The Erosion of U.S. Power in Asia

When George W. Bush was president, critics of his Asia policy liked to say that America was "getting its derriere kicked" by China. By this the critics meant that the war in Iraq was a big distraction and that the United States was not attending enough Asian multilateral conferences, where it could demonstrate its "soft power."

While this case against the Bush administration was never wholly convincing, it did contain a kernel of truth. Beijing did gain regional influence at Washington's expense under Mr. Bush's watch. But Beijing did so not through kinder and gentler diplomacy alone; rather, China grew its military at a rapid clip and the region took note.

If President Bush somewhat neglected this troubling turn in Asia's balance of power, President Barack Obama is doing his predecessor one better. His administration's recent announcement to cut defense programs puts America's long-standing military superiority in the Pacific at risk. If left standing, these cuts--heavily targeted on high-technology weapons systems and "power-projection" platforms essential to preserving that superiority--might mean that America doesn't have much of a derriere left in Asia at all.

Though "soft power" and "smart power" (as opposed, one presumes, to the "stupid power" exercised by President Obama's predecessors) are all the rage in the Obama administration, Asia remains a dangerous place where good, old-fashioned "hard power" still matters. Since World War II, the U.S. military has guaranteed the peace and prosperity that, with few exceptions, have characterized the region. Yet no peace keeps itself; someone has to enforce it. This truism is particularly true in Asia, where just beneath the surface America's allies fear a rising China, a nuclear North Korea, and the continued threat of jihadi terrorism. In short, America's military presence in the region is as important as ever.

One need only scan a map of the region to understand the totality of America's strategic tasks in Asia. The geographical area encompassing the American Pacific Command's "area of operations" includes 50% of the world's population, 36 countries within 15 time zones, the world's three largest economies and five largest militaries. In addition, the U.S. has five alliances to attend to in the region.

Growing Chinese dominance of Pacific waterways will inevitably become a factor in America's strategic calculus in the region.

While the Pacific Command's main jobs are shielding Japan, South Korea and Taiwan against aggression and maintaining its solid alliance with Australia, on any given day Pacific forces further could be simultaneously engaged in antiterrorist exercises with the Philippines, humanitarian relief operations in Oceania, military exchanges with India, helping to professionalize the Indonesian military and policing the vital sea lanes through which one third of the world's trade travels.

In fulfilling its security duties in the region, the U.S. military is providing one of the principle public goods of East Asia. To be sure, America's regional allies want Washington to participate in Asia's many diplomatic conferences and contribute to regional economic integration. But to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, one of the first American statesman to recognize the Pacific's importance, as much as Asians want the U.S. to "speak softly," they also want it to carry a "big stick." They welcome the U.S. for its unique ability to ensure a stable balance of power in a region marked by a rising global power, China, and a weak but dangerous nuclear nation, North Korea.

All regional allies know that China has not become a postmodern, European-style power that eschews military force. To the contrary, China has become quite fond of its newfound military muscle. Beijing proudly displayed that might last week in Qingdao, as China celebrated the 60th anniversary of her growing navy.

Neither has the conventional threat North Korea poses to its southern neighbor and Japan disappeared. Tokyo watches in dismay as Pyongyang inches ever closer to acquiring the means to deliver its nuclear weapons.

But it is the transformation of Chinese military power that is causing the most Asian heartburn. 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 already a military competition.

Take China's submarine fleet for example. Since 1995 China placed into service 38 new submarines--a rate of 2.9 per year. In contrast, during the same period of time the U.S. has reduced its submarine force by about 25 boats.

The Chinese have not only noticed the imbalance, they are counting on a continued decline in America's Pacific naval power. China's Rear Admiral Yang Yi gloated that "China already exceeds the United States in [submarine production] five times over . . . 18 [U.S. submarines--the amount resident in the Pacific] against 75 or more Chinese submarines is obviously not encouraging [from a U.S. perspective]." The Chinese admiral is spot on. U.S. boats are superior, though the quality gap is closing. And in this vast region, numbers matter.

The rise of the Chinese submarine fleet and symmetrical decline in American subs is reflective of a broader trend. China is well on its way to having the greatest number of fighter planes, surface ships, missiles and submarines in the region. U.S. Secretary Gates rightly wants the military to concentrate on the "wars we are in." But we cannot do so at the expense of the military competition we are in. China military strength is not some futuristic abstraction. Indeed, we might think of China as a power-of-tomorrow, but our Asian allies see the daily realities of rising Chinese power. Beijing has already changed the military balance in the Asia-Pacific region to the great consternation of America's key allies and friends, such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and India.

The point is not that Washington is poised to go to war with North Korea or China. Rather, only by maintaining its role as Asia's security guarantor can the U.S. hope to secure an enduring peace in this dynamic region. It has a strong interest in avoiding even the perception of American retrenchment. That would be a recipe for a spiraling arms race among the region's great powers. It is no accident that Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia, all capable of acquiring nuclear weapons, have not yet taken that road. They have been confident in the American security umbrella. If current trends continue, are we sure those states would not reconsider the wisdom of that policy?

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 "boost" phase--that is, shortly after launch--but also the first significant use of directed energy as a weapon, a technology that may prove to be yet another revolutionary change in warfare sparked by American ingenuity.

There is a broad consensus among missile defense experts that to effectively defend ourselves and allies against the lethality of Chinese and North Korean missiles we need a multilayered defensive capability. A missile defense system must attempt to shoot down missiles at all points on its trajectory. The Obama administration has just undermined that capability.

There are further implications for Asia in the Obama defense cuts: The decision to end production of the stealthy F-22s will preclude developing an export variant for Japan to reinforce its own ability to deter North Korean and Chinese mischief.

And, with the increased sophistication of the Chinese air defense system, only the highly maneuverable, supersonic and stealthy F-22 can assure American dominance of the skies, historically the cornerstone of U.S. military superiority. Military officers in the Pacific privately say that the Department of Defense's decision to cap its F-22 arsenal at 187 planes is sufficient only if every aircraft is available in a crisis. But that is an unrealistic assumption. It is far more likely that the Pacific air force will have to take much greater risks with far fewer F-22s should it be involved in a conflict. Plans to delay funding for a next generation, long-range bomber likewise decrease our deterrent in a part of the world where flight times from fixed bases are long.

Also missing from the defense budget is any increase in the naval 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. We now have less ships in our fleet that at any time since World War I.

The consequences are stark. Given the expanse of the Pacific and surrounding seas, the number of maritime vessels we have matters. With a smaller fleet America's ability to track the Chinese deployment of submarines throughout the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean will erode. As if to demonstrate the coming challenges to America's fleet, last month Chinese warships harassed an American surveillance vessel operating in international waters around the South China Sea. The U.S. Navy had to send an armed escort to complete its surveillance mission.

Growing Chinese dominance of Pacific waterways will inevitably 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. The Chinese are looking to deny us access to the region, and we're doing little to stop them.

Make no mistake, starved of resources regional commanders will be forced to give up important missions, from humanitarian relief and security cooperation in Southeast Asia to deterring aggression and defending allies in North Asia. The consequences of eroding military capability are easy to understand. Less fighter aircraft means more risk of adversary aggression, a smaller navy means an eroding capability to keep the seas safe for trade, fewer cargo planes means less humanitarian missions that buy us goodwill. It is fashionable these days to divide power into the "hard" and "soft" categories. In reality, the successful exercise of power is and always has been a careful calibration of diplomacy with the force to back it up. An erosion of the latter will render the former hollow.

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. American strategy in Asia has been remarkably successful since World War II. Through a set of alliances and partnerships and a strong military presence we have provided the security cocoon within which nations could prosper rather than compete. If Mr. Obama wants to continue along this path, his defense plan will not give him the means.

In the near future, Mr. Obama will announce his policies toward China and North Korea. Though he will attempt to put his own imprimatur on his Asia policies he will, in some fashion, continue those of his predecessors. He will undoubtedly want to "engage" China and "hedge" against a downturn in relations. This is traditional rhetoric, but a worrying yet increasingly truthful characterization of U.S.-China relations was articulated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit to Beijing. Her message was, in effect, just keep financing our debt and our complaints about your human rights polices will be muted. Considering that complaints about China's military buildup were already muted before Mr. Obama took power, there are questions about the Obama administration's interest in serious "hedging."

The president also will pronounce a nuclear North Korea "unacceptable" to the U.S. He will pontificate about the need for more attentiveness to South East Asia. The problem is that without the military power to back up America's diplomatic goals, these policy proclamations will increasingly ring hollow. America's allies know it. And, even worse, China and North Korea know it.

The cuts being proposed in defense programs and spending is a false economy. Keeping the peace and deterring trouble is far less costly than opening the door to greater competition and temptations toward aggression. Hopefully, this is a point that the U.S. Congress will keep in mind as it fulfills its own constitutional responsibilities in funding and maintaining the country's military.

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI.

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