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'Mutual denial' may not change very much



13 February 2013 11:00

Stephan Fruehling is a Senior Lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Program, ANU.

Sam Roggeveen's post on whether 'mutual denial' can work raises an important point about the future strategic relationship between the US and its allies, and China. 'Mutual denial' is useful as a slogan to highlight that geography is not as disadvantageous for the US as is often assumed, that the first island chain poses significant opportunities for barrier operations by US and allied forces, and to focus attention on US capabilities that would allow it to exploit geography to its advantage.

But what does this mean for the way both sides will interact in peace and in war? The answer may well be: rather little.

First, it is important to remember that military forces routinely go in peacetime where they would not be 'survivable' in wartime, and that nonetheless they can achieve the desired strategic effects. NATO forces in West Germany, not to mention the Berlin Garrison, would not have survived war with the Warsaw pact for more than a few days or weeks, but that did not make them useless, did not make their deployment irresponsible, and nor did it compel the populations of West Germany and Berlin to accept Soviet hegemony. In a strategy that always relied on deterrence through the threat of nuclear retaliation, the survival of these forces was desirable, but ultimately inconsequential.

Unless and until China decides to start a third world war, there is no reason why the US Navy should not also conduct diplomacy, training or show of force operations inside the first island chain even under condition of 'mutual denial'. Should the US decide not to do so, this would be because of broader political considerations about the accommodation Washington might seek with Beijing, and not something that would directly flow from whatever hardware was parked on Chinese airfields or moored alongside Chinese ports.

In fact, the US-South Korean exercises in the Yellow Sea in 2010, and China's use of maritime 'harassment' forces (even less 'survivable' than a US navy carrier group in the Taiwan Strait) demonstrate that the political utility of naval forces is quite separate from the likely fate of the same kind of forces, in the same spot, under completely different conditions.

Even during wartime, it is likely that 'mutual denial' would tell us more about the conditions under which both sides will conduct military operations than about the operations themselves — let alone each side's strategy. 'Denial' is never absolute, and especially over the vast areas considered here, attaining control is more a question of effort, concentration and priorities rather than a general condition.

Ultimately, naval battles are about attrition and initiative, and probing the adversary's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems and their command-and-control systems will be important for both sides in any conflict between the US and its allies against China. There is little reason to expect that the US Navy, which after all planned to break into the Soviet Union's naval bastions in the 1980s, would sit idly by to the east of the first island chain and let the PLA execute its complex battle plan. And if the Chinese Navy is to secure territorial gains, it will have to gain sufficient control over parts of the contested seas to mount amphibious operations. Even merely 'teaching the Americans a lesson' will require the PLAN to bring the US Navy to battle.

Finally, in the discussion on all those naval capabilities and concepts, we should not forget that either side could well decide, at any point in time, to short-circuit the naval battle altogether and go straight to threatening (or implementing) nuclear escalation. 

Short of very limited objectives, the naval battle alone cannot provide a theory of victory against a nuclear power. It may of course be that, in the future, both China and the US will only consider using force against each other for very limited objectives, but this would again have little do with 'mutual denial' and a lot with the large shadow of the nuclear bomb.

Photo by Flickr user mikebaird.

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