A struggle is under way for mastery of Asia. Its course and outcome will be vital to the security of the United States, our allies, and other states in the region. Moreover, current U.S. strategy and forces are insufficient to meet emerging challenges. As a result, the United States should posture itself for a long-term peacetime competition with China. In addition, in the case of war, the United States and its allies should be prepared for a protracted and costly conflict. The United States must formulate and implement a “forward-leaning” strategy to protect its interests in Asia. This serious preparation is perhaps the best guarantee that the United States will never have to wage such a war.
Enduring U.S. Interests in Asia
At least since World War II, the United States has pursued a consistent set of objectives in the Asia-Pacific region. First and foremost, it has acted to defend U.S. territory, including not only the United States, but also its territories in the Western Pacific. Second, it is committed to protect its allies—Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand—as well as quasi-allies such as Taiwan. Third, it has acted over decades to assure access to the global commons in peacetime and command them in wartime. This has benefited both the United States and others: The free flow of goods, services, and information has undergirded economic growth and prosperity for decades. It has lifted literally millions out of poverty and served as the midwife of globalization. Fourth, the United States has for the past century sought to preserve a favorable balance of power across Eurasia. The United States has repeatedly used force when its territory or allies were attacked and when a would-be hegemon had threatened the balance of power in Eurasia. The United States twice intervened in Europe when it appeared that Germany was on the brink of dominating the continent. It similarly resisted Japan’s attempt at hegemony in the Pacific. During the Cold War, it sought to prevent the Soviet Union from becoming a Eurasian hegemon. After the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. defense planning similarly sought to prevent a would-be hegemon from rising.
The United States has developed a characteristic approach to protecting its interests in Asia. In peace and in war, the U.S. position in Asia has rested on a set of alliances, ground and air forces deployed on allied and U.S. territory, and carrier strike groups operating in the Western Pacific. Significantly, this approach to demonstrating its presence, reassuring allies, and deterring aggressors mirrors its concept of operations in wartime. However, such a posture represents a historical novelty. Traditionally, sea powers (whether Britain in the 18th through 20th centuries or the United States prior to World War II) relied on small combatants such as frigates to show the flag and coerce adversaries; they kept their capital ships concentrated in home waters to train and prepare for a decisive fleet battle. Today, the United States faces the dual challenge of not having enough naval forces for peacetime missions as well as relying up increasingly vulnerable forces for both peacetime and wartime missions.
The Chinese Challenge
China has for some time been working systematically to undermine the American approach to assurance, deterrence, and warfighting. Specifically, its military modernization gives it the ability to decouple America’s allies from the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent, destroy fixed bases in the region, and threaten U.S. power-projection forces. This, in turn, could allow China to coerce U.S. allies and friends in the region, hold U.S. forces at arms length, and control the seas along the Asian periphery.
Decoupling our allies from the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent. China’s propensity for secrecy and deception has raised questions, at least among some analysts, regarding the overall size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal.1 Beijing has invested heavily for decades in tunneling and underground facilities to conceal its nuclear missile force, among other things.2 Moreover, it is currently increasing the size and survivability of its nuclear weapons.
The United States, by contrast, is reducing its nuclear arsenal. The U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons has decreased more than 75 percent since the Berlin Wall fell in late 1989.3 Of greater relevance to the U.S. extended nuclear-deterrence commitments, the United States eliminated approximately 90 percent of its non-strategic weapons between 1991 and 2009. The Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review went further, eliminating the nuclear-armed Tomahawk land-attack missile, which the Japanese government saw as the embodiment of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrence-guarantee.
The buildup of Chinese nuclear forces, combined with the drawdown of their American counterpart, means that in a future crisis the United States will possess a limited ability to contain escalation. This, in turn, could deter the United States from intervening in a crisis in support of its interests. In addition, the increasing vulnerability of tactical nuclear delivery platforms could lead to crisis instability.
Destroying fixed targets in the region. The United States relies heavily on ports, airfields, and logistical sites along the Asian littoral to support its peacetime presence, reassure allies, and deter aggression. In time of war, these locations—currently in Japan, South Korea, and on U.S. territory in the Western Pacific—would serve as forward operating bases for U.S. combat forces.
These bases are, however, increasingly vulnerable. According to one Defense Department estimate, China has 17 or 18 short- and medium-range ballistic-missile brigades with between 1,300 and 1,800 ballistic and cruise missiles for land attack. In March 2012, photos emerged of what may be a new Chinese intermediate-range ballistic missile that could have sufficient range to reach Guam.4 In addition to ballistic missiles, China has deployed between 300 and 350 launchers for its missiles, most of which are mobile.5 In time of war, it is increasingly likely that Chinese missiles would be able to shut down operations on Taiwanese airfields, preventing Taiwan from controlling the Taiwan Strait, and U.S. airfields in Japan, preventing the United States from supporting Taiwan.
Threatening U.S. power projection forces. China is also increasing its ability to threaten U.S. power-projection forces. The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) development of the DF-21D antiship ballistic missile, which could give China the ability to strike ships up to 1,500 km from China’s shores, has received considerable attention.6 Moreover, at least one analyst has argued that longer-range systems are likely to follow.7 In addition, China is deploying increasingly modern diesel and nuclear attack submarines that are capable of firing antiship cruise missiles, surface combatants with advanced antiair and antiship missiles, and maritime strike aircraft armed with antiship cruise missiles to engage surface combatants.8
The United States faces three fundamental strategic alternatives as it seeks to match ends and means in an increasingly turbulent environment: accept increasing risk, reduce commitments, or increase capabilities.
The first alternative is to continue our current approach to the region, that is, to pursue broad objectives even as the military balance shifts against the United States. By relying upon increasingly vulnerable forward-based forces for reassurance and deterrence, the United States would incur additional risk. Moreover, as the size of the Navy decreases, it will be increasingly difficult to maintain an American presence there. As a result, a continuation of the United States’ current posture in the region will over time lead to progressively greater strategic and operational risk.
The second alternative, favored by neo-isolationists of various stripes, would be to scale back U.S. commitments and accept a narrower definition of America’s role in the world than we have played for the better part of a century.9 Such a strategy would have the United States pull back from the Asian littoral and rely on allies to shoulder a greater portion of the load, husbanding its resources against the possible emergence of a peer competitor.
Reducing commitments is, however, easier said than done and threatens to trade reduced operational risk for increased strategic risk. In addition, offshore balancing reflects a sense of defeatism that is unwarranted. Although complacency would be unwise, it would be misguided to argue that the only, or even the best, option for the United States is to reduce its commitments in Asia.
The third approach is a forward-leaning strategy that would balance the need to reduce the vulnerability of U.S. forces while maintaining our commitments. It would rest on a mixture of forward-based and standoff capabilities. To reduce operational risk while not sacrificing America’s strategic interests, it would feature greater specialization between forces for keeping the peace and those for fighting wars than does the current force posture.
The Key Elements
A forward-leaning strategy for Asia would rest upon two pillars: an effort to conduct a long-term competition with China in peacetime and measures to convince China that it cannot fight and win a quick regional war.
A long-term peacetime competition approach would seek to blunt the momentum of Chinese military modernization, channel Chinese resources away from the most disruptive capabilities, and bolster deterrence.10 China’s military modernization is currently imposing significant costs on the United States and its allies, including considerable investments to counter China’s deployment of precision-guided conventional missiles, including its antiship ballistic missiles. The United States should adopt approaches to impose costs on China and force China to take on difficult military problems—problems that take considerable time and resources to respond to. During the Cold War, for example, the United States’ pursuit of a manned penetrating bomber forced the Soviet Union to invest considerable resources in air defenses, thereby denying those resources to more offensive purposes.11
The United States and its allies should increase their ability to strike at a distance and to strike deep into Chinese territory, both to strengthen deterrence and to force Beijing to increase its investments in active and passive defenses. The evidence suggests, for example, that Beijing already devotes considerable resources to hardening and tunneling; That tendency should be reinforced. China’s resources, as much as those of the United States, are limited: Investments in defensive capabilities represent resources that will not be available for offensive arms.
As a complement to a long-term peacetime competition strategy, the United States and its allies should seek to convince China that it cannot fight and win a quick regional war. This, in turn, requires that we prepare to do three things. First, we must posture ourselves to avoid a quick defeat. The lack of such a capability could tempt an aggressor into launching a first strike in the hope of crippling the United States’ ability to respond. The United States needs both to shift the balance somewhat between forward-based and deployable forces and to ensure that forward-based forces are more survivable. Such moves will strengthen deterrence by preventing the PLA from believing it can win a quick victory through a first strike.
Second, given the scope and magnitude of Chinese military modernization, it is increasingly unlikely that any war involving China would be a short one. Rather, any such conflict would likely be protracted and expensive. The United States needs to prepare for such a conflict, and this includes revitalizing our defense industrial base and reviving mobilization planning. Preparedness to wage and win a long war will further strengthen deterrence by demonstrating that a first strike against the United States would not be decisive.
Third, the United States and its allies need to present China with the need to fight a wider war, one that would involve many U.S. allies and partners, rather than a narrow one. One of the most powerful ways to deter a conflict with China may be to convince the leadership in Beijing that it would face a war in multiple theaters rather than one confined to the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea. Capabilities to hold at risk China’s sea lines of communication, for example, might prove a potent deterrent.
Acquiring Needed Capabilities
In a period of limited and increasingly constrained defense resources, the United States needs to look for defense options that promise especially high leverage in the context of the changing military balance in the Asia-Pacific. Three such options stand out: developing a coalition intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) network in the Western Pacific, bolstering allied undersea warfare, and expanding the range of bases open to the United States.
A coalition ISR network for the Western Pacific. It makes sense for the United States to seek new ways of reassuring our allies and friends and generating collective responses to crisis and aggression. A coalition ISR network represents a promising approach to do just that. First, the United States is stepping up its ISR assets and recently deployed Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Guam. Second, a growing number of U.S. allies and friends in the region are interested in acquiring new ISR assets. According to press reports, for example, many of these states are interested in acquiring high-altitude long-endurance UAVs. Third, key allies are interested in increasing their situational awareness in the region. As part of its ongoing force-posture review, for instance, Australia is exploring the use of the Cocos Island for maritime air patrol and surveillance activities.12
Although information-sharing agreements exist between the United States and its allies and partners in Asia-Pacific, most are bilateral. By contrast, a coalition ISR architecture would be designed to be open to all: States would contribute ISR assets and in return would receive the common operating picture the network generated.
A coalition ISR architecture would have several advantages. First, it would provide the United States, its regional allies, and friends a common picture of activity in the Western Pacific. Such a shared understanding may be a necessary precondition for collective action. Second, such an approach could represent a significant deterrent to hostile action. It would be harder for an aggressor to act without being caught, and an attack on the network would amount to an attack on all its members.
Allied undersea warfare cooperation. The United States has enjoyed a hard-earned comparative advantage in undersea warfare for decades. Moreover, America is fortunate to have as allies states such as Great Britain, Japan, Australia, and Canada, which also have highly capable undersea forces. The United States should ensure that we and our Pacific allies retain this comparative advantage. We should, for example, encourage Canberra to develop the shore infrastructure that would allow U.S. nuclear attack submarines to operate out of or rotate through Perth and Brisbane.13 We should also facilitate cooperation with and among Asian states that have diesel submarines and develop cooperative expertise in antisubmarine warfare. We should also offer to develop increasingly capable unmanned undersea vehicles with our close allies. Finally, we should offer to lease or sell Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines to Australia to replace the aging Collins-class attack boats.
Expanded basing options. Bases are a key element of the U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. They are a central pillar of U.S. presence, reassurance, and deterrence. That having been said, the risk to U.S. forward-based forces is clearly increasing. We need to balance the operational risk to our forces against the strategic risk of pulling back from the region. A balanced approach should include hardening existing bases against attack. This is particularly important at Andersen Air Base on Guam and Kadena Air Base in Japan. The United States should invest in hardened shelters as well as rapid runway repair kits for each of its major bases in the theater.
Hardening existing bases needs to be complemented by an expansion of the U.S. basing network in the region; an expanded network should balance between bases on sovereign U.S. territory and those on allied or friendly territory. Bases on U.S. territory assure access, whereas those on allied nations’ territory provide reassurance. The United States should also invest in an expeditionary basing capability.
The United States faces challenging times ahead in the Asia-Pacific region. The rise of China and its corresponding military modernization, combined with constraints on the U.S. defense budget, mean that in coming years the United States is likely to face an increase in both the operational risk to U.S. forces as well as the strategic risk to U.S. interests. It will take greater effort for the United States to protect its historic interests. Failure to adjust the structure and posture of our forces in the region threatens to open a widening gap between capabilities and commitments.
If complacency in the face of growing threats would be unwarranted, so too would be despair. There is quite simply no need to accept a narrower conception of the American role in the world. The United States has the power to field forces that will safeguard our interests at an acceptable level of risk. To do this requires first and foremost the political will to explain not just the costs but also the benefits of a vigorous U.S. role in the region, to seek adequate funding for an enhanced presence there and to work with allies and friends to make that posture a reality.
2. Phillip A. Karber, “Strategic Implications of China’s Underground Great Wall,” briefing, 26 September 2011, at www.fas.org/nuke/guide/china/Karber_UndergroundFacilities-Full_2011_reduced.pdf.
3. “Fact Sheet: Increasing Transparency in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Stockpile” (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, May 3, 2010).
4. Bill Gertz, “China Unveils New Nuke Missile,” Washington Free Beacon, 7 March 2012, at www.freebeacon.com/china-unveils-new-nuke-missile.
5. Ron Christman, “China’s Second Artillery Corps: Capabilities and Missions for the Near Seas,” presentation to the Naval War College, China Maritime Studies Institute Annual Conference, May 2011.
6. Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang, “Chinese Analysts Assess the Potential for Antiship Ballistic Missiles,” Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011).
7. Mark Stokes, “China’s Evolving Conventional Strategic Strike Capability: The Anti-ship Ballistic Missile Challenge to U.S. Maritime Operations in the Western Pacific and Beyond,” (Arlington, VA: Project 2049 Institute, 2009).
8. Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 2011), 29.
9. See, for example, Barry R. Posen, “The Case for Restraint,” The American Interest, November/December 2007.
10. For a discussion of the subject, see Thomas G. Mahnken, editor, Competitive Strategies for the Twenty-First Century: Theory, History, and Practice (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012).
11. See the discussion in Thomas G. Mahnken, Technology and the American Way of War since 1945 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 163-4.
12. Australian Defence Force Posture Review: Initial Assessments Against the Review’s Terms of Reference, Attachment C, at www.defence.gov.au/oscdf/adf-posture-review/docs/interim/AttachC.pdf.
13. Australian Defence Force Posture Review: Initial Assessments Against the Review’s Terms of Reference, Attachment C, at www.defence.gov.au/oscdf/adf-posture-review/docs/interim/AttachC.pdf.