U.S. Asia-Pacific Strategy’s Missing Link: How to Work With China
“It’s the long-term question affecting American access in Asia: What role China will play,” said Michael J. Green, co-author of anindependent study by the Center for Strategic & International Studies on U.S. force posture strategy in the Asia-Pacific region.
The study was commissioned by the Department of Defense and delivered to Congress July 24.
The administration’s Asia-Pacific strategy that was unveiled in January has been “complicated to develop and articulate [because] we don’t know what China is,” Green said during a CSIS news conference Aug. 2.
An underlying weakness in the strategy is that it focuses on U.S. military presence in Asia, in isolation from diplomacy, trade policy and other non-military elements of government that are just as important in maintaining American influence in the region, he said.
Green said he agrees with President’s Obama’s observation that China and the United States have an “enormous stake in each other’s success.” The defense establishment, meanwhile, continues to view U.S.-China issues in binary terms, as it did during the Cold War against the Soviets. The world is much more complex now, Green said. It’s actually in the U.S. best interest that China become economically strong, he added. “A weak China is not good for us economically, and presents security challenges.”
Having a military strategy is a good start, but it is not enough, Green said. “We have to have an effective trade policy, and diplomacy. It’s not just about preparing to fight with China,” he added. “If the strategy becomes about preparing to fight with China, countries will not sign up for that.”
The Defense Department fueled concerns in Asia about U.S. plans in the region when it launched an “air-sea battle” effort last year focused on how to fight wars against emerging powers or peer competitors. The plan raised alarms across Asia, and particularly in China. “If you’re in Beijing you’re thinking that the U.S. policy towards China is to prepare to go deep and bomb Chinese cities,” Green said. Although U.S. Navy and Air Force officials publicly insisted that the air-sea battle concept was not aimed at China, the issue only created more confusion not just among U.S. allies but also in Congress, Green said.
The militaristic nature of the U.S. policy toward Asia baffled countries there where civilian authorities are in control of the military, he said. “The political leadership [of U.S. Asian allies] need to understand what the strategy is. Congress needs to understand,” he said. “That is why things like air-sea battle are sending confusing signals.”
U.S. policy has to take into account that there is limited civilian oversight of China’s People’s Liberation Army, said Green. “The Foreign Ministry typically doesn’t know what the PLA is doing, and there is no civilian department of defense.”
The complexity China’s role as a sometimes friend, sometimes foe, presents a huge test for U.S. policy, Green said. “The reality is that we have to walk and chew gum at the same time.”
The Pentagon certainly should seek to develop weapons that can defeat China’s flexing muscles, Green said. Asian allies expect the United States to provide strong deterrence, which means U.S. forces will need to be forward-deployed, said Green. The CSIS study offers detailed recommendations on how to position forces in the region.
Green also warned against overestimating China’s military might.
“Chinese military modernization has been rapid. More rapid than most estimates expected five to 10 years ago,” he said. The People's Liberation Army, which organizes all land, sea, strategic missiles and air forces, has developed weapons that would threaten U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, according to another CSIS study by analyst Anthony Cordesman. The PLA also has advanced its cyber warfare skills, andhas built modern attack submarines, surface combatants and tactical aircraft.
“That changes the operating environment the U.S. military has to think about in the Western Pacific,” Green said. “That complicates our planning.”
U.S. policy makers, however, should be aware that China has enormous challenges, Green said. “There is endemic corruption in the PLA. They don’t have anywhere close to the experience the U.S. military has in combined joint operations at the senior level,” he said. “And they don’t have any allies they can rely on … whereas the United States has a wide range of important allies.” China also is hugely vulnerable because its strategic supply routes are entirely dependent on open sea lanes, Green said. Over 90 percent of China’s hydrocarbons are imported from the Middle East over sea through the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. “China has lots of dependencies and vulnerabilities.”
Armed confrontation with China cannot be ruled out, however. Green recalled that in 1928 Thomas Lamont, president of JP Morgan, said under similar circumstances as today that there was no possible way the United States and Japan would ever fight.
“There is always the danger of miscalculations, of wrong signals,” he said. “China’s capabilities are picking up. But they have a long ways to go before it can be a peer competitor.”
David J. Berteau, senior vice president of CSIS and a co-author of the Asia-Pacific force posture study, said that a military competition between the United States and China is the “wrong framework with which to look at the issue.” A Cold War arms race is clearly the “wrong way to go,” he said. “We should not allow us to fall back into that mentality when it comes to China.”
For the U.S. military, a more immediate concern is whether there will be political and financial support for its Asia strategy.
Following a decade of draining wars, the natural tendency of American politicians and voters will be to want to retrench, said Berteau.
The Pentagon was expected to start budgeting for future Asia deployments in fiscal year 2014. But the current standoff in Washington over spending and taxes — and looming $500 billion in budget cuts for the Pentagon over the next decade — will keep plans in limbo for several months.
“Much of what we propose for rebalancing is not all that expensive,” Berteau said. “You could do it with the forces you have there now.”
No matter what happens with the budget, he said, “if the priorities are distributed properly, the money will be there to sustain the force posture necessary for the Asia-Pacific region.”
To secure political support, Berteau said, administration officials need to more clearly articulate the strategy “in a way that the public, our allies and Congress can go along with it.”
Green said the current uncertainty over budget cuts is “potentially debilitating” to U.S. interests in Asia. “In the near term, we’re paying an influence price. We are hurting ourselves. … I don’t think the sequestration process is helping us.”