Former President George W. Bush's critics liked to say that during his term America was "getting its derriere kicked" by China. By this the critics presumably meant that the war in Iraq was a big distraction and that the United States was not attending enough Asian multilateral conferences and showing off its "soft power."
While the case was never overwhelming, it contained a kernel of truth. Beijing did gain regional influence at Washington's expense under former President Bush's watch. Now President Barack Obama is doing his predecessor one better: By imposing draconian defense cuts, heavily targeted on high-technology weapons systems and "power-projection" platforms essential to preserving U.S. military superiority in the Pacific, America may not have much of a derriere left in Asia at all.
Though "soft power" and "smart power" are all the rage in foreign-policy circles, Asia remains a dangerous place where good, old-fashioned "hard power" still matters. Certainly China and North Korea think so. Pyongyang poses a major conventional threat to South Korea and is inching closer to obtaining delivery systems for nuclear weapons that can pose a threat both to Japan and the continental U.S. Pyongyang's ballistic missile launch this month is only the latest sign of its growing threat to regional security.
China has built up its military across the board. Its submarine fleet has grown faster than any other in the world, it now has a large and lethal arsenal of conventional cruise and ballistic missiles, and it has announced plans to deploy aircraft carriers. Worrying about China is far from a case of what Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls "next war-itis." The U.S. isn't in a war with China--mercifully--but there is a military competition. China has already changed the military balance in the Asia-Pacific region to the great consternation of America's key allies, such as Japan and India.
The point is not that Washington is poised to go to war with North Korea and China. To the contrary, only by maintaining its role as Asia's security guarantor can the U.S. hope to secure an enduring peace in this dynamic region.
That is why the Obama administration's defense cuts are so detrimental to American strategy. The day after North Korea's long-range missile test, the U.S. announced deep cuts to missile defense and satellite programs. The Airborne Laser program that Mr. Obama axed is not only the most promising and immediate method for intercepting ballistic missiles in the early "boost" phase, shortly after launch, but also the first significant use of directed energy, a technology that may prove to be yet another revolutionary change in warfare sparked by American ingenuity.
There are further implications for Asia in the Obama defense cuts: The decision to reduce production of stealthy F-22s ends any hope that Japan can buy this air supremacy aircraft and add to its own deterrent. Nor can American dominance of the skies, historically the cornerstone of U.S. military superiority, be assured.
Also missing from the defense budget is any increase in the submarine or surface fleet. The Navy set a goal of a 313-ship fleet only a few years ago, up from around 280 today (roughly half of the total at the end of the Cold War), yet the Obama plan falls well short of that number.
Indeed, the yin of American cuts is almost perfectly reflected in the yang of China's skyrocketing investments in its own fleet. This will inevitably chip away at America's ability to track the Chinese deployment of submarines throughout the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. Just last month China demonstrated its newfound military muscle when its warships harassed an American surveillance vessel conducting lawful missions in the South China Sea.
Worse still, growing Chinese dominance of Pacific waterways will begin to affect maritime commerce and will soon become a factor in America's strategic calculus in the region. Chinese military attack boats and ballistic missile submarines that carry the means for nuclear attack cannot be easily dismissed if the U.S. is to maintain its status as keeper of the peace in the Pacific. And regional commanders, presented with the reality of this growing imbalance between the U.S. and China, will be forced to give up important regional missions, from presence and security cooperation in South East Asia to deterring aggression and defending allies in North Asia.
In announcing his defense cuts, Mr. Gates stated that he was making "a virtue of necessity," conceding that the Obama plan was an exercise in budget cutting to pay for favored domestic programs. Mr. Gates promises that he will explain his judgments about "balancing risks" sometime soon, but a risk assessment is no substitute for a strategy. If Mr. Obama wants to continue America's strategy of guaranteeing Asia's security, his defense plan will not give him the means.
In the near future, Mr. Obama will announce his policies toward China and North Korea and they will, in some way, continue those of his predecessors. He will undoubtedly want to "engage" China and "hedge" against a downturn in relations. He will pronounce a nuclear North Korea unacceptable to the U.S. The problem is that without the military power to back up America's diplomatic goals, these policy proclamations ring increasingly hollow. America's allies know it. And, even worse, China and North Korea know it. The question is, can Congress find the political will to stop these cuts and the blow they strike to U.S. objectives in Asia?
Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI.