Why the Skeptics of Sustaining America’s Presence in Asia Are Wrong

This book has argued that sustaining the U.S. forward presence in Asia is essential to America’s interests. It has also shown that the current policies supporting that commitment are weak and are failing. Dramatic reform to the U.S. approach to the region is needed if the United States is to maintain the credibility of its commitments. Some of these reforms will be controversial because they will include measures that threaten to impose steep costs on China in the event Beijing pursues actions that would harm U.S. and allied interests.

Naturally there are skeptics who doubt whether it is wise or even practical for the United States to attempt to sustain its leading role in the region in the face of China’s rapid rise.16 It is important to rebut the skeptics’ arguments.

Some skeptics assert that a visible and formidable response to China will only antagonize China, making an enemy where none previously existed. But this ignores the fact that China’s well-planned military modernization strategy began two decades ago and has followed a steady course since its inception. The U.S. “pivot to Asia” came long after and was clearly a response to decisions China’s leaders had previously taken. The skeptics’ view also presumes that China’s leaders respond emotionally rather than deliberately, as is much more likely the case. The recent U.S. response to the changing security balance in the western Pacific will not spark a new military competition with China, because that competition has been already been under way for some time.

Many observers explain that it would be irrational for two countries as interdependent economically and financially as China and the United States to ever go to war. Others made the same assertion a century ago to explain why a war among the great powers in Europe would be similarly illogical. In 1914 Europe’s great powers were more intertwined by trade and financial linkages than are the United States and China today. But for the statesmen who made decisions in that fateful year, strategic considerations trumped economics and finance. We can hope that today’s policymakers, chastened by the past century’s wars, will be wiser. But now as then, decision makers might also conclude that it will be easier to recover from the economic consequences of conflict, which could be temporary, than from a grave strategic setback, which would more likely be permanent. By this reasoning, a temporary economic setback caused by conflict would be a price worth paying for the avoidance of a strategic defeat.

Perhaps more relevant in the current case is Beijing’s view that it does not have to choose between peace and the achievement of its territorial and security goals. Through careful “salami slicing,” China’s leaders very likely believe they can have both the peaceful development they enjoy plus the enlarged security they seek. The risk, of course, is that China will eventually meet resistance that its leaders did not expect, resulting in a crisis fueled by nationalism and the perceived need by leaders to defend their country’s prestige. Add in the possibility of miscalculations over escalation dominance and the result could be calamity. The United States and its partners can avoid this scenario by bolstering their deterrence capacity and by displaying early resolution against China’s assertions, before possible misunderstandings accumulate.

Many skeptics assert that it is the responsibility of China’s neighbors, and not the United States, to balance China’s power. Under this view, these countries, having the most at stake, should bear the heaviest portion of the balancing task, instead of “free riding” on U.S. security guarantees. Other skeptics (notably Christopher Layne and others from the “offshore balancing” school) believe that U.S. security alliances in general expose the United States to unnecessary risks in exchange for minimal benefits.

This book has argued for a diplomatic strategy that would make America’s security partners in the region the central pillar of this strategy and would arrange for them to play a larger role in regional security; but a leading U.S. role is also essential. Just as Europe witnessed in the years leading up to World War I, East Asia, too, will unlikely be able to peacefully establish on its own a stable balance of power. It is certainly too dangerous to take a risk with such an experiment, because the consequences of failure would be immense. By contrast we see how the opposite experiment, with the United States as the outside security provider, has allowed East Asia to become perhaps the most successful region in the world over the past seven decades. The United States has a strong interest in making sure that experiment continues to run.

Another criticism is that China’s military rise is simply a natural consequence of its economic and political rise and its need to protect its growing interests around the world. It is argued that this is a reality U.S. policymakers must therefore simply accept. It is true China’s military expansion is a consequence of its rising power and interests, but just because it is a natural and logical consequence of China’s rise does not mean it is not also dangerous to regional stability. Indeed, the rise of Athens in ancient Greece, Germany in the late nineteenth century, and Japan during the first half of the twentieth century were similarly “natural” and all led to clashing interests and war. It will take more than merely accommodating or accepting China’s rise as a great power to avoid similar disastrous results. Avoiding disaster will require astute policies that both actively balance China’s power and create effective incentives for China and the other players in the region.

This book has called for numerous reforms to U.S. military forces for the region. These reforms include increasing U.S. long-range striking power, establishing the capability to suppress China’s land-based “anti-navy” air and missile forces, and holding at risk other assets and conditions highly valued by China’s leaders. Many observers object to a strategy designed around the prospect of bombing China. They assert that such a plan only guarantees a large and damaging war, and potentially ruinous escalation.

The object of the strategy proposed in this book is preventing conflict in the region by bolstering deterrence. The proposed strategy is not a war plan. It is a strategy to manage a peacetime security competition in East Asia.

The strategy calls for preparing favorable and unfavorable consequences for China’s leaders to consider as they fashion their nation’s external policies. A credible U.S. strategy must include the ability to hold at risk those targets China’s leaders value. The United States, with its tiny number of stealthy long-range bombers and relatively small capacity to deliver Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles, currently lacks the needed capacity to threaten these targets during a conflict. China’s leaders will take that into consideration during a crisis. Perhaps most important, the United States cannot achieve its most important mission in the region, defending the freedom of navigation in the western Pacific, while China’s land-based antiship forces continue to threaten the sea lines of communication. A credible strategy will have to include the ability to hold these land-based targets at risk.

Finally, some will label a policy that responds to China’s assertions as “containment” and thus a throwback to the Cold War. But the strategy proposed here in no way resembles Cold War–style containment. The West’s containment of the Soviet Union during the Cold War was multidimensional. In addition to the military competition, the United States and the West battled the Soviet Union’s ideology and isolated it (until late in the period) economically and financially. Diplomatic contact was sparse and trade was virtually nonexistent until near the end. In sum, containment was broad-ranging isolation, imposed until, as George Kennan predicted early on, the Soviet Union’s internal weaknesses caused its ruin.

The policies proposed in this book in no way resemble containment. China’s economic and financial linkages with the world are large and expanding, trends the United States should welcome. There is no ideological competition with China, at least from the U.S. perspective (the leaders of China’s Communist Party may have a different view). Diplomatic contact between China and the United States is continuous and extensive. Far from containment, the strategy proposed in this book relies on positive (and negative) incentives to encourage China’s leadership to choose a path that benefits China, its neighbors, and the United States. This book has recommended U.S. military reforms that counter China’s military modernization and create a capacity to hold valuable Chinese assets and conditions at risk; but these reforms serve deterrence and regional stability and hardly amount to Cold War–style containment.

Those who are skeptical of maintaining America’s leading role in the region are concerned that the cost of that role is going up, perhaps sharply. On this, the skeptics are right—the costs are going up. But so too would be the consequences to the United States for surrendering that role. It will not be easy for the United States to sustain its position. But the benefits of doing so are still great and will exceed the costs and risks.

The Barriers to a New Strategy

If a better approach to China was obvious and easy to implement, that approach would already be current policy. There are several reasons why the United States does not have the policies for the region that it should; overcoming barriers to a better approach will be a challenge and will require leadership from policymakers.

The first barrier is overcoming the reluctance to recognize that the U.S. strategic position in the western Pacific is quickly deteriorating, a syndrome seemingly few policymakers, let alone the public, yet appreciate. Media attention on China has focused on its economic growth, its financial influence, its cyber espionage activities, and some of its internal social problems. China’s military modernization, by contrast, receives only occasional coverage in mainstream Western media. Most people inside the United States assume that American military power is still superior and free to roam as it has for decades; arguing that this will soon no longer be the case in East Asia is a novel thought to most observers and thus not easy to accept.

Next, U.S. policymakers, tasked with an entire world of security responsibilities, will struggle to decide how many resources to allocate to the growing security problems in the Asia-Pacific region. This book has focused narrowly on what the United States should do to respond to the challenge presented by China; it is explicitly not a template for how America should meet its global responsibilities. Many of the military capabilities proposed, such as new long-range strike aircraft, however, would be useful everywhere, not just in East Asia. Even so, policymakers will debate what draw on resources the China challenge properly merits. The Obama administration has identified the region as America’s top security priority. But that does not settle how much of the security pie it should receive. That is a question that very likely will never be finally settled.

With resources finite, allocating more to meeting the particular challenges in East Asia means allocating less elsewhere. The good news is that whenever U.S. policymakers have given their consistent attention to certain security threats, they have usually been successful at mitigating those threats. Four decades of consistent attention to Soviet power deterred conflict, prevented war, and protected Western values and institutions. In another example, once the U.S. security bureaucracy fully mobilized after 2001 to face the terrorism threat, large-scale terror attacks inside the United States did not recur. Likewise, if U.S. policymakers really make security in East Asia the priority they say it should be, they should be able to prevent conflict in the region from happening.

However, in a world of zero-sum security planning, U.S. policymakers will necessarily have to take risks. Even while defense planners averted conventional and nuclear war with the Soviet Union, irregular and proxy conflicts occurred in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere, with damage to U.S. interests. Neglecting the terrorist threat before 2001 led to a decade of costly interventions. The security challenge posed by China is arguably the most consequential the United States faces and therefore warrants the first call on attention and resources. But that will likely necessitate more risk elsewhere.

The greatest barrier to a better security strategy for Asia is the existing bureaucratic and institutional interests that will resist changes to the programs from which they currently benefit. There are large defense bureaucracies, industrial contractors, military bases, local constituencies, and supporting interest groups that have grown around the current defense posture and that will resist any radical change to it. Short-range tactical airpower and surface forces of all kinds are under increasing threat in the looming military environment. But these forces also constitute the overwhelming majority of the U.S. Defense Department’s current program of record. In theory, reallocating the same defense dollars into more useful programs and systems could see existing personnel, contractors, and communities transition to those new programs and systems. But that reassuring message likely won’t forestall bureaucratic and political resistance from risk-averse interests that fear change.

Overcoming these barriers to change will require persistent and bipartisan leadership from civilian political leaders and policymakers. These civilian leaders must learn about the quickly changing security situation in Asia and then formulate enduring policies that successive administrations will continue. Above all, success will require strong civilian leadership to implement the changes that numerous interests are likely to resist. That is asking a lot from America’s political system; but that is what the China challenge will require.

Entering a Danger Zone

The delayed response by U.S. policymakers to China’s military modernization has regrettably ensured that a period of danger for U.S. and allied interests will inevitably occur around the end of this decade. China’s development of its space- and land-based reconnaissance and command systems, and its land-based antiship air and naval forces, will begin to fully flower around 2020 and thereafter. However, U.S. responses, such as directed-energy missile defenses and alternatives to space-based command and control, are not likely to arrive in force until the second half of the next decade. Military improvements begun recently by China’s neighbors may similarly not mature until later next decade. New U.S. long-range aircraft and missiles could arrive sooner if made an urgent priority.

China’s leaders may perceive a narrow window of opportunity during which they might believe they will possess escalation dominance. These leaders might conclude that early next decade will be the last opportunity for China to settle its claims in the Near Seas and to obtain any other regional security interests its leadership feels China requires. The leaders of Imperial Germany, facing similar concerns about Russia’s growing economy and military power before World War I, felt themselves under pressure to employ their military option while it was still useful.

The fact that an improved U.S. military and diplomatic strategy for the region will create time pressure for China’s leaders is certainly not an argument that the United States should refrain from these reforms. Prolonging the period of danger—the consequence of further delaying or even rejecting reforms—makes no sense. U.S. military planners will attempt to get through this increasingly risky period by shifting more military assets into the region. This shift will increase the vulnerability of these mostly short-range forces to Chinese attack and will magnify the risk of “use it, or lose it” instability during a crisis. In order to escape these dangers, U.S. policymakers should urgently get on with the military reforms discussed in this book, reforms designed to increase the range and reduce the vulnerability of U.S. military power in the region.

In the long run, the Asia-Pacific region will avoid major conflict only after the players in the region establish incentives that reward cooperation and punish attempts to disrupt the existing rules-based system. For these incentives to be effective, they will have to endure changes in governments and policies as well as shifts in the region’s allocation of power and influence. Sadly, history is filled with occasions when swings in the balance of power, national and ethnic grievances, or the sudden arrival of aggressive leaders brought an end to long episodes of regional stability.

The United States and its partners should firmly pursue their interests; this book has described how they can do that. As they do so, they must also treat China with respect and ensure that China has a clear path for continued success, a path that does not detract from the potential of its neighbors or the United States. The United States and its partners should bolster their defenses quietly, but in full view of the PLA and China’s decision makers. The United States and its allies should do nothing to cause China’s leaders to lose face. But these leaders should also be fully aware of the consequences of continued assertive behavior.

Preparing for the security challenge posed by China’s growing military power is not an affront to China. Indeed, these preparations show respect for China’s arrival as a great power. That arrival now threatens the region’s hope for a rich and peaceful future. History is now calling on the United States to again lead its partners in a new effort to sustain the region’s balance and prosperity, an endeavor from which all will benefit.


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