CHINA WATCHAnticipating Chinese Reactions to U.S. Posture Enhancements

Published 16 November 2022

What are the key factors that U.S. policymakers and military planners should consider when assessing how China is likely to react to planned or proposed U.S. posture enhancements in the Indo-Pacific region?

What are the key factors that U.S. policymakers and military planners should consider when assessing how China is likely to react to planned or proposed U.S. posture enhancements in the Indo-Pacific region?How do U.S. posture enhancements have the potential to affect those key factors? What are the ways in which U.S. posture enhancements may affect Chinese perceptions and thinking through these key factors, and how might these factors motivate China to pursue different responses?

The dramatic increase in Chinese power and military capabilities over the past two decades has prompted numerous calls for U.S. policymakers, and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in particular, to reevaluate their approach to the Indo-Pacific region, including changes to U.S. military posture.

A new report from RAND provides a framework for assessing likely Chinese reactions to planned or proposed posture enhancements in the Indo-Pacific region. The authors demonstrate how U.S. Army and other military planners can apply the framework to assess an enhancement’s likely deterrent value and whether it may induce aggressive People’s Republic of China (PRC) responses. Although the framework cannot provide definitive predictions regarding specific Chinese reactions, it helps to ensure consideration of the factors and characteristics most directly linked with Chinese perceptions and behavior.

The framework contains three main components. First, it identifies the key factors that appear to drive Chinese thinking and reactions. Second, it assesses how the characteristics of U.S. posture enhancements—their location, the U.S. allies or partners involved, their military capabilities, and the public profile or messaging that accompanies them—may affect Chinese reactions through each key factor. Third, the framework provides a typology of potential Chinese reactions, organized by their level of intensity. The authors apply the framework to three hypothetical U.S. posture enhancements to demonstrate its use and offer insights and recommendations for DoD and Army planners and policymakers.

Key Findings

·  China assumes that most U.S. military activities in the region are hostile to China.

·  China’s level of concern for a posture enhancement does not directly correlate with the aggressiveness of its responses.

·  U.S. posture enhancements or activities that pose acute concerns for China are more likely to trigger consequential changes in longer-term PRC policies.

·  The bilateral nature of U.S. alliance relationships in the region may limit whether U.S. posture enhancements in a particular country would deter China from more aggressive behavior elsewhere in the region. The deterrence value of the posture enhancement may depend on whether China believes that the host nation will allow the United States to employ the posture or capabilities in a regional conflict.


·  Decisions on the location of U.S. posture enhancements should consider the possibility that China may be able to pressure the host nation to limit or deny access in certain contingencies.

·  For the most robust U.S. alliance relationships (e.g., Japan, Australia), the United States should try to establish clear political understandings regarding the contingencies for which U.S. forces or bases on its allies’ territories could be used and signal those understandings to China where advantageous.

·  The U.S. government should prepare for Chinese responses to be multilayered across domains by coordinating whole-of-government response plans before executing U.S. posture enhancements.

·  Short- to medium-range intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities that augment local states’ abilities to detect Chinese forces in disputed areas and enabling agreements likely combine the greatest deterrent value with the lowest likelihood of a near-term PRC aggressive response for most locations.

·  U.S. capabilities that can target PRC command and control, including in ways that affect its nuclear forces or regime continuity, have perhaps the highest risk of producing a disproportionately aggressive PRC response.