Faced with the threat of Chinese “offensive decoupling,” American policymakers today should consult the experience of American military policymakers in the 1960s, who struggled with Mao Zedong’s destabilizing “offensive deterrence” strategy.
Offensive deterrence, one of the guiding principles of Chinese defense strategy, is not the type of deterrence familiar to Western observers. The West’s version threatens retaliation that outweighs any potential gain in response to assault. Offensive deterrence, on the other hand, seeks to intimidate an adversary by throw a first shot against a rival. In this sense, offensive deterrence resembles Western notions of preemption.
Accordingly, Mao Zedong took the initiative in a multitude of conflicts, including the Korean War, two crises in the Taiwan Strait, and border clashes with India and the Soviet Union, practicing offensive deterrence. By aggressive gestures, Mao hoped to convince his opponents to back down. Coupled with his aggression was a brazen indifference to nuclear escalation and a declared willingness to absorb atomic fury at the cost of hundreds of millions of Chinese deaths. This posture has made his threats of escalation more credible and their deterrent effect more tangible. Buried deep in Chinese strategic culture, this tactic also finds older antecedents, with origins in Sun Tzu’s two-millennium-old principle of “fighting while talking.”
Today, China pursues an economic policy of “aggressive decoupling” – domiciliating strategic production capacity, striving to win the race for advanced technologies and securing energy supply chains – which in some respects resembles the military policy of offensive deterrence and stems from similar principles. .
Indeed, Beijing is deeply committed to building an arsenal of coercive economic tools to bolster its geoeconomic governance in ways that enhance its coercive capabilities, not just retaliate. The party leadership sometimes speaks of China’s “powerful gravitational field”, namely the massive weight of its billion-strong economy. This is the goal of “dual circulation”, which aims “to make China less dependent on the world and the world more dependent on China”, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained in May.
The outcome of the Trump-era U.S.-China phase one trade deal shows how China makes economic decisions on geopolitical grounds. The final deal required Beijing to buy American agriculture and liberalize its financial sector. Beijing did not meet the purchase requirements, but opened up its financial sector. Opening up China’s financial sector, unlike buying American agriculture, advances the Party’s economic security goals. In Beijing’s eyes, financial openness helps the Party achieve the goals of stemming capital outflows and mitigating dependencies that Western sanctions could exploit. Not only does financial liberalization allow Beijing to defend itself against Russian-style sanctions, but it also has an offensive component. China’s 2020 foreign investment law includes a “reciprocity” provision that could expose Western companies to Chinese sanctions, the research arm of Congress noted.
President John F. Kennedy reacted to Mao’s decade-long strategy of offensive deterrence by leveraging American military power in a way that resulted in an equally aggressive posturing in response. As Mao raced for a nuclear weapon, Kennedy seriously considered plans to preemptively strike the Chinese homeland, and he made those plans known to Beijing.
A longtime US envoy, Averell Harriman, from Russia, explored the possibility of a preemptive strike in private conversations with his Soviet counterparts in the spring of 1963. Harriman was acting on direct instructions from Kennedy, who asked him to “d ‘Obtain Khrushchev’s views on ways to limit or prevent Chinese nuclear development and his willingness either to take Soviet action or to accept American action in this direction’.
The bureaucracy operationalized Kennedy’s idea of teaming up with the Soviets to strike China preemptively. Months later, American policy documents began to incorporate the notion of “the joint use of military force by the United States and the USSR against China”, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff drafted plans for a preemptive airstrike on nuclear weapons facilities in western China. These military planners recommended a nuclear strike on Chinese research and test sites – a decision that relied on the use of a nuclear weapon to deter China’s nuclear arms race.
Meeting aggression with aggression was a surprising decision. American military strategy, with its aversion to preemption, was meant to specifically exclude notions of offensive deterrence.
However, despite the unconventional nature of the plan, it inspired a diplomatic breakthrough with Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. Talks of a preemptive strike showed the serious commitment of Soviet leaders in Washington to stemming nuclear proliferation and helped persuade Moscow to sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty later that year.
In other words, President Kennedy, a paragon of great-power peace, resorted to measures that increased the likelihood of war and replicated China’s strategy of offensive deterrence at that key moment in the Cold War.
It was not the first time under his presidency that the Kennedy White House benefited from a Mao-style offensive deterrence strategy. Months earlier, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s war planners and generals, such as the colorful Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, had advised aggressive strikes and preventive measures on Russian resources. Standard accounts of the crisis praise Kennedy for “practically standing alone” against this “doctrinaire” warmongering advice. In truth, General LeMay’s militarism complemented Kennedy’s accommodating inclinations. Concluding a deal that brought the Cuban Missile Crisis to fruition hinged in part on a private ultimatum: If you don’t move the missiles, I’ll hit Russian facilities in Cuba. For Khrushchev to accept a public contract, he had to believe in this threat. But Kennedy alone was not credible. His distaste for nuclear weapons was not only well known but also deeply internalized. (According to one account, as the crisis raged, Kennedy told his mistress that her children would be better off “red than dead” Communists.) It was then left to LeMay to convey the credibility of the threat.
First in words, then in deeds, Kennedy’s warmongering policymakers deployed offensive deterrence against Russia and China. As a result, the hawks played a vital role in countering aggression and creating space for creative diplomacy, namely the withdrawal of missiles from Cuba and the signing of a test ban treaty.
Policymakers can learn from this foray into mid-century American diplomatic history, because the principles that governed the delicate nuclear balance during the First Cold War have economic analogues today. At the time, Kennedy countered the threat of nuclear Armageddon by encouraging aggressive, preemptive military moves, which signaled to adversaries the disastrous nature of America’s commitments to its interests. Now, as China develops economic measures designed to militarize US-China financial relations, Washington cannot rely on a “balance of financial terror” to deter Chinese economic coercion. Just as Kennedy gained strategic advantage from the warmongering of his generals, who lent credibility to his attempts at offensive deterrence, today’s American policymakers may find that warmongering economic advisers can confer strategic advantage.
Christopher Vassallo (@VassalloCMV) is a contributing writer on Asia for the National Interest and a Junior Fellow in the Center for the National Interest’s China and Pacific Program. He is a former Schwarzman Scholar and researcher at the Asia Society and the Harvard Belfer Center.