of the largest shifts in global geostrategic power that the world has witnessed.” Such lugubrious sentiments, coupled with the Afghanistan debacle, are demoralizing. In 2018, 70 percent of Americans had a great deal of confidence in our military; that has dropped to 45 percent. Our senior leaders must belay pessimism.
America’s defeat is not predestined. China must attack across one hundred miles of open ocean, while our Navy can detect the movement of any warship, submarine, or plane. Thousands of anti-ship missiles await the invasion craft. China has never fought a maritime war, whereas our command systems have been forged in continuous wars. Nor can China rationally expand a naval clash with America. Its entire economy depends on imports of oil and natural gas across oceans controlled by America’s attack submarines, aircraft, and surface forces. Our Navy must exude confidence in its lethal mission to sink the enemy, and visibly exercise and train to do it.
Here is the precedent. In the Carter years, in the 1970s, worry raged about a Soviet blitzkrieg against Germany, with our Navy shepherding convoys, as in World War II. Our Pentagon leaders believed that the Soviets would sink our fleet in the Mediterranean. Several of us believed that, after Vietnam, our officials had sought counsel in their fears and had lost sight of our huge geographical advantages and of our Navy’s immense global striking power. In war games at the Naval War College and under President Reagan in actual exercises, we sent our attack submarines and carriers a thousand miles north of England to demonstrate that we intended to sink the Soviet navy and attack its bases. The Soviet command was flummoxed. Gorbachev said the demands from his admirals for more money to defend the Kola Peninsula helped convince him of America’s superiority.
As we did in the ’80s, we should display confidence in defeating a Chinese invasion or blockade. The Pentagon should hold ecumenical war games. Invite all services, Congress, and the White House to participate. But war games are theoretical. What’s really needed is to follow up with bold exercises. Start now in the South China Sea, where the Philippines has requested joint naval patrols because China is bullying their fishermen and ships. Alongside Filipino vessels, we should send our warships with U.S. Marine landing parties to protect defenseless vessels. That is how you encourage and strengthen alliances.
The second step is to do away with the current policy of ambiguity that places America’s response to an invasion in one man, the president. This contradicts our Constitution, which reposes war-making authority with the Congress. Independent of the administration, the American people and Congress will support a winner. Congress should pass a mutual-defense pact with Taiwan, the same as we have with the Philippines. That would be the strongest measure to dissuade Xi.
The third step is to safeguard the endurance of deterrence. President Biden requested a 5 percent increase in the Navy budget, not matching inflation. This prematurely retires 30 ships, further shrinking our too-small Navy. Congress must add ships. We are the dominant maritime power in the Pacific; let’s keep it that way and act with confidence.
In the Reagan administration, John Lehman served as secretary of the Navy and Bing West as assistant secretary of defense. Both have written several books about national security.