Written by Michal Thim.

Asymmetry is the new black, at least among defense analysts dealing with the Asia-Pacific. Asymmetrical warfare is an age-old concept. Recently, however, it has been mostly associated with insurgent groups or guerrillas capitalizing on their familiarity with irregular terrain in hit-and-run operations against regular government forces. As employed by terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Irish Republican Army, asymmetrical strategies and tactics were ideally suited to small groups standing against well-equipped government forces in their efforts to pursue a particular political agenda.

In the Asia-Pacific region, asymmetry is more commonly associated with the military disparities between nations. It is often expressed as the concept of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD), which is primarily referenced in relation to preparations by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to prevent access—and consequently deny unhindered operation—to the US Navy and America’s other forward-deployed forces stationed in Japan. Decades of Chinese military modernization has given the PRC the capability to project force a much greater distance from its shores, with an eye toward eventually deploying a blue-water navy. Despite this, A2/AD remains at the forefront of China’s efforts to establish itself as a potent military power.

China’s current preoccupation with A2/AD can be traced back to two pivotal moments in the 1990s. The liberation of Kuwait witnessed a US-led coalition crush Iraqi forces in spectacular fashion. In 1990,the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was still a large, technologically deficient standing army like that of Iraq, and alarmed Chinese leaders took notice and embarked on a comprehensive modernization program. The second event was the deployment of US Navy aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait during the 1995-1996 missile crisis. While the danger of direct confrontation was relatively low, the PLA could do little more than sit and watch as the US Navy carrier battle groups operated in and around what Beijing considers its own waters.

Fast-forward two decades, and what we are witnessing now is a fairly straightforward admission by the United States that, in the words of James Kraska of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, sending carrier battle group into close proximity of the Chinese coast is tantamount to a suicide mission. A2/AD can be understood as both a broader strategy and as a set of tactical capabilities deployed in order to exploit the weaknesses of a stronger adversary.

Several pivotal platforms undergird Chinese A2/AD. Perhaps the one most discussed is an arsenal of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles (DF-11 and DF-15 types) and a wide spectrum of land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles. This category also includes the already famous but unproven anti-ship ballistic missiles DF-21D, better known as the “carrier killer.” Also vital is the attack submarine force of the PLA Navy (PLAN), including the most recent delivery of Russian-made Kilo-class subs. A third platform worth mentioning is the fast and stealthy Type 088 Houbei-class missile boat, each wielding 8 C-801/802/803 anti-ship missiles. Naturally, all of these platforms would be supported by an increasingly powerful air force and surface navy.

The broader question concerning A2/AD is whether an inherently asymmetrical platform even exists. From the ones just mentioned, it is possible to conceive of their use against an inferior adversary. Before considering a regional response to China’s A2/AD, it is worthwhile to look at few possible definitions of asymmetry.

Defining asymmetry

Perhaps the most obvious (and the least sophisticated) is a crude count of the number of tanks, fighter jets, soldiers, etc. While this alone is not a very useful approach, it is an inevitable departure point for further debate. Somewhat more useful is the inclusion of other elements of national power, such as population size and economic strength. Asymmetry in this case takes into account a broader set of factors that makes one side weaker than the other, and therefore more prone to heed the call to deploy asymmetrical platforms to compensate for its inherent weakness.

Another way to look at asymmetry is from the point of capabilities deployment and its use. An encounter on the battlefield can still be symmetrical when both sides employ the same capabilities, no matter which has more tanks, ships, or missiles at its disposal. In other words, deploying a carrier battle group against an opponent’s carrier battle group is a symmetrical response—sending submarines and stealthy missile boats instead is an asymmetrical one.

Asymmetry at the strategic and tactical level matters, too. If both sides use a similar approach, then the stronger side is in a favorable position. If the weaker side’s counter-strategy is dissimilar, then according to Ivan Arreguin-Toft, author of How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict, it has fairly good chance to prevail in the end.

Finally, asymmetry may not be a very useful category of fighting at all. History has rarely witnessed conflict between two perfectly symmetrical opponents, and if fighting asymmetrically means trying to exploit the enemy’s weakness, then fighting asymmetrically is little more than fighting smart. Virtually every war-fighting strategy is asymmetrical in some sense.

It is clear that Chinese A2/AD conforms to several of the definitions outlined above, and that it poses a challenge to US power in a way that has prompted Washington to redefine operational concepts, sparking a lively debate—between proponents of Offshore Balancing and those of the AirSea Battle concept—on which is the most appropriate response to ensure the continuing superiority of the United States in areas of strategic importance.

Still, turnabout is fair play, and China’s aggressive prosecution of its maritime territorial disputes along the entirety of its coastline (including the claim over Taiwan) has resulted in other countries in the region seeking ways to confront this militarily superior foe with an eye on their territories. The rise of Chinese military power poses a qualitatively different challenge for China’s neighbours than it does for the United States. Vietnam, The Philippines, and Taiwan do not have the resources to match PLA capabilities in terms of quantity or quality, although for Taiwan this was not the case until after the mid-1990s.

Japan is in a somewhat different position in terms of its potential for military and economic strength. Its air force and navy handily outmatch China’s, according to defense analysts such as Larry Wortzel, but they are constrained by Japan’s constitution, notwithstanding recent incremental loosening of restrictions. Moreover, being backed up by the US-Japan mutual defense treaty puts Japan on the receiving end of Chinese A2/AD along with the United States. In any case, China’s fielding of A2/AD systems has not gone unnoticed in capitals across the region. These countries have grown increasingly uneasy about China’s military build-up. Moreover, these concerns have not been alleviated by Washington’s less-than-robust response to the Chinese A2/AD challenge: If the most potent military power in the world is concerned about the limitations imposed on its ability to project power, how can countries in a much weaker position, and involved in territorial disputes with Beijing, react to the PLA threat? The answer seems to be to adopt denial strategies of their own.

Vietnam is a good example. Investing in a fleet of Kilo-class submarines and fast boats equipped with Kh-35 anti-ship missiles, Hanoi seeks to offset the increasing presence of a modernized PLA Navy and Chinese coast guard on its doorstep. Part of the American debate on how to react to Chinese A2/AD has been to find ways to adopt elements of anti-access and sea-denial, and turn them to China’s disadvantage. A 2013 RAND report, called Employing Land-Based Anti-Ship Missiles in the Western Pacific, suggested that following the advice of its descriptive title would allow the United States and its allies to curtail the PLAN’s operations beyond the immediate coastal areas.

US Rep. J. Randy Forbes, (R-Va.), who is chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, recently argued in a piece for The National Interest that there are “great advantages for the joint force and our partnerships in the region if the Army were to stand-up a land-based sea-control force that could be deployed along the Asian littorals.” It is hard to miss the irony of the United States adopting a counter-strategy based on China’s attempt to deny US forces access.

Taiwan, for its part, is a prime example of a regional actor attempting to turn A2/AD against China. After all, China’s A2/AD buildup was not designed to contend with US intervention in a Chinese attack on Japan. And despite the Chinese rhetoric about US encirclement, even the most ardent PLA hawk would be hard-pressed to argue convincingly that Beijing is fielding A2/AD in fear of a US-led amphibious invasion of China. Rather, Beijing’s primary concern is to prevent US forces from coming to assist Taiwan should Beijing decide to use force to annex the island, as it has repeatedly threatened to do. How, then, should Taipei respond?

Innovative response

Taiwan’s latest Quadrennial Defense Review argues in favour of an innovative asymmetrical response to China’s military strength. In the future, the Republic of China’s (ROC) anti-access and sea-denial force would be based on land and sea-borne (Hsun Hai stealthy corvettes) anti-ship (Hsiung Feng III) and land attack (Hsiung Feng IIE) missiles, domestically built submarines, and a hardened critical infrastructure so the country would be able to withstand an initial attack.

Under these conditions, a surface navy based on large vessels would no longer play the same role in Taiwan’s defense as the one for which it was initially designed. Granted, Taiwan’s turn to asymmetrical countermeasures is partially forced by its curtailed ability to procure advanced weapons systems. Yet, it is also a necessary step forward as the PLA is becoming more powerful. In addition to hardware, there are a host of other problems, too, facing the ROC military: Low morale, insufficient draft rates, and no clear sense of purpose, all of which hinder the transition to an all-volunteer force. Clearly the Ministry of National Defense and relevant agencies need to step up their efforts at recruiting and polishing the image of the armed services among Taiwan’s population.

Having the human resources needed to secure the country’s defense is as important as securing financial resources for the same purpose. With just the right decisions by Taipei, it could be made prohibitively difficult for China to conquer Taiwan, barring a long campaign of attrition.

Neither Taiwan nor Vietnam (nor The Philippines, for that matter) can match Chinese power on their own; even the United States is no longer in an advantageous position. What plays into Beijing’s hands is that, unlike America’s security commitments around the globe, China only needs to achieve local (regional) superiority. This remains a possibility despite Washington’s overall upper hand in terms of quality and quantity of military firepower. For Taiwan and other nations interested in safeguarding their own sovereignty, the goal is not the destruction of the PLA: rather, it is simply to prevent a PRC’s victory. The remarkable transition of the PLA into a modern force possessing cutting-edge weapons systems operating under an A2/AD umbrella has created the paradoxical situation wherein Beijing’s rivals look at its A2/AD as a source of inspiration for their own defense plans. Thus, China may soon fall victim to its own success, both in terms of military modernization and imposition of the A2/AD reality on the United States and its allies. The resulting situation may be a conventional version of the old Cold War nuclear paradox of mutually assured destruction—a situation where regional balance is predicated on the mutual denial of the use of force.

Michal Thim is a Ph.D. candidate in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute (CPI), University of Nottingham, CPI blog’s Emerging Scholar, and a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs. Michal tweets @michalthim. A version of this piece was originally published in Strategic Vision vol. 3, no. 17 (October, 2014). Image Credit: CC by 總統府/Flickr.