The most likely friction points between China and the United States are located at sea. It is not clear that existing security studies scholarship—based on territorial, nuclear, and civil conflict—applies comfortably to the maritime domain. As one example, a “denialist” school in security studies argues that counterintervention technology makes defense dominant in the region. Nonetheless, the US Navy remains a fleet designed for an offensive approach of power projection and sea control. Although this stubbornness in the face of a sophisticated anti-access capability might be attributable to a strong operational culture and obvious bureaucratic incentives, we posit additional forces suggesting defense dominance will not lead to crisis stability. At sea, offense–defense distinguishability is low and the temptation to strike first is high. Future interaction between current US and Chinese fleet designs risks a crisis or even war that will endanger the US fleet, potentially leading to the loss of the very military advantages underpinning American hegemony that its navy seeks to defend. The talk concludes with suggestions for additional security studies approaches that, updated, can help us understand this new era.
Jonathan D. Caverley is Professor of Strategic and Operational Studies at the United States Naval War College and Research Scientist in Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.