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Losing Asia?

If we stint on our military investment in the Pacific, we’ll pay a high price.

Jun 7, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 36 • By DAN BLUMENTHAL
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Beijing embarked on its military modernization program after the Cold War, a unique moment of peace and security in China’s history. It did not choose to focus on homeland defense, on the threats posed by terrorism or nuclear proliferation, or on modest programs that would allow China to continue to grow in peace while guarding against potential attack. That is what the rest of the world was doing. Nor after the 9/11 attacks, and consequent threats to all non-Islamic nations, did China change its posture and contribute to global efforts to eradicate terrorist safe havens. Rather, it continued to invest in power projection capabilities.

This decision was driven by a deep sense that China must right the wrongs of the past and recover from “a century of humiliation.” Taiwan needs to be reclaimed, Japan rendered impotent, and U.S. access to China’s periphery impeded. Nor can China bear the humiliation of relying on the United States to keep safe the commons for Chinese trade. In the view of the hypernationalist leaders within the government, the rest of Asia must accept the country’s rightful place at the top of the Asian political hierarchy. 

China, in short, seeks to frustrate our most basic aims in the Asia-Pacific: maintaining the political order that has helped produce a set of mostly democratic and free market economies in the region and assuring that they continue to develop free from domination by any other power.

We have responded very modestly to the erosion of our favorable military position in Asia. During the Clinton years, we upgraded our relations with Japan and began talks with the Indians that led to a strategic breakthrough in the next administration. Under Bush, we also transferred maritime and aerospace assets into the Pacific. But no significant steps have been taken toward building a more robust deterrent in the Pacific, one that can face down Chinese intransigence.

There are numerous instances of American negligence in this regard. Our attack submarine program is unstable—with the numbers appearing to be shrinking. We cancelled the tactical air program—the F-22—that could have operated most effectively against China’s sophisticated air defenses. We have not done the basic work of hardening and securing our present land bases or diversifying them. Our surface ship programs are shrinking and are not optimized for undersea warfare. Our most promising defense against Chinese missiles—directed energy—is not being properly funded. Our tanker fleet, needed to refuel attack aircraft in a region with very long logistical lines, remains depleted and old. New and promising programs that are in their experimental phases—such as naval-based unmanned aerial vehicles and long-range strike assets—should have been funded a decade ago. 

In addition, we have only paid lip service to our partnerships. With the advanced economies and militaries in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Australia, and India, real alliances require exporting high-technology equipment and systems. We have not taken the basic step of reforming export controls so that we can more easily sell our allies the weapons they need and then train with them on the common systems. (One particularly jarring consequence is that the French or the Russians may end up selling fighters to India, even though our airmen are more likely to one day fight alongside them.) All of these countries are investing in submarines, anti-submarine surface ships, cruise missiles, and tactical aircraft that can engage in maritime strike missions. We are missing a strategic opportunity to build a region-wide network of allies around common security concerns.

Our strategic requirements necessitate more military investment in the Asia-Pacific on an expedited schedule, as well as creative strategic thinking about building alliances with countries that are already funding their own military modernization programs. Investing properly in air supremacy, undersea warfare, and missile defenses will be costly. But the cost is nowhere near the price we will pay if the region—which has enjoyed a long run of peace, stability, and prosperity—descends into chaos or conflict.

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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