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Since the end of World War II, the United States has developed a characteristic approach to protecting its interests in Asia. In peace and in war, the US position in Asia has rested on a set of alliances, ground and air forces deployed on allied and US territory, nuclear-strike forces, and carrier-strike groups operating in the Western Pacific. But China has been working systematically to undermine the American approach to assurance, deterrence, and warfighting.
Specifically, China’s military modernization, if it continues apace, may allow it to decouple America’s allies from the US extended nuclear deterrent, to destroy US and allied fixed bases in the region, and to threaten US power projection forces. This, in turn, could allow China to coerce US allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region, hold US forces at arm’s length, and control the seas along the Asian periphery.
The United States faces three fundamental strategic alternatives as it seeks to match its ends and its means in an increasingly turbulent environment. The first strategic alternative is to continue America’s current approach to the region—that is, to pursue broad objectives even as the military balance shifts against the United States. The second alternative, favored by neo-isolationists in both US political parties, would be to scale back US commitments and to accept a narrower definition of America’s role in the world than the nation has played for the better part of a century.
A third and more favorable approach would be to adopt a forward-leaning strategy that would balance the need to reduce the vulnerability of US forces while maintaining US commitments. It would incorporate a mixture of forward-based and standoff capabilities that would reclaim the military advantages the United States has long enjoyed and that have become essential to American strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, to reduce operational risk and to avoid sacrificing America’s strategic interests, a forward-leaning strategy would feature greater specialization than does today’s posture between “presence” forces for keeping the peace and those for fighting wars.
Such a forward-leaning and forward-looking 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. Essential to both pillars will be expanding contributions from allied and friendly states. The United States is not the only state involved in the Asia-Pacific region that has reason to be concerned by its changing military balance. Other powers are concerned and have in fact already begun to respond. The United States needs to work closely with those powers to forge an integrated and effective response.
Finally, in a period of limited and increasingly constrained defense resources, the United States needs to be looking for defense options that promise especially high leverage in the context of the changing military balance in the Asia-Pacific region. Four such options stand out: developing a coalition intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) network in the Western Pacific; bolstering allied undersea warfare; expanding the range of bases open to the United States; and enhancing nuclear deterrence.
Complacency in the face of growing threats to US interests in the Asia-Pacific region will increase rather than decrease the possibility of conflict. The region’s evolving security environment requires that America’s military strategy evolve as well. America’s future peace and prosperity will depend on it.
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