Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has enjoyed an unparalleled ability to project military power around the globe, as the world’s leading superpower.
But in recent years, potential U.S. rivals have invested in weapons systems and strategies that challenge America’s ability to project such global power. It is part of an “anti-access and area denial” (AA/AD) approach based on operational concepts and military capabilities that deter, delay, or disrupt U.S. military power projection. An AA/AD strategy works not by threatening to best America in a direct contest, but by preventing U.S. military engagement in the first place.
China’s strategists may not use the same terminology as their American counterparts, but there is ample evidence to suggest that Beijing is becoming AA/AD’s leading proponent. Beijing now has capabilities that could dramatically raise the costs of U.S. military intervention in areas vital to national interests, especially Taiwan and the South China Sea. As strategic analyst Andrew Krepinevich observes, “Since the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996…China has moved to shift the military balance in the Western Pacific in its favor by fielding systems capable of driving up the cost of U.S. military access to the region to prohibitive levels.”
While China might not have the capability to sink an American aircraft carrier (or want to because of the risk of escalation), it might cause enough damage to achieve a “mission kill,” preventing air sorties from the ship and forcing it out of the conflict zone. In theory, the threat of this kind of attack would cordon U.S. aircraft carriers so far away from a Chinese theater that their operational and strategic effectiveness would be greatly diminished.
The growing threat to U.S. aircraft carriers—perhaps the greatest symbol of America’s power projection capability—is but one example of China’s military modernization and strategic pivot since the mid-1990s. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is increasingly capable of posing a credible threat to Taiwan and raising the potential costs of U.S. military intervention in a regional conflict.
How and why did China’s approach shift in this new direction? What are the most potent anti-access and area denial capabilities in Beijing’s arsenal? And what are the implications for U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region?