After three decades of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, it is tempting to dismiss the possibility of tension and conflict in that critical region. But the breaking down of the post-Vietnam war great power peace should be a legitimate worry for the U.S. government. America’s military forces have an important role to play in Asia for the foreseeable future. The questions for our military leaders are what are the Asia missions, what forces are needed, and how will we fight alongside our allies?
The remarkable economic growth of the “Asian tigers”—Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and, more recently, China—did not happen in a vacuum. Despite domestic political pressure, American presidents decided time and again to keep substantial military forces deployed in the region. This military presence, variously referred to as the “security umbrella” or the “oxygen,” set the conditions for Asian elites to embark on the policies that led to economic growth and relatively peaceful relations. Without America as guarantor, those same Asian countries would likely have engaged in costly military competitions—perhaps even wars—and many would have tried to acquire nuclear weapons. America’s forward deployment of forces and its network of alliances did the job, helping Asians set themselves on a course of 30 years of prosperity.
Yet, today, there are a number of developments that threaten the region’s stability.
First, North Korea has conventional missiles that can destroy Seoul and gravely damage Japan. It also has a nuclear arsenal. The North’s brutal dictatorship could, moreover, suddenly collapse: leaving South Korea, Japan, the United States, and China scrambling to find and secure weapons of mass destruction while stabilizing the state. The allies and China have very different notions about what a secure Korean Peninsula means. -China’s pursuit of its own goals during a crisis is a recipe for trouble.
Second, Southeast Asia suffers the scourge of radical Islam. The U.S. military may be called upon to help respond to terrorist attacks—as it has been doing, with a light footprint, for almost a decade in the Philippines.
And then there is China, which has the greatest potential to undermine the Asia-Pacific peace. China has translated its economic resources into an impressive and growing military arsenal. Its Second Artillery ballistic and cruise missile forces pose a particular threat to U.S. and allied air supremacy in the “first island chain” (Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines). China’s missiles could seriously damage and ground most U.S. air assets at our most important Pacific base—Kadena in Japan. The Second Artillery is refining a land-based anti-ship ballistic missile. China could soon have the capability both to establish local air supremacy and to hit any surface ship coming its way from the Western Pacific.
China has a growing fleet of diesel and nuclear submarines. The diesel boats, which can stay longer undersea, carry arsenals sufficient to enforce a blockade of Taiwan and threaten surface ships in and around China’s littorals. With a new base in Hainan Island, China’s nuclear submarine force has easy access to the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait. Given historic Sino-Indian mistrust and America’s reliance on the Indian Ocean for its own energy trade, -China’s ability to cause mischief at critical Pacific and Indian Ocean chokepoints is a serious strategic development.
Some experts argue that just because China has developed these capabilities does not mean that it will use them to threaten America or its allies. India, too, the logic goes, is undertaking a military modernization program. This is simply what great powers do. But it is the character of a rising power that matters. Those who take comfort in the assertion that “all great powers do it” should consider China’s revanchist claims, its troubling international activities, and its internal dynamics.
Even with a government in Taiwan that has abandoned any claim to independence, China has not renounced its right to use force against the island. It continues the unrelenting military buildup of a force across the strait that was only supposed to “deter Taiwan’s independence.”
The Chinese navy is increasing the frequency of its sojourns into disputed waters in the South and East China Seas. The Indians find themselves encircled by a network of Chinese maritime facilities. U.S. Navy ships have been harassed by Chinese vessels during lawful missions in international waters. The Chinese military is interested in expanding control of its maritime periphery and keeping the United States out. U.S. Navy access to these waters has been a source of reassurance to our allies during Asia’s 30-year peace.
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.