Active Denial: Experts Chart Comprehensive ‘Roadmap’ For U.S. Defense Strategy in Asia

New Quincy Institute report outlines how America can advance its vital interests in the Pacific while avoiding destabilizing and dangerous conflict.


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WASHINGTON, DC — As China’s power grows, U.S. efforts to respond to this shifting balance of power by reasserting military dominance through offensive strategies of control are not only unlikely to succeed, but could also endanger U.S. interests and regional peace and stability, according to a new report.

The report, released this morning by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, presents the most detailed, expert-based set of assessments and analysis of U.S. military posture in Asia available in open media. The 318-page “roadmap” for U.S. strategy toward Asia is the product of a year-long collaboration between the Quincy Institute’s East Asia Program and seven external contributors.

“Active Denial: A Roadmap to a More Effective, Stabilizing, and Sustainable U.S. Defense Strategy in Asia” includes analysis by experts on the defense budget, force planning, regional politics, and nuclear escalation, including a former senior White House official for national security and foreign policy budgeting, a former deputy commander of Pacific Air Forces, and a former senior East Asia analyst on the National Intelligence Council. It was drawn up in part with additional input from working group members with deep expertise on Asia and the U.S. military.

“Direct military conflict between the U.S. and China would likely be nothing short of disastrous,” said Michael Swaine, Director of Quincy Institute’s East Asia Program. “A posture of ‘active denial,’ paired with direct engagement with Beijing, will empower U.S. policymakers to better manage strategic competition and prevent crises while advancing peace and stability in Asia.”

As tensions between the United States and China increase, so too does the threat of a direct military conflict between the great powers that risks triggering a major escalatory spiralThe report lays out a safer (and less costly) military strategy for the U.S. in Asia, centered on both reducing the chances of escalation in the event of conflict and thwarting any potential Chinese military offensive in the region.

The authors, Nikkei Asia reports, recommend the U.S. reach “a new deal with Japan that reduces Tokyo’s host-nation support payments to maintain American bases, with the money redirected to base hardening. They forecast that adjusting U.S. force posture in the region will save $75 billion annually by 2035.” 

“Framing U.S.-China competition as a Manichean struggle—the latest front in a global struggle between democracies and autocracies—is unlikely to resonate with major regional players like Japan and South Korea,”Quincy Institute’s Non-Resident Fellow and George Washington University professor Mike Mochizuki warns. “Correctly framed, a strategy of ‘active denial’ should be a welcome development to regional allies and partners, as it advances a more credible, sustainable military posture for the U.S. that remains responsive to the various sensitivities in the region—political, economic, historic, and beyond.”

Active denial “focuses on deploying resilient and primarily defensive U.S. and allied forces to blunt and disrupt attack, while preparing for focused counterattack later,” the authors write. “It relies upon a smarter division of labor between allied and forward- deployed U.S. forces, both of which are to be optimized for resilience. It also employs a restrained approach to escalation and seeks to limit the scope of battle, with an end goal of defeating aggression rather than subjugating the adversary.”

“This report’s 10 authors have converged on these recommendations despite holding a range of views on China’s intentions, the scope of U.S. interests in Asia, and the objectives of U.S. defense strategy in the region in the medium and long terms,” they write. “Our ability to achieve consensus on an active denial strategy despite disagreement about such issues is a measure of the robustness of our recommendations. This bodes well in a political climate wherein gridlock often impedes progress in rationalizing defense policy and controlling debt and spending.”

Today’s report comes on the heels of new research from the Quincy Institute’s East Asia Program Director Michael Swaine that analyzes the capabilities of China’s military and warns that Washington is inflating the threat China poses to U.S. security. This “threat inflation,” Swaine finds, is a key obstacle to developing effective U.S. strategies in the region.     

The “Active Denial” report was written by Rachel Esplin Odell, Eric Heginbotham, John Culver, Eric Gomez, Brian Killough, Steven Kosiak, Jessica J. Lee, Brad Martin, Mike Mochizuki, and Michael D. Swaine. Click here to read the full report.