Return to the Library

An Analysis of the United States’ Deterrence by Denial Strategy Against China


Researchers at the PLA’s National University of Defense Technology examine the U.S. strategy of deterrence by denial against China since 2017, tracing developments across the Trump and Biden administrations and assessing likely impacts on China’s efforts to shape its regional security environment. The authors argue that while these strategies have “achieved some of the expected effects,” they will be constrained abroad by the security interests of regional U.S. partners and allies and domestically through disagreement among U.S. political parties and U.S. military branches about how to approach building denial capabilities.

Emphasis added throughout text by editors.

FacebookTwitterLinkedInEmailPrintCopy Link
Original text
English text
See an error? Drop us a line at
View the translated and original text side-by-side

Deterrence by denial is an important branch of deterrence theory, and deterrence by denial strategy is a military strategy guided by the theory of deterrence by denial. The United States’ deterrence by denial strategy began in the Cold War and led to large-scale civil defense construction and ballistic missile defense technology R&D during the Cold War. After the turn of the 21st century, the issues of missile defense and the empowerment of conventional weapons by emerging technologies have played an ever-expanding role in the security interactions of nuclear powers.1 U.S. deterrence policy also put greater emphasis on the importance of deterrence by denial methods, as represented by missile defense systems and new precision strike weapons.


The “Rebalancing Toward Asia-Pacific” strategy launched by the Obama administration announced a change in the U.S.’s judgment as to the source of threats. Since then, there have been growing calls from within the United States to focus on the growth of Chinese military power and expand the application scope of deterrence by denial. After Trump took office, the “pessimists” in the United States who believed that China was about to gain a regional military dominance and squeeze the U.S. military out of the Western Pacific region gradually became the mainstream. They proposed that the U.S. military strategy and operational concepts should be adjusted to deny China the ability to operate basically without restrictions in the Western Pacific region.2 The Trump administration’s U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific also states that the United States will primarily deny China’s continued air and maritime superiority within the first island chain and dominate all areas outside the first island chain.3 After Biden took office, the role of military elements in the U.S. national security strategy continued to increase. Judging from the trends in U.S. military adjustments, the Biden administration’s strategy of deterrence by denial against China places more emphasis on the deployment of new forces and the coordinated denial among allies. Deterrence by denial against China has become a key element in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy.4 The U.S. strategy of deterrence by denial against China has already deviated from the traditional model of deterrence by denial strategy and is evolving towards the integration of offense and defense. This is not only the result of the development of new military technology, but also the only way for the United States to consistently seek absolute security after the Cold War.


I. The Meaning of Deterrence by Denial


Although the concept of “deterrence by denial” was proposed relatively recently, the effectiveness of denial as a deterrent has existed since ancient times. From the Hexamilion Wall, where the Peloponnesian Alliance tried to stop the Persian invasion, to the French Maginot Line on the eastern frontier, the deterrent capabilities of these military forces were mainly reflected in their denial effect.


(i) Meaning and Features of Deterrence by Denial

In his 1961 book Deterrence and Defense, American deterrence theorist Glenn Snyder divided deterrence into deterrence by punishment and deterrence by denial according to the effective logic of deterrence.5 He pointed out that deterrence by punishment means that the deterring party shows the deterred party that if the deterred party takes actions that disrupt the status quo, the deterring party has both the ability and determination to inflict large-scale damage to the deterred party. To make punishment credible, the deterring party often threatens to retaliate against an adversary’s non-military targets at any cost, although the line between non-military and military targets is sometimes blurred. In the aviation age before the nuclear age, a country’s long-range bombing capability could sometimes serve as deterrence by punishment. In the nuclear age, the promise of deterrence by punishment is mainly achieved by the enormous destructive power of nuclear missiles, but conventional punitive capabilities such as massive numbers of long-range strike weapons can also sometimes play a role.6 Deterrence by denial refers to the use of conventional means to crush the offensive attempts of the deterred party, thereby making the potential aggressor lose confidence that it can achieve its goals. The deterring party seeks to maintain the status quo with the goals of strengthening defenses or threatening to precisely destroy an adversary’s offensive forces during wartime.7 In general, deterrence by punishment is more of a cost-calculated strategy, while denial deterrence is a strategy measured in terms of benefits.

美国威慑理论家格伦·斯奈德(Glenn Snyder)在1961年的著作《威慑与防御》中依据威慑的生效逻辑,将威慑分为惩罚性威慑(deterence by punishment)与拒止性威慑(deterence by denial)。他指出,惩罚性威慑是指威慑方向被威慑方表明,如若被威慑方采取破坏现状的行动,威慑方既有能力,也有决心对其实施大规模破坏。为了使惩罚可信,威慑方往往威胁不计成本地报复打击对手的非军事目标,尽管非军事和军事目标之间的界限有时是模糊的。核时代到来前,在航空时代,一国的远程轰炸能力有时可以起到惩罚性威慑的作用。而在核时代,惩罚性威慑的承诺主要借助导弹核武器的巨大破坏力来实现,常规惩罚能力如数量庞大的远程打击武器有时亦可发挥作用。拒止性威慑则是指用常规手段粉碎被威慑方的进攻性企图,从而使潜在的侵略者丧失能够实现其目标的信心。威慑方以加强防御或威胁在战时精确摧毁对手进攻力量为目标,力求维持现状。总的来看,惩罚性威慑是一种计较成本的战略,而拒止性威慑是一种衡量收益的战略。

Snyder’s interpretation of deterrence by denial has been accepted by most deterrence theorists and is still used today. Starting from Snyder’s classic definition along with the particularity of deterrence by denial strategy as a military strategy, we can obtain the following three features of deterrence by denial:


The first is the extensive range of methods for the use of power. In contrast to the strategic nuclear force that deterrence by punishment is more reliant on in the nuclear age, the forces required for deterrence by denial are broader. They include not only physical weapons traditionally used for defense and attack operations, but also combat operations methods used in intangible spaces, such as cyber weapons and electronic warfare weapons.8 The previous format of combat operations that was contact-type and relied on the use of weapons to kill enemies in order to seize territory has evolved into a non-contact type model that uses information technology to carry out combat operations in a range of different spaces. Therefore, in terms of forces, the United States’ deterrence by denial strategy relies more on various missile systems and information warfare systems. The frontier area where the United States carries out defense operations has also further expanded. There has been a shift from the focus on homeland defense during the Cold War to forward defense in front of the threat source, but this has not touched the “big rear” (大后方) targeted by deterrence by punishment forces.


The second is the real-time nature of threat actions. Deterrence is achieved through denial, not by threats of retaliation for status-breaking actions after the fact as in deterrence by punishment. Rather, the threat will directly deter, de-escalate, or delay offensive actions in near real-time. Therefore, a greater emphasis is placed on precision strike and damage-infliction capabilities. In order to achieve the goal of delaying an adversary on the battlefield, the deterring party must possess faster response capabilities or stronger defenses than for deterrence by punishment. After the deterring party demonstrates these capabilities to the deterred party, the deterred party will evaluate the possible obstacles and escalation options in its operation, and may abandon the operation. Deterrence by denial will be more credible if the deterring party had nuclear options available to it.


The third is the contest that occurs in the process of deterrence. Deterrence by denial has a greater reliance on conventional weapons. However, before the outbreak of a conventional war, when the deterring party credibly communicates its capabilities to win a conflict to the deterred party, this position of the deterring party is particularly contested by the deterred party. This is because the adversary may also hope to defeat the deterring party’s military by strengthening its own military-technical capabilities as soon as possible. The above situation certainly creates uncertainty about the outcome of deterrence by denial, but in the current era of systemic warfare, competition between two great powers centered on a single technology or single weapon is not enough to destabilize the deterrence. The deterring party needs to pay more attention to the new technological combinations of the deterred party and the new combat concepts it promotes. However, limited by the maturity of such technologies, it will take time for the deterred party to transform these factors into a threat to the effectiveness of deterrence by denial, and the deterring party will also seek to achieve a technological balance. Therefore, the fact that the process of deterrence by denial is contested does not necessarily have a fundamental impact on its effectiveness.


(ii) Analysis of the Relationship Between Deterrence by Denial and Deterrence by Punishment

Regarding the difference between deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment, in addition to the differences in the methods and forces used for deterrence mentioned above, the two are also different in terms of practical effects, escalation issues, and limitations.


First, in terms of the practical effects of the two deterrence models, most case studies agree that deterrence by denial is more effective than deterrence by punishment. Paul Huth analyzed 58 deterrence cases from 1885 to 1984 and found that deterrence by denial had a higher chance of success and was more dependable than deterrence by punishment.9 There are two main reasons for this: First, in practice, the credibility of the deterring party’s commitment to inflict punishment has always been questioned. Second, the signals sent by deterrence by denial are very clear, and most deterred parties choose to re-evaluate their cost-benefit calculations after receiving such signals. Through comparative research, Robert Pape found that deterrence by denial as a military strategy is more coercive than deterrence by punishment, but it also requires the deterring party to possess sufficient deterrence capabilities.10 Alex Wilner’s analysis of the most recent practices of deterrence by denial showed that, at the level of Western grand strategy, deterrence by denial has had a far greater influence than is generally believed.11 In practice, U.S. policy in the Cold War was never one of simple deterrence by punishment.12 After the United States and the Soviet Union achieved an approximate nuclear balance in the late 1960s, they quickly shifted the field of competition to strategic defense. Both countries had an incentive to develop effective defensive methods to mitigate the damage inflicted by an opponent’s nuclear strike. It is only that, in practice, the development of strategic defense methods by both sides is constrained by technical complexity. Based on this, the United States and the Soviet Union made mutual compromises for a period of time and signed the ABM Treaty to maintain strategic stability.

首先,在两种威慑模式的实践效果方面,大部分案例研究都认同拒止性威慑比惩罚性威慑更有效。保罗·胡思(Paul Huth)通过分析1885年到1984年的58个威慑案例发现,拒止性威慑的成功几率更高,其效果也要比惩罚性威慑更可靠。主要原因有二:一是在实践中,威慑方惩罚承诺的可信度始终存疑;二是拒止性威慑所传递的信号是十分清晰的,大部分被威慑方都会在收到此类信号后选择重新进行“成本—效益”评估。罗伯特·佩普(Robert Pape)通过对比研究发现,作为军事战略的拒止性威慑比惩罚性威慑更具强制性,但这也需要威慑方拥有足够的拒止能力。亚历克斯·威尔纳(Alex Wilner)对最新的拒止性威慑实践进行分析后认为,在西方大战略层面,拒止性威慑的影响远比人们普遍认为的要大。从实践看,美国在冷战中的政策也从未完全遵循过简单的惩罚性威慑。美苏在20世纪60年代后期大致形成核均势后就迅速将竞争领域转向了战略防御,两国都有动力发展有效的防御手段减轻对手核打击带来的损害。只是在实践中,双方战略防御手段的发展受到了技术复杂性的制约。基于此,美苏在一段时间内相互妥协并签署了《反导条约》以维持战略稳定。

Second, the two forms of deterrence are also very different when it comes to dealing with the problem of escalation. Escalation is divided into horizontal escalation and vertical escalation. The former refers to the expansion of a conflict geographically or in terms of interests involved. The latter refers to a country’s determination to use strategic strike capabilities to try to reverse an unfavorable situation.13 Deterrence by denial seeks to avoid vertical escalation, but may lead to horizontal escalation. Deterrence by punishment obviously involves the direct risk of vertical escalation. In practice, even if the deterred party finds a vulnerable area in the deterring party’s denial forces and formulates a targeted action plan, the conflict will not rapidly escalate vertically, and the deterring party can choose to escalate horizontally to effectively deal with the action of the deterred party. Although the deterred party can also choose a strategy of limited aims and quickly draw back after obtaining moderate benefits to avoid escalation, this strategy can easily lead the attacker into a war of attrition against it and rarely succeeds in practice.14


Finally, nuclear powers have a relatively deep awareness of deterrence by punishment in their long-term interactions, and there is already a great deal of shared understanding and even norms. The development of punitive capacity will also be subject to political constraints, but the same is not true of deterrence by denial, which is more influenced by a country’s strategic goals. After assessing the strengths of both parties, the deterring party can clearly assess its own strengths and weaknesses. If the strategic goal of the deterring party is to pursue advantages, it will use deterrence by denial as an effective engine for shaping strong military capabilities because deterrence by denial is less politically constrained than deterrence by punishment.


Although denial and punishment achieve their effects through different mechanisms, they are interconnected in practice. Judging from the deterrence practices of the United States after World War II, the United States does not apply a denial strategy alone, but tends to combine denial and punishment methods. This is largely due to the inadequacy of pure deterrence by denial. On the one hand, similar to the dilemma faced in nuclear deterrence, the risk calculation used in deterrence by denial is still very vague because it is difficult to accurately gauge the adversary’s intentions. The more uncertain the deterring party is about an adversary’s motivations and the quality of its own defenses, the more difficult it will be to adjust its military strategy to better deter the adversary. On the other hand, the new military revolution has brought many new changes to deterrence by denial, and asymmetric strike advantages can already be achieved under certain conditions.15 In order to ensure the effectiveness of deterrence by denial, if faced with a major power whose strategic power is increasing or even drawing even in some capabilities, the deterring party will inevitably develop forces with asymmetric or even new-generation advantages. However, the technical risks and (time, economic, and political) costs of developing such capabilities are subject to significant uncertainty. Therefore, in practice, the United States will use punitive measures to shift part of the pressure on its maintenance of effective deterrence, but this cannot solve the series of problems brought about by deterrence by denial.


(iii) Elements of Forces and Methods for Achieving Deterrence by Denial

According to the definition given above, denial is the capability of the deterring party to convince the deterred party that the deterring party has the ability to prevent it from obtaining potential benefits. The best manifestation of this capability is not directly threatening to inflict massive costs on the deterred party, but altering the deterred party’s intentions by changing its potential benefits. Accordingly, there are two ways to achieve deterrence by denial.


The first is to threaten to greatly reduce or even eliminate the expected effect of the opponent’s attack through various passive defense measures. Passive defense measures are mainly used to strengthen the invulnerability of one’s own military capabilities and to preserve effective forces as far as possible. Medieval castles and the trenches during World War I were passive defense measures. However, in the age of informatized warfare, the battlefield support roles of cyber capabilities and space assets have become increasingly prominent. In addition to the traditional strengthening of the construction of fixed defense facilities and protecting critical infrastructure, passive defense measures also include elements such as increasing the redundancy of the national command and control system and enhancing the resilience of cyber capabilities and space assets. The importance of these passive defense measures in the security and military strategies of major powers is increasing. It must be noted that although the above concepts or methods focus on defense, they also play an important supporting role in the offensive missions of great powers and are an indispensable and important part of deterrence by denial strategies.


The second is to threaten reciprocal counterattacks or even preemptive action when war is imminent in order to make the deterred party worry that their ultimate goal cannot be achieved so as to abandon the action. This approach puts more emphasis on the use of superior conventional combat capabilities to achieve deterrence by denial. It is determined by the range of the forces used for deterrence by denial and the challenges met in the deterrence process. Of course, in most cases, it is difficult for the deterring party to maintain this type of denial capability alone. Therefore, allies and partners with common deterrence goals become important partners of the deterring party. Given the real-time and contested nature of deterrence by denial, the deterring party must particularly guard against surprise attacks by the adversary. The deterred party will be attracted by the possibilities created by a sudden attack. This sort of move will allow them to demonstrate their strength to the deterring party and thereby reap the benefits.16 However, in informatized warfare, with the continuous proliferation and use of emerging technologies, especially precision-guided weapons, the possibility of preventing a deterred party from launching a surprise attack will greatly increase.17 Deterrence by denial will rely more on such weapons to increase its credibility. Moreover, if the deterring party has such a powerful conventional strike force and the adversary continues to provocatively challenge the deterring party’s previous commitments, the deterring party may also send some signals to threaten preemptive action, so as to achieve a deterrent effect.


The U.S. strategy of deterrence by denial against China reflects the two methods mentioned above in its components and system of forces. In both the conceptions of experts and scholars and the practices of the Trump and the Biden administrations, great importance is attached to the organic combination of offensive and defensive methods and the importance of system capabilities and joint operations is emphasized. Below, we will analyze the concepts and practices of the U.S. strategy of deterrence by denial against China since 2017 and present the constraints in the implementation of this strategy and its impact on China.


II. Concepts and Practices of the U.S. Strategy of Deterrence by Denial Against China


After the “Rebalancing Toward Asia-Pacific” strategy was introduced, scholars in the U.S. strategic community began to discuss the feasibility of deterrence by punishment or denial with respect to China. Based on the theoretical and practical advantages of the deterrence by denial strategy, many people prefer to give priority to the use of deterrence by denial against China. Most of these proposals deviate from the defense-centered deterrence by denial model by encouraging the United States and its allies to develop comprehensive denial capabilities ranging from passive defense to integrated offense and defense.


(i) Recommendations of the U.S. Strategic and Security Research Community on Deterrence by Denial Strategies for China

Experts and scholars who support the strategy of deterrence by denial against China believe that denial emphasizes the value of a decentralized and flexible regional military force. During the Obama administration, the representative figure who supported deterrence by denial against China was Andrew S. Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College. He believed that in the face of future Chinese control of the disputed islands, the United States does not necessarily have to defeat China, but only prevent China from achieving its goals. To this end, the U.S. military should develop direct defense and area denial capabilities.18 However, at that time, the U.S. military in the Western Pacific region possessed an advantage over China and would not fully adopt this defensive posture.19 However, considering the gradual decline in the survivability of U.S. military targets in the “first island chain,” the United States is also seeking to improve the damage-resistance capabilities of its own bases and promote the construction of a theater missile defense system aimed at China.

美国支持对华拒止性威慑战略的专家学者认为,拒止强调了分散的、有弹性的区域军事力量的价值。奥巴马政府时期,支持对华拒止性威慑的代表人物是美国海军战争学院的安德鲁·埃里克森(Andrew S. Erickson)。他认为,面对未来中国对争议岛屿的控制,美国不一定非要打败中国,只需阻止中国达成其目标即可。为此,美军应该发展直接防御和区域拒止能力。但彼时美国在西太地区的军事力量较中国更具优势,不会完全采取这种防御姿态。不过考虑到“第一岛链”内美国军事目标的生存性在逐渐降低,美国也在寻求提升己方基地的抗毁伤能力,并推进针对中国的战区导弹防御体系建设。

After Trump took office, China became a “primary competitor” as defined by the United States. The United States believes that the rapid increase in Chinese military power has made its forward presence in the Western Pacific “unprecedentedly vulnerable”, its military presence in the “first island chain” faces a real threat from China’s “anti-access/area denial” capabilities, and the support and logistical assurance deployments in the “Second Island Chain” have also become less secure due to the threat of medium and long-range strikes.20 On this basis, many security experts who have served in the U.S. Department of Defense believe that U.S. military strategy should further adopt the perspective of deterrence by denial, taking the opponent’s military capabilities as its main target and strengthening its own defense.21 Eric Heginbotham suggested that a global power like the United States cannot allocate the same proportion of resources to the Western Pacific region that China can, so denial is a reasonable compromise.22 Michael Beckley believed that the United States should take advantage of the existing military balance in the Western Pacific region and adopt an “active denial” strategy consisting of three elements: reducing its own forces, improving the denial capabilities of its allies, and supporting allies when necessary.23 Jacob Cohn and others suggested that the United States could deploy short- and intermediate-range missiles in Japan, Taiwan, or the Philippines in the future for the purpose of deterrence by denial.24 Eugene Gholz and others advocated that the United States establish a set of “concentric circles”, relying on the numerous small islands from Japan to the island of Taiwan to the Philippines, in order to build more dispersed bases.25 Through an in-depth analysis of key U.S. strategic documents and extensive interviews with U.S. defense officials, Luis Simón found that the United States has been constantly working to reconcile deterrence by punishment and by denial. He believes that the United States should focus on investing in deterrence by punishment, while actively encouraging allies to develop deterrence by denial capabilities.26

特朗普上台后,中国成为美国定义的“主要竞争对手”。美国认为,中国军事力量的快速提升使其在西太地区的前沿存在变得“前所未有的脆弱”,“第一岛链”内的军事存在面临中国“反介入/区域拒止”能力的切实威胁,位于“第二岛链”的支援和后勤保障部署,也因面临中远程打击的威胁而变得不再牢固。基于此,诸多曾在美国国防部任职过的安全专家认为,美国军事战略应更多从拒止性威慑的角度出发,以对手的军事能力为主要目标并加强自身防御。何理凯(Eric Heginbotham)提出,美国这样的全球大国不可能像中国那样将资源高比例地分配给西太地区,因而拒止是一种合理的妥协。迈克尔·贝克利(Michael Beckley)认为美国应利用现有西太地区的军事平衡,采取由三个要素组成的“主动拒止”战略:削减自身兵力、提升盟友拒止能力以及必要时支援盟友。雅各布·科恩(Jacob Cohn)等人建议,未来美国可以在日本、台湾地区或菲律宾部署中短程导弹,以达成拒止性威慑的目的。尤金·戈尔兹(Eugene Gholz)等人主张美国建立一套“同心圆”,依靠从日本到台湾岛再到菲律宾的众多小岛,建立更多分散的基地。路易斯·西蒙(Luis Simón)通过对美国主要战略文件的深入分析和对美国防务界官员的广泛采访发现,美国一直在努力调和惩罚性威慑与拒止性威慑。他认为美国应该专注投资惩罚性威慑,同时积极鼓励盟友发展拒止性威慑能力。

In addition to the scholars mentioned above who have always held a positive attitude towards deterrence by denial, some American security experts have shifted from supporting deterrence by punishment to advocating deterrence by denial. Elbridge Colby made it clear in 2013 that the Obama administration’s model of strategic stability was too rigid and that the United States must consider the first use of nuclear weapons if it wanted to maintain its dominance in the Pacific.27 After joining the Trump administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development, he continued to emphasize this view and received support from a number of senior officials. However, Colby turned to support the Sino-U.S. “limited war” theory in 2021, arguing that deterrence by denial was more effective and more necessary than pure nuclear deterrence. He proposed that the United States can weaken China’s ability to act by selecting appropriate allies and working together to deter China. He also confidently believed that as long as the United States clearly indicates the goal of denying China (referring to the Taiwan region), then the security dilemma between China and the United States should be manageable, with very low costs and risks.28

除了上述对拒止性威慑一直持肯定态度的学者,还有一些美国安全专家则从支持惩罚性威慑转向倡导拒止性威慑。埃尔布里奇·科尔比(Elbridge Colby)在2013年曾明确提出,奥巴马政府战略稳定的模式过于僵化,美国要想维持在太平洋地区的主导地位,就必须考虑首先使用核武器。在进入特朗普政府任负责战略与力量发展的助理国防部长帮办后,他继续强调上述观点并得到一众高官的支持。但科尔比在2021年又转向支持中美“有限战争”论,认为拒止性威慑比单纯的核威慑更有效也更必要。他提出,美国可以通过选择合适的盟友来联合威慑中国,削弱中国的行动能力。他还自信地认为,只要美国明确指向拒止中国的目标(指台湾地区),那么中美安全困境应该是可控的,而且成本和风险都很低。

Although U.S. scholars differ in their specific policy recommendations, their focus on the implementation of deterrence by denial strategies focuses on two aspects: One is how the United States can strengthen its denial capabilities in the Western Pacific region, especially in the “first island chain.” The second is how the United States can leverage the forces of its allies and enhance the defense capabilities of its main allies. Some of their proposals echo the content of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the 2019 Missile Defense Review, and other documents that advocate the strengthening of deterrence by denial against China, which have become an important reference for the United States as it builds forces for deterrence by denial against China.


(ii) Main Practices in the Trump Administration’s Strategy of Deterrence by Denial Against China

In 2012, the Obama administration officially launched the “Rebalancing Toward Asia-Pacific” strategy. At the official level, deterrence by denial became an important way to deal with the so-called “China challenge.” Its outstanding manifestation was that the United States strengthened the deployment of conventional forces in the Asia-Pacific region and concentrated Asia-Pacific region missile defense systems in Northeast Asia, taking into account both tactical and strategic missile defense capabilities. However, out of a desire to maintain the positive cooperative relationship between China and the United States, many strategic documents of the Obama administration declared that they aimed to establish a strategic and stable relationship with China. The 2010 Missile Defense Review also made a vague statement about the policy of deterrence by denial against China and did not deliberately emphasize China. After a major debate within the United States about its policy toward China in 2015, the U.S. military strategy underwent a partial adjustment. The 2015 U.S. National Military Strategy report groundlessly accused China of creating tensions in the Asia-Pacific region and emphasized the need to regularly demonstrate willingness and capability to act through forward deployed, rotating, and globally responsive forces to be ready to directly prevent adversaries from achieving their goals.29 This showed that the United States’ deterrence by denial strategy against China was becoming more focused [摆脱之前的游离状态, literally “get rid of its previous state of disassociation/drift”].


After Trump took office, the intention of the United States to deter China by denial gradually became clear. The 2018 National Defense Strategy proposed that the U.S. military must adopt a deterrence by denial stance that focuses on deterring an adversary’s attack in the first place, rather than deterring an adversary with the promise of punishment after aggression.30 Overall, the main measures of the Trump administration’s deterrence by denial strategy against China were to enhance the “area denial” capability within the “first island chain” and focus on strengthening reserve force assurance and military support capabilities in the “second island chain.”


1.      Strengthening resilience capacity building for military systems
1. 加强军事系统弹性能力建设

The U.S. military emphasizes the “resilience” of military systems, including multi-domain capabilities such as the sea, land, air, and space networks, is based on approaches such as threat deterrence, system robustness, system reconstruction, and capability recovery. It can be understood as an enhanced version of passive defense.


First, the United States is focusing on building and strengthening the resilience of military bases in the Western Pacific region. For the United States, due to its limited number of bases in the Western Pacific region and their remoteness from the homeland, effective deterrence is difficult to achieve if these bases lack resilience. Therefore, the United States is focusing on enhancing the resilience of air and sea bases in the Western Pacific region, primarily including region-wide intelligence support, base expansion, and sea and air force preparation in order to complicate the opponent’s offensive plans. The Trump administration focused on improving the survivability of ground forces and expanding the reserve support capabilities of the “second island chain.” The U.S. Air Force spent $260 million to expand and upgrade its base on Guam to accommodate Marines withdrawn to the base from the “first island chain” and accommodate more tankers, large transport aircraft, and bombers.31 In addition to strengthening the construction of Guam’s resilience system, the United States also plans to develop old bases on islands such as Tinian and Saipan. Through the combination of a few high-quality large bases and many lower-quality small bases, the United States is striving to build a more resilient group of bases in the Western Pacific region so as to carry out its distributed combat deployments and strengthen the invulnerability of its combat systems. Therefore, the new base group will also become an important support point for the United States as it implements its strategy of deterrence by denial against China and maintains its hegemony in the Pacific region. In terms of service construction, the navy, as the mainstay of the U.S. military, emphasizes the forward deployment of distributed combat forces to increase the difficulty of attacks by opponents. At the core is the construction of a (manned/unmanned) fleet with both quality and quantity, with small and medium-sized and highly mobile formation forces deployed at strategic chokepoints to carry out so-called “sea denial.” The Marine Corps also proposed a new “Expeditionary Advance Base Operations” (EABO) concept, which aims to bring together resources to continuously strengthen the “resilience” of bases and islands in the Western Pacific region, seek to establish a series of bases, and launch missiles flexibly (including land-based intermediate-range missiles) to form deterrence by denial.


Second, the United States is strengthening forward defense and resilience capacity building in cyberspace, and simultaneously developing powerful network traceability and punishment methods. Together, these two approaches maximize deterrence. U.S. deterrence by denial in cyberspace emphasizes the importance of resisting and defending against attacks, with a focus on securing and maintaining the government assets that form the basis of U.S. national power as well as systemically important critical infrastructure. The report released by the U.S. “Cyberspace Solarium Commission” clearly stated that the United States will be committed to building a multi-level, compound-type cyber deterrence strategy. The core layer of the “Layered Cyber Deterrence” strategy is the denial of benefit layer, and the key is to strengthen network resilience and defense capabilities.32 Strengthening the integrated cooperation of cyber defense and attack capabilities is an important part of the United States’ promotion of cyber security cooperation in its Asia-Pacific alliances. Asia-Pacific allies have strengthened their military capabilities and coordination in cyberspace by participating in the United States’ “CyberStorm” series of military exercises.33


Finally, in terms of space-based denial capabilities, the United States has made great efforts to enhance the resilience and defense capabilities of space systems in order to improve the damage-resistance of its space assets. As early as 2013, the U.S. Air Force Space Command called for enhanced resiliency of space assets. However, at that time, the technology for the mass production of satellites was not yet mature, so “resilience” remained at the conceptual stage. By 2016, the U.S. intelligence community believed that China’s anti-satellite capabilities had improved again. At the same time, the commercial satellite industry in the United States was gradually emerging and micro-satellite technology, on-orbit satellite mobility technology, and satellite on-orbit detection and maintenance capabilities had all greatly improved, so the construction of a new decentralized and resilient space system began to receive attention. The United States also reintroduced the concept of “space resilience” that year. The 2018 edition of the U.S. National Space Strategy re-emphasized the concept of “resilience,” arguing that accelerated change is needed to enhance the resilience, defense capabilities, and restoration following attack of space structures.34 The “Starlink” plan proposed by SpaceX and strongly supported by the U.S. government and the Space Force intends to use the most advanced satellite manufacturing technology and the most economical launch methods to achieve resilient architectures for space-based systems and assist the U.S. military in communications, navigation, and other tasks.


2.      Strengthening theater missile defense systems in the Western Pacific
2. 在西太地区强化战区导弹防御体系

The Trump administration had a soft spot for new missile defense systems, which stems from the Republicans’ worship of “absolute security” on the one hand, and is also related to the rapid improvement of Chinese missile capabilities on the other. The United States believes that the advanced cruise missiles currently equipped by China are the main attack methods for China’s implementation of its “anti-access/area denial” strategy. In addition, China’s hypersonic missile technology is also making rapid progress, and it is very difficult for current U.S. missile warning systems to detect these weapons.35 Therefore, the Trump administration expanded the mission of missile defense in the Missile Defense Review, including cruise missile defense and hypersonic missile defense as part of the three goals of missile defense for the first time.36


The extreme interest of the Trump administration in damage limitation marked the climax of a new round of the U.S. strategy of deterrence by denial against China and received strong support from Congress. The U.S. defense budget for fiscal year 2019 supports an increase in the number of ships that make up the sea-based “Aegis” regional missile defense system from 38 to 60 by 2023 as well as the purchase of the more advanced “SM-3 Block IIA” interceptor developed by the United States and Japan.37 The “Aegis” ships equipped with the new interceptor are expected to perform combat missions mainly in the Pacific region.38 The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is also striving to fully upgrade the Aegis combat management system to “Baseline 9.” This version is the first to integrate the air defense and ballistic missile defense capabilities of the “Aegis” system and has become the core system of the U.S. Navy’s integrated air defense and missile defense capabilities.39 The upgraded “Aegis” ships equipped with “SM-3” missiles can perform mid-course interception missions, which will enhance U.S. missile defense capabilities in the Western Pacific region. In addition, the Trump administration also attached great importance to improving the performance of cruise missile detection sensors and continuously developed defense and interception technologies for hypersonic weapons. The main idea is to comprehensively use multi-domain, all-platform, and multi-sensor collaborative detection and use a multi-layer missile defense system for interception, while simultaneously seeking more economical and effective low-cost weapons to put into combat applications, so as to build a layered multi-domain missile defense system aimed at China.40


During the Trump administration, relations between the United States and its allies tended to be tense, but for the coordination of anti-missile defense with its Asia-Pacific allies the United States needs to help improve the denial capabilities of regional allies and partners
so that they can better protect their territories and enforce their maritime rights.41 At the end of 2017, Japan decided to purchase two land-based “Aegis” systems from the United States in response to the missile threat from China and North Korea. Although the project was ultimately canceled for cost and technical reasons, Japan instead decided to upgrade its sea-based national missile defense system and received strong support from the United States. The United States has invested in helping the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force carry out R&D and system integration for the “Aegis” and Baseline 9. The new system is installed on Japan’s new generation of Maya class destroyers and can launch “SM-3 Block IIA” interceptors.42 U.S.-Australia anti-missile cooperation reached a relative high point during the Trump era. Australia has decided to install the “Aegis” system on its most advanced Hobart-class destroyers. According to media speculation, after all nine new “Hunter” class frigates are launched in 2028, Australia will have the largest “Aegis” fleet except for the U.S. Navy.43 Although the Taiwan authorities are not a treaty ally of the United States, the Trump administration placed a high value on the improvement of Taiwan’s denial capabilities. Shortly after Trump took office, he approved the sale of early warning radar monitoring technical support system and “SM-2” missile components to Taiwan, and in July 2020, he sold them the supporting equipment and technology of the “PAC-3” system. This series of actions shows that an important way for the Trump administration to strengthen deterrence by denial capabilities around China, and especially air and missile defense capabilities, was to provide allies with technical or equipment support to enhance their denial capabilities, allowing them to work together to deter China.

特朗普执政时期,美国与盟友的关系趋于紧张,但其同亚太盟国在协同反导领域的合作却不降反升。时任美国太平洋司令部司令哈里·哈里斯(Harry Harris)称,美国需要帮助提高区域盟友和合作伙伴的拒止能力,以便它们更好地保护其领土和履行其海洋权利。2017年底,日本决定从美国购买两套陆基“宙斯盾”系统,以应对中朝的导弹威胁。虽然项目最后因成本和技术原因被取消,但日本转而决定升级海基国家导弹防御系统,并得到美国的大力支持。美国出资帮助日本海上自卫队对“宙斯盾”“基线9”进行研发与系统整合,新系统安装在日本新一代“摩耶”级驱逐舰上,并能发射“标准-3BlockIIA”拦截弹。美澳反导合作在特朗普时期迎来了一个小高峰。澳大利亚决定为其最先进的“霍巴特”级驱逐舰安装“宙斯盾”系统。据媒体推测,在9艘新型“猎人”级护卫舰于2028年全部下水后,澳大利亚将拥有除美国海军以外最大规模的“宙斯盾”舰队。台湾当局虽不是美国的条约盟友,但特朗普政府对台湾地区拒止能力的提升高度重视。特朗普上台后不久就批准了对台出售预警雷达监测技术支持系统和“标准-2”导弹部件,2020年7月又出售了“爱国者-3”系统的配套设备和技术。这一系列举动说明,特朗普政府在中国周边加强拒止性威慑能力,尤其是防空反导能力的重要方式,就是通过给盟友提供技术或装备支持来增强它们的拒止能力,进而共同威慑中国。

3.      Rapidly improving land-based intermediate-range strike capabilities
3. 快速提升陆基中程打击能力

From the view of the United States, land-based intermediate missiles have several significant advantages in enhancing deterrence by denial. First, if a massive number of land-based intermediate missiles are deployed in a widely dispersed manner, it will introduce uncertainty to China’s strategic calculations and effectively consume various types of Chinese missiles. Second, land-based intermediate missiles can help shape the United States’ combat readiness posture (应战态势), thereby enhancing the credibility of its deterrence by denial. Third, the mass deployment of land-based intermediate-range missiles will force China to invest in expensive defense and resilience measures, rather than continuing to develop asymmetric capabilities. This could offset China’s area denial advantage.


After Trump took office, his decision-making team quickly took aim at the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which constrained their denial capabilities. The United States believes that China’s massive missile force has the ability to carry out rapid strikes against the U.S. military at a longer distance, thereby taking advantage of its strategic depth to gain a huge advantage. Therefore, the Trump administration believed that they just had to get rid of the restrictions of the INF Treaty so that the United States could deploy conventional missile systems and disperse them among combat units throughout the “first island chain” or “second island chain” so as to achieve a balance between China and the United States in the field of intermediate-range missiles.44


The United States tested a ground-based “Tomahawk” missile with a range of more than 1,600 kilometers two weeks after the official termination of the INF Treaty. Marine Corps Commandant David Berger said that if the Marine Corps were equipped with this missile, it could help the Navy to seize control of the sea and carry out sea denial missions.45 In addition to the technologically mature land-based “Tomahawk” missile, the Trump administration has also accelerated R&D and testing of the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), which has a basic range of 499 kilometers. In fact, the United States started the pre-research tasks for this project long before it withdrew from the INF Treaty. After the formal withdrawal, the Army Modernization Strategy made Long-Range Precision Fires (LRPF) a top priority.46 The PrSM has also successfully entered the formal R&D and production stage. The missile was successfully tested for the first time in December 2019, and has been improved and tested many times since. Although the PrSM is an intermediate-range tactical missile, it has a lot of potential for upgrades and improvements, and its flexible deployment method gives it a significant strategic impact.

美国早在正式终止《中导条约》两周后就试射了射程超过1600千米的陆基“战斧”导弹。海军陆战队司令戴维·伯杰(David Berger)对此表示,如果陆战队装备了此款导弹,将可以帮助海军夺取制海权并遂行海上拒止任务。除了技术成熟的陆基“战斧”导弹,特朗普政府在退约后还加快了对精确打击导弹(PrSM)的研发试验工作,该型导弹基础射程达499千米。实际上,美国早在退出《中导条约》前就开始了该项目的预研任务。正式退约后,陆军的现代化战略将远程精确火力(LRPF)列为最优先事项。精确打击导弹也顺理成章地进入正式研发和生产阶段。2019年12月,该型导弹首次成功试射,之后又进行了多次改进和试射。尽管精确打击导弹是一款中程战术导弹,但升级改进空间很大,其灵活的部署方式也将带来显著的战略影响。

(iii) Practices in the Biden Administration’s Strategy of Deterrence by Denial Against China

The Biden administration’s military strategy toward China partly continues the deterrence by denial of the Trump era. By analyzing trends in the United States over the past year, we can catch a glimpse of the implementation prospects of the Biden administration’s strategy of deterrence by denial against China.


1.      Development of deterrence by denial capabilities under the framework of “integrated deterrence”
1. 在“一体化威慑”框架下发展拒止性威慑能力

The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy report proposes that “integrated deterrence” is the cornerstone of the U.S. national security strategy. The United States is committed to preventing military attacks on itself and its allies and partners and promoting so-called “regional security” through the development of new capabilities, operational concepts, military activities, defense industry initiatives, and a more resilient force posture.47 This “integrated deterrence” means integrating the main combat equipment and key facilities of the United States and its allies and simultaneously using new technologies to empower existing military missions in order realize the full-spectrum advantage of the combat capabilities of the U.S. military in the Western Pacific region and thereby improve overall deterrence. The United States deploys highly dispersed but highly connected military forces to increase the resilience and flexibility of deterrence forces, while leveraging emerging technologies in an effort to improve the battlefield awareness, projection capabilities, and strike effectiveness of deterrent forces. A direct goal of the Biden administration’s military strategy toward China remains the use of a combination of offensive and defensive means to deter and disrupt China’s rapid military operations and strive to limit damage to U.S. military bases, even outside the territory of allies and partner countries. The Biden administration’s new National Defense Strategy briefing has also made it clear that the Missile Defense Review and Nuclear Posture Review will be included in the text of the National Defense Strategy.48 This illustrates that the core goal of the Biden administration’s “integrated deterrence” is to complicate China’s military preparations in the Western Pacific by integrating deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment and consolidating currently available deterrence methods.


In short, “denial against denial” (以拒止反拒止) has become the main method of deterrence used by the United States against China. As an important part of the “integrated deterrence” strategy, the primary goal of the U.S. “Pacific Deterrence Initiative” is to protect U.S. military bases and other critical infrastructure from the threat of China’s “anti-access/area denial” capabilities and guarantee the survivability of U.S. denial forces in order to maintain U.S. military superiority in conventional arms in the Western Pacific. Its basic significance is to destroy and weaken Chinese strike plans and capabilities targeting U.S. troops and infrastructure by heavy investment, or to be able to suppress China early in a conflict and ensure that the United States has absolute military advantages, thereby deterring the Chinese army from quickly defeating the U.S. military at a lower cost.49 The Biden administration requested a $6.1 billion budget for the “Pacific Deterrence Initiative” in fiscal year 2023, to be used for the development and upgrade of denial capabilities such as military construction, Guam defenses, and missile warning and tracking architecture.50 According to the FY 2023 budget application form for the “Pacific Deterrence Initiative” released by the U.S. DoD, excluding routine drills and training projects, “modernizing and strengthening regional presence” and “improving infrastructure to enhance U.S. military response and resilience capabilities” will be the main concerns of the “Pacific Deterrence Initiative” over the next five years.51 This shows that the Biden administration’s strategy of deterrence by denial against China will focus on continuously enhancing the forward presence of the U.S. military in the Western Pacific region and attempts to improve deterrence and response capabilities in this region through superior conventional forces, focusing on land and sea denial and missile defense capabilities.

简要地说,“以拒止反拒止”已经成为当前美国对华威慑的主要手段。作为“一体化威慑”战略的重要组成部分,美国“太平洋威慑倡议”(Pacific Deterrence Initiative)的首要目标,是保护美军基地及其他关键基础设施不受中国“反介入/区域拒止”能力的威胁,保证美军拒止力量的生存能力,以维持美国在西太地区的常规军事优势。其基本内涵,就是通过投入重金,破坏和弱化中国以美国军队和基础设施为目标的打击计划和能力;或是在一场冲突的早期就能够压制中国,确保其拥有绝对军事优势,从而慑止中国军队以较低成本快速打败美军的念头。拜登政府在2023财年为“太平洋威慑倡议”申请了61亿美元预算,用于军事建设、关岛防御、导弹预警和跟踪架构等拒止能力的开发和升级。从美国国防部发布的2023财年“太平洋威慑倡议”预算申请表看,除去日常演习培训项目,“现代化和强化地区存在”与“改善基础设施以提升美军反应能力和弹性能力”两类项目将成为未来5年内“太平洋威慑倡议”的主要关切。这说明拜登政府的对华拒止性威慑战略将聚焦持续增强美军在西太地区的前沿存在,力图以优势常规力量提高在该地区的威慑力和反应能力,重点则是海陆拒止和导弹防御能力。

2.      Seeking defense-in-depth capabilities while advancing the new intermediate-range program
2. 推进新中导计划的同时寻求深度防御能力

In order to develop precision strike capability that can deny China, the United States has been spending heavily to purchase new precision strike weapons and accelerate their deployment in recent years. Several intermediate-range missile programs started under the Trump administration have continued after Biden took office. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command regards the construction of a “highly survivable precision strike network along the first island chain” as one of its core tasks and plans to establish a precision strike network with a range of more than 500 km in the “first island chain.”52 In addition to promoting the rapid production of precision strike missiles, the Biden administration has also continued to advance the new intermediate-range missile program launched at the end of the Trump administration, seeking to upgrade the “Tomahawk” and “SM-6” missiles used by the Navy to land-based versions. To this end, the Biden administration has overcome many technical and financial obstacles and tried to transfer more resources to the rapid R&D of new conventional precision missiles. For example, the short range and high cost of the “SM-6” once discouraged the U.S. Army from adopting it, and outside observers also speculated that the land-based “SM-6” might not be the preferred choice.53 However, considering that this type of missile will be the future hub of the Army’s Multi-Domain Task Force’s intermediate-range strike force, the Biden administration persisted in investing heavily in order to integrate the “SM-6” into land-based mobile platforms as quickly as possible and create combat effectiveness. The Biden administration requested $409 million for the new intermediate-range missile program in FY 2023, five times the initial funding the Trump administration provided for the program in FY 2021.54 The implementation of the new intermediate-range missile program will complement the ground and sea strike capabilities of U.S. Navy ships and threaten targets within China’s defense in depth region. Although it has only been two years since the United States withdrew from the INF Treaty, the land-based INF program is advancing extremely rapidly due to benefits from the accumulation of early-stage technologies, and it is expected to generate initial combat effectiveness as soon as 2023.55 After finding suitable deployment sites, the precision missile strike network along the “first island chain” will gradually take shape.


As part of a deterrence by denial approach, defense in depth refers to holding off an attacker through a series of defensive positions with the aim of repressing the offensive firepower of the attacker at each position. However, the most notable disadvantage of this strategy is that it requires a lot of resources, so defenders are more likely to employ defense-in-depth strategies to protect a particularly important location.56 In the view of Biden’s military team, Guam is currently just such an important defensive position. Guam’s current missile defense mission is maintained by “THAAD” and “Aegis” ships, but Indo-Pacific Command believes that this is far from enough. Shortly after Biden took office, former Indo-Pacific commander Philip Davidson and current commander John C. Aquilino showed Congress the importance of Guam as the missile defense hub of the “second island chain” and its favorability for the land-based “Aegis” system. The DoD then asked the Missile Defense Agency to conduct a preliminary study. According to the information released by the Missile Defense Agency, the land-based “Aegis” system designed for the Indo-Pacific Command will be specially used to intercept various types of Chinese missiles. It is equipped with “SM-3” missiles to intercept ballistic missiles and “SM-6” missiles to intercept cruise missiles.57 The Biden administration requested $892 million in the defense budget for FY 2023 to strengthen Guam’s defenses, mainly to improve missile defense capabilities.58

作为拒止性威慑方式的一部分,深度防御是指在一系列防守位置上抵抗进攻方,目的是阻遏进攻方在每个位置上的进攻火力。但该策略最显著的缺点是需要大量的资源,因此防御方更可能采用深度防御策略来保护一个特别重要的位置。在拜登的军事团队看来,这个重要的防守位置当前非关岛莫属。关岛目前的导弹防御任务由“萨德”系统和“宙斯盾”舰维持,但印太司令部认为这远远不够。拜登上台后不久,印太司令部前任司令菲利普·戴维森(Philip Davidson)和现任司令约翰·阿奎利诺(John C. Aquilino)就向国会表明了将关岛作为“第二岛链”导弹防御枢纽的重要性,并对陆基“宙斯盾”系统青睐有加。国防部随后要求导弹防御局进行先期研究。根据导弹防御局公布的信息,其为印太司令部设计的陆基“宙斯盾”系统将专门用来拦截中国的各型导弹,其装载的“标准-3”主要用来拦截弹道导弹,“标准-6”则用来拦截巡航导弹。拜登政府在2023财年国防预算中为加强关岛防御申请了8.92亿美元,主要用以提高导弹防御能力。

Although “Aegis” is already a relatively mature interception system, the Indo-Pacific Command said that related missile defense equipment will also be deployed in Guam after other new interception methods are successfully developed.59 The U.S. military vigorously promotes the “UAV-borne Directed Energy Weapon” project, intending to load high-energy lasers on UAVs to intercept missiles in the booster stage so as to minimize the lethality of incoming missiles.60 In fact, as the military applications of directed energy technology continue to mature, the power of directed energy weapons will be increased while reducing the influence of limiting factors. The potential advantages of these weapons, such as extremely low single-shot cost, nearly unlimited ammunition, and rapid engagement, can provide the U.S. military with sustained tactical and strategic advantages. In February 2022, Heidi Shyu, the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, called on the DoD to make directed energy one of its priorities for maintaining U.S. technological superiority and called for the construction of a robust and reliable supply chain for this purpose.61 If mature directed energy technology is used for missile interception, the cost-effectiveness of missile defense will be greatly increased, and the United States will achieve a qualitative leap in its deterrence by denial capability against China.

虽然“宙斯盾”已经是较为成熟的拦截系统,但印太司令部表示,待其他新型拦截手段研制成功后,相关导弹防御装备也将部署在关岛。美军大力推进“无人机载定向能武器”项目,意图通过在无人机上装载高能激光器,在导弹助推段进行拦截,以期最大限度地削弱来袭导弹的杀伤能力。事实上,随着定向能技术军事应用的不断成熟,定向能武器的功率得到提升的同时能够降低限制因素影响。其潜在优势如单发成本极低、弹药量近乎无限、可快速交战等特点,可为美军提供持续的战术及战略优势。2022年2月,美国国防部负责研究与工程的副部长徐若冰(Heidi Shyu)呼吁国防部将定向能列为保持美国技术优势的优先事项之一,并要求为此建立一个强大可靠的供应链。成熟的定向能技术如果被用于导弹拦截,导弹防御的费效比将大大降低,美国的对华拒止性威慑能力会实现质的飞跃。

3.      Consolidating a foundation of allies and partners for joint denial against China
3. 夯实盟友及伙伴协作基础以联合拒止中国

Since they came to office, the Biden administration has maintained that they would be committed to repairing the alliances that were damaged during the Trump era. An important goal of the “integrated deterrence” strategy is to incorporate allied forces into its deterrence system. The U.S. military believes that, due to factors such as the defense budget, it faces many difficulties in the modernization of nuclear weapons systems, the procurement of advanced weapons and equipment, and the R&D of emerging disruptive technologies. Their existing platform capabilities can no longer effectively meet the needs of strategic deterrence and day-to-day military operations. Therefore, it is necessary to utilize allied forces to strengthen the deterrence capability. From this perspective, “integrated deterrence” is actually an important measure in the current reconstruction of a new type of alliance system by the Biden administration.


Improving the precision strike network is the main measure taken by the Biden administration to build “first island chain” deterrence by denial capability. It is worth noting that although allies are more cautious about the deployment of intermediate-range missiles by the United States, their enthusiasm for R&D of intermediate-range missiles has not diminished. In May 2021, the Biden administration decided to terminate the U.S.-South Korea Missile Guidelines, allowing South Korea to develop various types of missiles under permitted conditions. Australia and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding in September 2021 to participate in the development of precision strike missiles.62 In January 2022, the United States and Japan issued a statement after their “2+2” talks, saying that the two sides “committed to increase joint/shared use of U.S. and Japanese facilities, including efforts to strengthen Japan Self-Defense Forces’ posture in areas including its southwestern islands.”63 Once the United States and Japan complete the corresponding work, they will be able to quickly deploy and replenish weapons and ammunition near the Taiwan region. Like Trump, Biden also set about planning to continue to improve Taiwan’s denial capabilities after taking office: In February 2022, it approved the sale of U.S. $100 million worth of “Patriot” system engineering service support to Taiwan for a period of five years. In April, it announced the approval of the “Patriot Project Personnel Technical Assistance Case” with a total sales price of U.S. $95 million. As the Biden administration accelerates the construction of a system of deterrence by denial forces targeting China, it may continue to provide some key denial capabilities to Taiwan in the future.


Situational awareness is an important component of U.S. denial capabilities. Considering the geographical advantages of allies and partner countries, deepening intelligence sharing and cooperation with them has become a key part of the U.S. strategy of deterrence by denial against China, as well as one of the most highly valued measures in the Biden administration’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy.” The United States has established relatively mature bilateral intelligence sharing and cooperation mechanisms with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India, but the Biden administration is not satisfied with this and is seeking more multilateral intelligence partnerships. The underlying intent is to shape a coordinated deterrence posture against China and enhance U.S. denial capabilities. The United States, Japan, and Australia fully utilize their trilateral intelligence sharing mechanism to try to achieve “seamless cooperation.” Moreover, the Biden administration intends to further build a multilateral intelligence cooperation mechanism among the United States, Japan, India, and Australia through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). On May 24, 2022, the United States, Japan, India, and Australia announced the launch of the  Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) after the QUAD Leaders’ Summit. They also said that this move will enhance the maritime situational awareness of countries in the Pacific, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean in order to “maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.”64 It is not difficult to see that this action by the Biden administration is actually exploring a way to build a quadrilateral intelligence sharing mechanism targeting China with the United States, Japan, India, and Australia. When the time is right, the United States may also pull South Korea into this multilateral mechanism. At such a time, China’s maritime military security will face more complex challenges.


III. Constraints Facing the Construction of U.S. Deterrence by Denial Forces


Although the construction of deterrence by denial forces by the Trump and Biden administrations has achieved some of the expected effects, the overall process has not been smooth. It has been subject to a considerable number of constraints at home and abroad. In the Western Pacific region, it is mainly constrained by the security interests of allies and partner countries. In the United States, there are fierce debates and contradictions among parties in Congress on how to better coordinate the buildup of denial forces.


(i) Regional Countries Question the Necessity of Some U.S. Denial Capability Deployments

The U.S. strategy of deterrence by denial against China places great importance on coordination with allies and partners in the Western Pacific region. In theory, with the express consent of treaty allies, the United States could deploy a variety of equipment at bases under its jurisdiction. As the U.S. deterrence strategy toward China shifts to deterrence by denial, the military value of allies will be greatly enhanced, which will benefit both the U.S. and its allies. At present, however, the treaty allies are still more cautious about attaching themselves to the United States. Instead of letting the United States deploy new equipment at will, they selectively allow the entry of some military equipment to enter their territories, and deny entry to equipment that may cause a sharp deterioration in the regional situation. We can consider land-based intermediate-range missiles as an example. Although the United States has consistently expressed its desire to deploy land-based intermediate-range missiles in the Western Pacific region since its withdrawal from the INF Treaty, the RAND Corporation believes that, as long as the current domestic political situations of the five U.S. treaty allies and the security trends in the region do not change drastically, the possibility of the allies accepting land-based intermediate-range missiles is very low.65 The main concern of the allies is their worry that accepting the deployment of ground-based intermediate-range missile systems in their own countries will be regarded as a very provocative action by China, thereby intensifying military and political confrontation with China. In addition, U.S. allies also fear getting caught up in a conflict between China and the U.S. that does not directly involve them.66 However, it must be noted that although it is difficult for the United States to directly deploy land-based intermediate-range missiles in allied bases, it could still push allies to produce intermediate-range missiles and other precision-guided weapons through technical cooperation. Although U.S. allies want the technology more than the weapons themselves, for the United States, technology transfers are just a tactic to win over allies or prevent them from developing their own technologies. It is difficult for the United States to transfer core and cutting-edge technologies to its allies and this goes completely against the fundamental interests of U.S. arms dealers who hope to make huge profits by selling arms. Therefore, in the context of this so-called technological cooperation, new contradictions will also arise between the United States and its allies.


In addition, the strategic perceptions of Asia-Pacific countries with regard to China differ from that of the United States and they deviate from the United States in their China policies. This will affect how closely these countries will follow the strategy of the United States.67 Even if allies and partners agree to deepen defense cooperation with the United States due to its coercion and inducements, these countries may also maintain only limited defense partnerships with the United States on the surface and send symbolic contradictory signals to its population. However, such countries will not take practical actions to confront China in full accordance with the wishes of the United States and will be even less willing to invest too much money to accelerate the development of military modernization.68


(ii) Shortcomings in Denial Capabilities Make Inter-service Conflicts More Complicated and Difficult to Solve

In fact, the U.S. military has exposed some of its intrinsic shortcomings or deficiencies in the planning of its deterrence by denial against China. The U.S. military believes that military bases with fixed locations will be the main target of the opponent’s first round of strikes, so its deterrent force must rely on bases with more remote locations or missiles with longer ranges and stronger penetration capabilities launched by various platforms. However, there are not many air and naval bases and they can be easily targeted. Although land-based intermediate-range missiles can partially fill the shortfall in denial capability, they are limited in number and can only effectively strike certain types of targets, such as ships. Although as underwater launch platforms, submarines have greater survivability, they carry limited ammunition and cannot be easily reloaded in a battlefield environment. Only surface ships that carry a large amount of missiles and have high flexibility can carry out various tasks such as anti-missile, anti-ship, and even ground strikes. They are the backbone of the U.S. military presence in the Western Pacific region. However, the U.S. Navy is currently plagued by problems such as the insufficient number of capital ships, slow reform of the fleet structure, and weakened support capabilities. At the theater level, issues such as a lack of training and logistical pressures continue to plague the Indo-Pacific Command. Philip Davidson, the former commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, bluntly stated that problems such as high operational requirements, slow maintenance, a single training channel, and the lack of reserve reinforcements have limited the Indo-Pacific Command’s response capabilities.69 Therefore, although U.S. Indo-Pacific security commitments and new military concepts are constantly being updated, the improvement of the denial capability requires a longer-term process, and the balancing capabilities of the U.S. military in the region are still weak.


In this context, the different branches of the U.S. military are very likely to become enmeshed in heated debates in the process of building up denial forces for deterrence against China according to their respective development plans. The U.S. Navy is a core member of the builders of deterrence against China. With the support of a relatively ample budget, in order to make up for shortcomings, the U.S. Navy launched a new instructive version of the “30-year Shipbuilding Plan” in 2020. However, once the plan is implemented, in the future, the U.S. military will have to cut funding for other services such as the Army and troops stationed abroad to pay for the Navy’s significantly increased shipbuilding costs.70 If the budgets of other services are cut due to the shipbuilding plan, this will inevitably produce conflicts between the services, and the battle over military spending that has gone on for many years will intensify. The Navy’s cost-saving plan still involves a complex game between the different parties, and the U.S. DoD has been internally looking for alternative solutions to reflect the needs of the new national defense strategy and fleet structure, but there is still a great deal of uncertainty about these plans.


For a long time, the Air Force and the Navy believed that they were the main forces in the Indo-Pacific Command. They claimed to have mastered the integration process of the entire kill chain and that the Army should avoid duplication. However, the Army and the Marine Corps will never sit on the sidelines. Army Chief of Staff James McConville has repeatedly argued for the important role of the Army in regional conflicts on the grounds of responding to the “China threat” and wants to work with the Marine Corps to test new combat methods. With relatively limited defense expenditures, competing for the initiative in denial capability building has become an important way for the various services of the U.S. military to compete for funding. This puts the Air Force and the Navy in a more favorable situation with respect to the Army and the Marine Corps, but in order to ensure their own budget and status, the Army and the Marine Corps will continue to compete for greater shares of the budget through new technologies or new tactics. The resulting inter-service conflicts and disputes with regard to key military capabilities will also continue to play out.

长期以来,空海军认为自己才是印太司令部的主力,并宣称早就熟练掌握了整个杀伤链的整合流程,陆军应避免重复建设,但陆军和海军陆战队绝不会“坐以待毙”。陆军参谋长詹姆斯·麦康维尔(James McConville)曾多次以应对“中国威胁”为由辩明陆军在地区冲突的重要作用,并欲联合陆战队验证新的作战方式。在国防开支相对有限的情况下,争夺拒止能力建设主动权已经成为美军各军种争取经费的重要抓手。它使空海军处于比陆军和陆战队更有利的态势中,但为了确保自身预算和军种地位,陆军和海军陆战队也会不断借重新技术或新战法争取预算,而由此引发的军种间在关键军事能力上的矛盾和争端也将不断上演。

(iii) U.S. Politicians Are Dissatisfied with the Status Quo of Denial Capability Building

Although the U.S. military is the primary implementer of deterrence by denial, the U.S. political community is deeply involved in the entire process of denial capability building. Members of Congress have also frequently publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo of denial capability building, and there are significant contradictions between the political community and the military over budget requests and the selection of key military capabilities.


As an important part of denial force construction, the development of missile defense systems is increasingly becoming an expensive task with huge challenges. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s five-year plan (FY2018–FY2023) has a budget of U.S. $46.7 billion, which is U.S. $13.7 billion more than the five-year plan during the Obama years.71 On March 28, 2022, the Biden administration submitted a defense budget request for FY 2023 totaling $813.3 billion to Congress. In this budget, the total budget request for missile defense reached U.S. $24.7 billion72, a huge increase of 20% over the previous fiscal year. Although the budget has reached a record high, Indo-Pacific Command still hopes that the DoD will increase investment in the development and deployment of air and missile defense systems in the Western Pacific region. However, many of the Missile Defense Agency’s budget requests have been rejected by Congress on the grounds that they need to be re-evaluated. The FY 2021 National Defense Authorization Act plans to allocate $76.8 million for the land-based “Aegis” system in Guam. However, Congress ultimately decided to cut these funds and called for a study of Guam’s defensive value.73 In addition, the DoD’s Office of Cost and Program Evaluation (CAPE) and Office of Net Assessment also opposed Indo-Pacific Command’s “Defend Guam” plan. They believe that China’s long-range missiles do not represent a sufficient threat to Guam and stress that the DoD should deploy troops based on military realities.


In the face of increasing demands for military spending and a less-than-optimistic denial capability building situation, many U.S. congressmen have expressed their dissatisfaction. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, bluntly stated that many of the ideas in the 2018 National Defense Strategy were “overly ambitious.” These ideas were not implemented until Biden took office.74 Mike Gallagher, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, argued that the DoD’s biggest problem is that it did not have the conceptual framework necessary to ensure defense spending would generate the needed denial capabilities and resolve inter-service budgetary inconsistencies.75 At present, many of the problems exposed by the military in the process of denial capability building are still difficult to solve in the short term. The continued worsening of these problems will also aggravate the concerns and dissatisfaction of the U.S. political community with the slow progress of military force construction and intensify the conflicts between them and military leaders on issues such as budget applications and military development plans.

面对逐年上涨的军费需求和不甚乐观的拒止能力建设情况,许多美国国会议员表达了自己的不满。众议院武装力量委员会主席亚当·史密斯(Adam Smith)曾直言,2018年《国防战略》中的很多想法“过于雄心勃勃”,这些想法至拜登上台都没有实现。众议院武装力量委员会委员迈克·加拉格尔(Mike Gallagher)则认为,国防部最大的问题是它没有必要的概念框架来确保国防开支产生所需要的拒止能力,并解决军种间的预算矛盾。目前来看,军方在拒止能力建设过程中暴露出来的诸多问题仍较难在短期内得到解决,这些问题的不断恶化也将加重美国政界对军力建设进展缓慢的担忧和不满,激化他们与军方领导人在预算申请、军种发展规划等问题上的矛盾。

VI. The Impact of the U.S. Strategy of Deterrence by Denial on China’s Security


The root of the U.S. strategy of Deterrence by Denial against China is its consistent philosophy of “absolute security” after the Cold War. This will seriously threaten the already fragile strategic stability between China and the United States. If U.S. allies in the Western Pacific region continue to cooperate with its denial capability building, the “coordinated deterrence” that the United States intends to shape may be transformed into “joint coercion.” This poses a huge threat to Chinese efforts to actively shape the regional security environment.


(i) The U.S. Concept of “Absolute Security” Threatens the Fragile Sino-U.S. Strategic Stability

The United States’ understanding and application of its deterrence by denial strategy have already broken out of the mold of the traditional defense-oriented deterrence by denial model. Its ideological root lies in the concept of “absolute security.” On the one hand, this is determined by the superior geographical location of the United States. During the Cold War, the U.S. strategy of deterrence by denial led to passive defense measures such as local civil defense construction and missile silo reinforcement with the aim of minimizing the damage caused by a Soviet nuclear strike and preserving its own nuclear force. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the United States was no longer subject to any large-scale military threats from sovereign states. Therefore, the United States shifted the practice of its deterrence by denial strategy from its homeland to overseas, where it seeks to limit the threat to the homeland or even the territories of allies based on the idea of forward defense. On the other hand, the United States, as the global hegemon, has always claimed that it has the responsibility and obligation to protect the security of allies and deter potential adversaries. In fact, this constitutes its self-defined security frontier. This geopolitical conception of the United States incorporates its “dominant position” in the security order in the Western Pacific into its global hegemony. Although the United States must carefully consider intervention on the Asian mainland, especially military intervention, due to different situations, the principle of the United States has always been that it will never allow the powers on the Asian mainland to challenge its control.76 Accordingly, the United States’ deterrence by denial against China is actually carried out under the banner of “maintaining regional military security and balance,” ignoring China’s core interests and seeking its own rapid military expansion to ensure absolute control over the regional situation and escalation options.


The strategic stability between China and the United States is inherently a series of complex disputes. After Trump took office, there were still some contradictions in the U.S. strategic attitude towards China.77 In recent years, the United States has increasingly sought to draw China into nuclear arms control negotiations based on geopolitical interests, but has not acknowledged the de facto strategic stability relationship between the two countries.78 However, China is also continuously strengthening its strategic forces and building capabilities and is seeking strategic dialogue with the United States through multiple platforms to discuss crisis management and conflict de-escalation measures. Therefore, from the perspective of global nuclear stability, there is a relatively fragile strategic stability between China and the United States. However, the development of many deterrence by denial methods by the United States in recent years, such as the development of intermediate-range missiles, anti-missile systems, strategic anti-submarine capabilities, and space interception, has affected China’s second nuclear strike capability, which in turn has had a substantial impact on China’s nuclear deterrence capability.


Based on the asymmetry of strategic power between China and the United States, since the Trump administration, the United States has, from a perspective of technical analysis, taken strategic opportunism as its guide for weakening China’s strategic power. Strategic opportunism is a means of suppressing the nuclear retaliatory capabilities of medium-level nuclear countries on the basis of the relatively close proximity of comprehensive national strength, with the aim to seize favorable opportunities to achieve maximum strategic interests.79 In order to ensure its own second-strike capability, a large part of China’s land-based missiles with both nuclear and conventional capabilities are launched from mobile road-based platforms.80 However, during the launch process, the launch vehicle must be in a fixed position, at which time it is most vulnerable. Because of this short window of vulnerability, the attacking weapon must either be very close to the target or very fast. Considering that the flight speed of the various types of intermediate-range missiles currently developed by the United States is above Mach 3, if the United States deploys land-based intermediate missiles in a forward position, it will pose a huge threat to China’s second-strike capability With the rapid development of emerging U.S. military technologies in recent years, its intelligence collection, reconnaissance, surveillance, and precision strike capabilities have rapidly improved, improving the effectiveness of the U.S. in implementing damage limitation on China.81 The United States has been developing technology that can track missiles at all times, aiming to facilitate a shift from purely combat mechanisms to early denial operations. With the formation of a resilient space system and the extensive application of AI technology in multi-intelligence fusion analysis, it is possible for the United States to achieve real-time target tracking of missiles and their vehicles. If coupled with increasingly mature booster and mid-stage interception technologies, China’s nuclear counterattack capability is likely to be severely weakened in the future. As a result, the balance of strategic stability will also tip to the U.S. side, which is very dangerous for China.82


(ii) U.S. Forward Deployment of Denial Capabilities Will Impact China’s Efforts to Shape the Regional Security Environment

The “real-time nature” emphasized in the concept of deterrence by denial as well as the ability to make an adversary’s offensive action impossible, requires that the deterrent effect be as far from the homeland as possible. This will force the adversary to take the effectiveness of denial into its judgment of benefits. Following from this, it is extremely important to roll out a deterrence by denial network in front of the opponent. For the United States, relying on front-line allies is a good way to maintain the long-term effectiveness of its deterrence by denial against China. To this end, the United States goes as far as to deliberately create security dilemmas among countries in the region. The “THAAD” incident is an example. As Chinese scholars have said, the most realistic issue with the introduction of “THAAD” into South Korea is to force China to prioritize South Korea and other U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region, which undermines strategic mutual trust and cooperation between China and South Korea.83 The U.S. deployment of the “THAAD” system in South Korea has partially transformed into a driving force for maintaining the U.S.-South Korea alliance, driving a spiraling escalation in the security dilemma between China and South Korea in a short period of time. A report by the Congressional Research Service pointed out that the United States uses missile defense systems to strengthen alliances, protect allies and partners, and force American allies into a position where they must confront China (转而必须对付中国).84 In the process of deploying denial capabilities in the Western Pacific region, the United States adopts a tough attitude towards China, which not only directly causes Sino-U.S. relations to deteriorate, but also, by affecting the relationships between China and neighboring countries, indirectly strengthens the pattern of confrontation between China and the United States and increases the difficulty of crisis management between China and the United States.


The logic of denial is receiving more and more attention in strategic interactions between the United States and its allies, with the rapid proliferation of emerging technologies as an important driver. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) believes that advanced technologies such as high-energy lasers, low-cost high-altitude persistent sensing technology, and AI can be called revolutionary emerging technologies in the military field.85 Given the important role of emerging technologies in the transformation of the U.S. combat system of the future, the United States continues to break through restrictions and shape its dominant position at the expense of the stability of the international arms control system and the balance of power among major powers. This indicates that the technological proliferation carried out by the United States in the Indo-Pacific region and its military cooperation with allies will continue to deepen for a long period of time in the future, and the incentive for allies to cooperate with the United States may further increase. At the same time, there is insufficient willingness to manage the risks arising from the proliferation of emerging technologies. Accordingly, the conventional arms race in the Asia-Pacific region is likely to further intensify, which also adds more variables to China’s efforts to jointly manage the risk of conflicts with neighboring countries.


(iii) The One-sided Logic of the U.S. in Pursuing Coercion Against China Will Fundamentally Endanger Sino-U.S. Strategic Mutual Trust

Like deterrence by punishment, the success of deterrence by denial also depends on the formation of a consensus arrangement with the adversary that gives some kind of confirmation to the effectiveness of the deterrence, that is, a political agreement with the adversary. In the process of strategic stability formation during the Cold War, this political compromise between the United States and the Soviet Union, represented by a series of strategic arms control treaties in the 1970s, ultimately played a key role. Today, if the U.S. strategy of deterrence by denial against China is to be truly effective, a major theoretical problem is how to avoid overly aggravating China while strengthening its own denial force construction and security commitment to its allies. However, at present, the United States has constantly emphasized the denial capability and force construction, overly emphasized the security protection of its allies or constraining allies to cooperate in denial against China, treated China’s regional security concerns in a negative manner, or even exerted coercion against China. As a result, the “deterrence” effect of its deterrence strategy will inevitably fade.


The U.S.-Japan alliance is an example. Japan shares common interests with the United States on the issue of balancing China and tries to benefit from regional frictions by strengthening U.S.-Japan security cooperation. However, there is a clear asymmetry in the interests of the two parties.86 On the one hand, the United States wants to avoid crossing the threshold to trigger a missile attack on China if at all possible and will make all efforts to avoid an escalation in the conflict with China. 87 On the other hand, Japan must effectively reduce the possibility of a missile attack on its homeland and require the United States to intervene as soon as possible. In view of this contradiction, Japan once questioned the reliability of the United States in the so-called “containment of China’s rise” and the necessity of joining a balancing alliance. To solidify its security commitments, the United States has turned to highlighting the need for deterrence by denial capabilities represented by missile defense cooperation. With U.S. support, Japan has accelerated its pursuit of a comprehensive deterrence by denial capability.88 A direct consequence of this is an increase in the possibility of Japan interfering in regional security affairs, especially Taiwan Strait affairs, in the name of “exercising the right of collective self-defense.” On the surface, this looks like a move by the United States to fulfill its security commitments to Japan, but in fact it indulges Japanese involvement in regional security affairs for the purpose of better cooperation with the United States in “intimidation.” However, this aggravates the risk of escalating confrontation in the Western Pacific region.


Military forces capable of both offense and defense are important tools for the United States to pursue its global strategy and will also encourage the United States to pursue its hegemonic goals of ensuring its own absolute security and intervening in regional security affairs at will. The deep purpose of U.S. deterrence by denial against China is to use all military deterrence means other than the direct deployment of troops to deter China from achieving complete reunification and consolidating its military dominance in the Western Pacific region. However, the actual situation is that the more China is confronted by military intimidation by the United States and its cooperation with allies, the more likely it is to intensify efforts to build up military capabilities and strive to break out of this military intimidation, thus making it difficult for the United States to achieve its desired effect of the deterrence by denial that it is working extremely hard for. This is the greatest paradox inherent in the United States’ forward deployment of deterrence by denial in the Indo-Pacific region and it will inevitably lead to the ultimate failure of US deterrence by denial against China.




Judging from the recommendations of the American strategic academic community, the main strategic texts of the United States, and the practices of the Trump administration and the Biden administration in recent years, deterrence by denial has become the preferred option for U.S. military strategy and its military containment of China. The U.S. strategy of deterrence by denial is guided by the concept of “absolute security” and is already very different from the traditional deterrence by denial that focuses on defense. What the United States calls regional defense is in fact obviously offensive. The U.S. military mainly relies on itself and its allies to strengthen forward defense and deploy a precision strike network along the “first island chain” and to configure an integrated anti-missile system and optimize reserve forces in the “second island chain,” so as to maintain a distributed force posture in the Western Pacific region to comprehensively control the regional situation. The fundamental goals of the U.S. strategy of deterrence by denial against China are to prevent China from launching any military action that the United States sees as a threat to its regional dominance and to maintain the overall advantages of the United States from technology to equipment to combat systems by improving and reshaping the backbone forces of deterrence by denial.


At present, China must actively cultivate a favorable environment for the development of its military power, develop new technologies and equipment, respond to the military coercion arising from the United States’ practice of deterrence by denial against China, and reduce various actual or potential strategic risks. China must accurately grasp the changes in national security and military struggles, pay close attention to changes in technology, warfare, and opponents, and effectively break open the U.S. strategy of deterrence of denial in the process of building a strong military with Chinese characteristics. China must take multiple measures to prevent the United States from enhancing key denial capabilities in the area surrounding China, especially the anti-missile defense network. To the greatest extent possible, the Chinese and U.S. militaries should use existing platforms to effectively transmit information and prevent misjudgments.


To top

Cite This Page

陈曦 (Chen Xi), 葛腾飞 (Ge Tengfei). "An Analysis of the United States' Deterrence by Denial Strategy Against China [美国对华拒止性威慑战略论析]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in Journal of International Security Studies [国际安全研究], September 16, 2022

FacebookTwitterLinkedInEmailPrintCopy Link