The Challenge of China, and ARSOF's Role

The Challenge of China, and ARSOF's Role

By Col. Mike Lwin
Originally published in the July-September 2012 edition of Special Warfare

China looms large, not just in the minds of leaders and the foreign-policy community in America, but also in Asia and around the globe. While China’s economy has grown remarkably over the last two decades, its long-term strategic intentions remain unclear. As the collapse of the Soviet Union, Japan’s previously predicted economic supremacy and the Arab Spring demonstrate, strategic forecasting is a tricky business. In this period of uncertainty when it is unclear whether China will act as a responsible power or as an aggressive regional hegemon, it is certain that China presents a range of challenges for the U.S. and other nation states. This essay considers the question of “What is the role of Army special-operations forces in meeting the challenges of China?”

To answer this question, this article is divided into three sections. First, this article identifies current U.S. policy and strategy. Second, the article examines the economic, military and influence domains where China strategically challenges the U.S. Finally, the article identifies the opportunities where ARSOF can achieve the desired outcomes of U.S. national strategy.

U.S. Policy

Whether China will ultimately partner with or struggle against the U.S. is unclear. As our Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has written, “China represents one of the most challenging and consequential bilateral relationships the United States has ever had to manage.”1 The latest National Security Strategy states that the U.S. “will continue to pursue a positive, constructive and comprehensive relationship with China.”2 It goes on to state “More broadly, we will encourage China to make choices that contribute to peace, security and prosperity as its influence rises.”3

The Defense Strategic Guidance released earlier this year identifies the methods the U.S. will use to maintain stability and growth in the Asia-Pacific region. The guidance states, “We
will emphasize our existing alliances…” and “...expand our networks of cooperation with emerging partners.”4 This method seeks to ensure an end state with “a rules-based international order that ensures underlying stability and encourages the peaceful rise of new powers, economic dynamism and constructive defense cooperation.”5

China’s Challenges

Some consider China to be an adversary like the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. This is an imperfect comparison. During the Cold War, the world was largely divided between two blocs with separate economies, military alliances and ideological outlooks; today, no simple division exists. Like the Soviet Union, the scope of China’s challenge extends to the economic, military and influence realms. The nature of China’s challenges in these realms, however, is fundamentally different than that of the Soviet Union. China has significant economic ties to the U.S. and the rest of the globe; the Soviet Union did not. China does not currently array its military forces directly against the U.S., as the Soviet Union did in Europe. China does not offer a clear ideological alternative to other nations, as did the Soviet Union with Communism.

Economic Challenge

China’s growing economic strength is the first challenge. Although the economic domain is typically viewed as a separate realm from military strategy, it is essential to understand the strategic implications of China’s economic growth. What is clear is that China has maintained sustained economic growth over the last two decades and is now the world’s second largest economy. Forecasts differ on when, or if, the Chinese economy will surpass the U.S. Regardless of the actual answer to that question, China’s economic growth has critical strategic implications.

Economic growth increases China’s resources available to modernize its military. Even if China were to maintain its defense spending at a level of 2 percent of its gross-national product, its defense budget would still steadily grow. Economic strength also provides a source of global influence for China through the provision of aid, loans, trade and investment. Some have even argued that China’s ownership of U.S. debt could allow it to coerce or compel the U.S. to do its bidding. Others, however, point out that China’s holding of U.S. bonds creates a “financial balance of terror.” If China were to dump U.S. bonds, it would hurt the U.S., but would also inflict great damage on China.

Perhaps the greatest strategic implication, however, is that China’s economic growth and role as Asia’s economic hub has made it deeply linked to both the U.S. and other countries regionally and around the globe. Boeing sells billions of dollars of U.S. aircraft and General Motors is the largest foreign automaker in China. Apple and other U.S. companies have supply chains that originate out of China. On the opposite side, the Chinese economy depends on access to the world for raw materials to feed and power its factories as well as access to U.S. and Western markets to sustain its growth. These economic relationships place strong incentives for the U.S., China and other countries to avoid any break in relations or military conflict that could cause these vital economic linkages to be severed.

Military Challenge

As mentioned previously, China’s economic growth has allowed it to steadily increase its military capabilities. The role of China’s People’s Liberation Army has traditionally been oriented on Taiwan to deter any moves toward independence and respond with force if necessary. Some of the PLA’s existing and emerging capabilities such as conventional missile forces and submarines are especially troubling, as they could also be used for anti-access/area denial to push U.S. naval and air forces out of the Western Pacific in a time of crisis. Presently, however, Taiwan’s role as a flashpoint for military conflict has been diminished given stable relations and growing economic ties between the mainland and Taiwan.

As China continues to consume oil, metals and other resources to feed its industries and meet the demands of its growing consumer class, it is also developing military capabilities to project power farther from home. Last year in Libya, the Chinese military conducted its first noncombatant evacuation operation. China has participated in counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Beyond more benign uses of its military power, however, China is also building up capabilities that could be used to coerce its neighbors.

China and its neighbors have a range of resource and sovereignty disputes, which are prominently on display in the South China Sea. Some of China’s emerging military capabilities do not directly threaten the U.S., but appear to be a signal to smaller regional nations not to challenge China. For example, the Chinese aircraft carrier that had its maiden voyage last year with great fanfare is nothing more than an old, reconditioned ex-Soviet vessel that poses little direct threat to the U.S. The carrier’s purpose seems more intended as a display of military might to cower smaller regional nations into acquiescence with China’s desires. Additionally, should China’s leadership ever feel that its sovereignty is challenged by other regional nations, the PLA could be used in short violent strikes for psychological effect as they were against India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979.

The present limitations of China’s military might; however, must also be recognized. The PLA has not fought since its 1979 war; during that conflict its performance was extremely costly and not overly masterful. China’s neighbors are also increasingly investing in building up their own military capabilities. China’s economic growth and integration with other countries have given it the same sort of vulnerabilities that Chinese military theorists posited about the U.S. in the widely publicized 1999 book Unrestricted Warfare. More than 80 percent of Chinese oil imports now transit the Strait of Malacca, a geographic chokepoint. Insurgents in Pakistan and Sudan have kidnapped Chinese engineers and workers. China still faces a range of internal unrest including separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang provinces.

Influence Challenge

The last realm where China challenges the U.S. is in the realm of influence. One side of influence is “soft power,” the positive side of influence based on attraction and persuasion. China is weak in soft power despite the prominence of its traditional culture and global public diplomacy efforts. Chinese political values and ideology are in flux and are no longer a source of global inspiration; given its embrace of state-directed capitalism, China no longer can export Maoist ideology to Communist revolutionary groups. Given that China is still struggling to define its own internal political ideology, it lacks a coherent narrative to share with the rest of the globe. China’s policies of non-interference and economic development appeal to authoritarian governments but not many others.

China’s weak soft power, however, does not mean it has no influence. China’s geographic centrality, historic role as the Middle Kingdom, rising military power and role as the regional economic hub and global economic powerhouse provide it other effective tools for influence. Countries in Africa and the Caribbean desire relationships with China for trade and investment. Countries in the Asia-Pacific region increasingly see their prosperity tied to economic relations with China. China has also expanded its military engagement regionally and globally with training, arms sales and even military hospital ships providing humanitarian aid.

In this period with great uncertainty about China’s intentions, the desire of many nations is to maintain diplomatic and economic links to China. Given these desires, the development of a formal alliance structure in the Asia-Pacific region like NATO would be premature, unwarranted and counterproductive. Long-standing interests and relationships in the region already require U.S. presence. China will continue to expand its economic and diplomatic relations as a by-product of its growth.

While U.S. presence is not designed to “contain” China, it does serve to constrain China from adopting and pursuing overly aggressive actions against its neighbors. As China’s power rises, nationalist attitudes from within could possibly lead to miscalculation by the Chinese leadership to pursue hegemony over the region. U.S. presence tied into “networks of cooperation” possesses sufficient mass to provide alternatives to China’s influence. U.S. presence also serves a balancing function to deter China from following its own internal nationalist sentiments and aggressively seeking to dominate the region.

Roles for ARSOF

In this period of uncertainty with each nation making a complicated calculus of economic, military and influence concerns, the U.S. must seek to form, reinforce and enhance its existing alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region. ARSOF forces are the right forces for the mission. As the Commandant of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, stated in a previous issue, the ARSOF schoolhouse builds “a force specifically designed to shape foreign political and military environments in order to prevent war.”

Countries in the Asia-Pacific region want reassurance against China’s military growth, but they generally desire a quiet U.S. presence because of political sensitivities, concerns about legitimacy and sovereignty, as well as their own internal strategic calculations. ARSOF is the best force for this quiet engagement. Hallmarks of this force are “a capability that works with host nations, regional partners and indigenous populations in a culturally attuned manner.” ARSOF are scalable to the mission and have proven their ability for a quiet but effective presence in places like the Philippines.

ARSOF typically have extensive joint-intergovernmental-interagency-multinational experience. This aptitude allows ARSOF to fully nest with whole-of-government approaches. The range of capabilities in Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations and Special Forces allows ARSOF to work with partner nations to respond to non-traditional security challenges such as disaster relief. These activities are not focused on China, but allow the U.S. to build a shared level of trust and respect necessary for effective networks of cooperation.

Given ARSOF’s capabilities in building and reinforcing networks of cooperation, it may be time to modify U.S. policy to expand ARSOF’s scope of engagement. Given the prominent role that militaries, especially armies, play in the social and political fabric of many Asian nations, ARSOF could be utilized to engage with more than just partner-nation SOF. ARSOF could leverage its SOF contacts to help the larger military institutions in partner nations professionalize and transform to meet tomorrow’s challenges. ARSOF may even have additional roles in support of partner-nation paramilitary and law-enforcement forces that are increasingly facing powerful transnational-criminal organizations. Expanded engagement holds the potential for building increased resilience in partner nations against a range of threats that make them susceptible to less benign external influence.

Finally, in the unfortunate event conditions in the Asia-Pacific region ever devolve into outright military conflict, ARSOF has obvious roles in providing strategic reconnaissance and direct-action capabilities to support air-sea battle or other operational concepts designed to mitigate an adversary’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities. ARSOF foreign internal defense and military-information support capabilities would be leveraged to support our allies and partners in any regional conflict. ARSOF’s unconventional warfare capabilities allow it to play a range of roles depending on the type and scale of future conflicts.

Hopefully, conditions in the region never come to the point of military conflict. China’s internal workings are opaque, but it is not inconceivable that the overall U.S.-Chinese relationship could positively develop to a point where someday ARSOF and PLA forces have exchanges and engagements with each other. Until we reach that point, ARSOF has a critical role to play in our nation’s strategy to build networks of cooperation to keep peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.  

Colonel Mike Lwin
has recently completed a Senior Service College Fellowship at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. He is a Psychological Operations officer with a long-time regional focus on the Asia-Pacific region.


1. Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, November 2011, 56-63.

2. Barack Obama, National Security Strategy (Washington, DC: The White House, May 2010) 43.

3. Ibid.

4. Leon E. Panetta, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, January 2012), 2.

5. Ibid.

THIS issue

July-September 2012
Volume 25 | Issue 3

Special Warfare cover, July-September 2012

Special Warfare

Special Warfare is an authorized, official quarterly publication of the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Fort Bragg, N.C. Its mission is to promote the professional development of special-operations forces by providing a forum for the examination of established doctrine and new ideas.

Views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect official Army position. This publication does not supersede any information presented in other official Army publications.