AMERICA’S fiscal woes are placing the country on a path of growing strategic risk in Asia.
With Democrats eager to protect social spending and Republicans anxious to avoid tax hikes, and both saying the national debt must be brought under control, we can expect sustained efforts to slash the defense budget. Over the next 10 years, cuts in planned spending could total half a trillion dollars. Even as the Pentagon saves money by pulling back from Afghanistan and Iraq, there will be fewer dollars with which to buy weapons or develop new ones.
Unfortunately, those constraints are being imposed just as America faces a growing strategic challenge. Fueled by economic growth of nearly 10 percent a year, China has been engaged for nearly two decades in a rapid and wide-ranging military buildup. China is secretive about its intentions, and American strategists have had to focus on other concerns since 9/11. Still, the dimensions, direction and likely implications of China’s buildup have become increasingly clear.
When the cold war ended, the Pacific Ocean became, in effect, an American lake. With its air and naval forces operating through bases in friendly countries like Japan and South Korea, the United States could defend and reassure its allies, deter potential aggressors and insure safe passage for commercial shipping throughout the Western Pacific and into the Indian Ocean. Its forces could operate everywhere with impunity.
But that has begun to change. In the mid-1990s, China started to put into place the pieces of what Pentagon planners refer to as an “anti-access capability.” In other words, rather than trying to match American power plane for plane and ship for ship, Beijing has sought more cost-effective ways to neutralize it. It has been building large numbers of relatively inexpensive but highly accurate non-nuclear ballistic missiles, as well as sea- and air-launched cruise missiles. Those weapons could destroy or disable the handful of ports and airfields from which American air and naval forces operate in the Western Pacific and sink warships whose weapons could reach the area from hundreds of miles out to sea, including American aircraft carriers.
The Chinese military has also been testing techniques for disabling American satellites and cybernetworks, and it is adding to its small arsenal of long-range nuclear missiles that can reach the United States.
Although a direct confrontation seems unlikely, China appears to seek the option of dealing a knockout blow to America’s forward forces, leaving Washington with difficult choices about how to respond.
Those preparations do not mean that China wants war with the United States. To the contrary, they seem intended mostly to overawe its neighbors while dissuading Washington from coming to their aid if there is ever a clash. Uncertain of whether they can rely on American support, and unable to match China’s power on their own, other countries may decide they must accommodate China’s wishes.
In the words of the ancient military theorist Sun Tzu, China is acquiring the means to “win without fighting” — to establish itself as Asia’s dominant power by eroding the credibility of America’s security guarantees, hollowing out its alliances and eventually easing it out of the region.
If the United States and its Asian friends look to their own defenses and coordinate their efforts, there is no reason they cannot maintain a favorable balance of power, even as China’s strength grows. But if they fail to respond to China’s buildup, there is a danger that Beijing could miscalculate, throw its weight around and increase the risk of confrontation and even armed conflict. Indeed, China’s recent behavior in disputes over resources and maritime boundaries with Japan and the smaller states that ring the South China Sea suggest that this already may be starting to happen.
This is a problem that cannot simply be smoothed away by dialogue. China’s military policies are not the product of a misunderstanding; they are part of a deliberate strategy that other nations must now find ways to meet. Strength deters aggression; weakness tempts it. Beijing will denounce such moves as provocative, but it is China’s actions that currently threaten to upset the stability of Asia.
Many of China’s neighbors are more willing than they were in the past to ignore Beijing’s complaints, increase their own defense spending and work more closely with one another and the United States.
They are unlikely, however, to do those things unless they are convinced that America remains committed. Washington does not have to shoulder the entire burden of preserving the Asian power balance, but it must lead.
The Pentagon needs to put a top priority on finding ways to counter China’s burgeoning anti-access capabilities, thereby reducing the likelihood that they will ever be used. This will cost money. To justify the necessary spending in an era of austerity, our leaders will have to be clearer in explaining the nation’s interests and commitments in Asia and blunter in describing the challenge posed by China’s relentless military buildup.
By Aaron L. Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton and the author of A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia.