Military Competition With China: Harder Than the Cold War?

Portrait of Oriana Skylar Mastro and the cover of an essay collection on the US-China competition.

Dr. Oriana Skylar Mastro begins her paper by emphasizing that U.S. national defense strategy has characterized the US-China relationship as one of great power competition (GPC). Both the US and China have existing relationships in the Indo-Pacific region and are undergoing efforts to foster new relationships there as well. China’s efforts, however, conflict with US military efforts to promote peace, strategy, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific, making them much harder to achieve.

Mastro argues that it will be difficult to deter China’s efforts — perhaps even more difficult than it was to deter the Soviet Union’s efforts during the Cold War. She cites the geography of the Asia-Pacific (compared to that of Central Europe), the US’s ongoing struggle to establish a credible deterrent, China’s range of options for nonlethal but effective uses of force, and the lack of US willingness to grant China a parallel sphere of influence to that in which the Soviet Union was allowed to control as evidence to support her claim.

Thus, Mastro recommends that the US must avoid relying on the same Cold War tools and competition strategies in its competition with China, despite their success in the past. Instead, the US needs to combat the threat posed by China through 1) convincing China that the costs of using force outweigh the benefits and 2) forging a counterbalancing coalition of allies and partners that are confident that the US will not only protect them from a military attack but other costly behaviors (e.g., economic coercion, diplomatic isolation) that China may leverage against them as well.