The erosion of American deterrence raises the risk of Chinese miscalculation

For the past two decades, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been growing in size, capability, and confidence. China is also emerging as a serious competitor in a number of technological areas that will ultimately determine military advantage. At the same time, the credibility of U.S. deterrence has been declining. For Beijing, the 2008–9 financial crisis gave rise to an enduring narrative of U.S. decline and Chinese superiority that has been reinforced by perceptions of U.S. withdrawal from the world—as well as, more recently, by its perception of bungled U.S. management of the pandemic and societal upheaval over systemic racism.

What’s more, Washington has not delivered on its promised “pivot” to Asia. U.S. troop levels in the region remain similar to what they were a decade ago. The current administration discarded the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement its predecessor had so painstakingly negotiated. Senior diplomatic positions in the region remain empty, and the United States is often underrepresented or entirely AWOL from the region’s major diplomatic forums. There has been no U.S. answer to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, even as its influence expands through Asia and well beyond. And Chinese activities in the “gray zone,” below the level of conflict—such as building militarized “islands” and using coercive measures to enforce disputed sovereignty claims in the South China Sea—have gone largely unanswered by the United States beyond the occasional diplomatic démarche or freedom-of-navigation operation.

All of this spells trouble for deterrence. The more confident China’s leaders are in their own capabilities and the more they doubt the capabilities and resolve of the United States, the greater the chance of miscalculation—a breakdown in deterrence that could bring direct conflict between two nuclear powers. As tensions continue to rise and Chinese assertiveness in the region grows, it will take a concerted effort to rebuild the credibility of U.S. deterrence in order to reduce the risk of a war that neither side seeks.