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Subtle shifts in the balance of power are difficult to detect yet of foremost importance to peace and stability. And even if detected in a timely fashion, policymakers can be slow to react. But maintaining a balance of power favorable to one’s interests is one of a president’s key tasks. On that score, our leaders have been negligent for over a decade.
Occasionally, presidents detect shifts in the military balance when it is too late and then compound the problem by responding with questionable policy choices. For example, President Eisenhower’s policy of massive retaliation was, in part, a response to what seemed to be a loss of the U.S nuclear monopoly and Soviet conventional supremacy in continental Europe. (Eisenhower also wanted to maintain U.S superiority on the cheap–by cutting Truman’s conventional defense build-up).
A policy of responding with a nuclear attack to Soviet aggression anywhere did not seem very prudent to many at the time, but at least the president took the perceived shift in the balance of power seriously. Some of President Nixon and Carter’s questionable arms control ideas were a response to a shift in the strategic balance in favor of the Soviets. Unfortunately, most of the time, policymakers do not react to an adversary’s growing capabilities until met with disaster (e.g. Pearl Harbor, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 9/11).
Today the balance of power in Asia is shifting. Since the end of World War II, Washington has kept the peace in Asia through its forward presence of military forces and its uncontested ability to project force into the region. Take an example from just 14 years ago. Realizing how destabilizing were China’s missile tests conducted in the waters around Taiwan, President Clinton sent carrier battle groups near the Taiwan Strait. The missile tests stopped, Taiwan held its elections, and conflict was avoided.
Today, any president would think twice about doing the same. Why? China has arguably gained conventional supremacy around its periphery. Without remediation this could become a hard fact. China’s growing short-range missile arsenal (maybe up to 1,500) and fleet of modern aircraft could not only be used to destroy much of Taiwan, but could also be used to strike devastating blows against U.S. forces in Japan. Together with its fast-growing submarine fleet, the Chinese missile force will, within the next decade, be able to cause serious harm to U.S. carriers steaming into the region.
Beijing has been focused like a laser beam on how to coerce and intimidate Taiwan while deterring U.S. and Japanese intervention. Washington has not given the same attention to defense. Our shipbuilding program has atrophied, our ability to protect the bases from which our aircraft fly is non-existent, and there is nothing in the current navy or air force programs of record that demonstrate our attentiveness to this problem.
As a country, we have become so accustomed to projecting air and sea power with impunity anywhere in the world that the idea that our aircraft could be shot down or surface ships sunk seems like science fiction. But China has been studying how to undermine the way we do battle for decades, and its efforts are bearing fruit.
A president choosing to respond to a Chinese attack on Taiwan would now face a host of bad options, most of which are dangerously escalatory. If U.S. forces or those of an ally were attacked, Washington could eventually bring its superior power to bear from other theaters of conflict, but it would take time, and, as shown both in the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s AirSea Battle and in RAND’s A Question of Balance, would probably require hitting military targets in China itself. Considering China’s growing conventional superiority, a president’s response to a devastating blow by the Chinese against U.S., Japanese, and Taiwanese assets may, by necessity, be highly escalatory.
The good news is that it is not too late to restore some stability to the equation. The United States is a far richer and more stable nation than China. With marginal adjustments in how we spend our finite tax-payer dollars, we can restore a favorable conventional balance in the Pacific that would lessen Chinese temptations to use force and provide us with more strategically stable defensive options should Beijing succumb to those temptations. We seek a cooperative relationship with China, which makes it difficult to think about the unthinkable–a conflict with China. But a conflict with the United States is just about all the PLA thinks about, and for the sake of peace we must take them seriously.
Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI.
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