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Vice President Joe Biden‘s trip to East Asia last week did little to resolve the sudden increase in tensions caused by China’s declaration of an expansive air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. The underlying theme of Mr. Biden’s message to China, Japan, and South Korea was “Let’s find a way to make this work.” Our allies had clearly expected the U.S. to reassert the right of innocent air passage and reject China’s intrusion into other long-established air zones. Instead, Washington has sent mixed messages and failed to convince our allies that it won’t stand for China’s unilateral redrawing of the East Asian skies.
China purposefully drew its ADIZ to overlap with Japan’s decades-old zone, covering the Senkaku Islands, which are contested by Beijing and Tokyo, as well as a part of South Korea’s ADIZ. Both the Japanese and South Korean governments urged their civilian airlines not to comply with Beijing’s demands for flight information and transponder codes over international airspace. By comparison, the State Department has told American air carriers to provide China the information.
The lack of a firm American line against China’s provocations may have contributed to South Korea’s expansion of its own ADIZ, which now overlaps China’s even more and has crossed into Japan’s.
According to press reports, Japan has sent regular military flights into China’s ADIZ. While the U.S. sent two B-52s on a “routine” mission into the new Chinese ADIZ two weeks ago, it will be important for these missions to continue in the weeks and months ahead, including joint flights with our allies.
In Beijing, Mr. Biden sent the message that America was resigning itself to the new situation. He urged China and Japan to set up crisis resolution mechanisms and did not demand that his Chinese hosts roll back their ADIZ. All this despite clear Chinese implications that this new ADIZ is just the first of others to come. Hotspots like the South China Sea are a likely next target for the Chinese.
Washington must therefore prepare for further Chinese provocations aimed at challenging access to sea, air, space and cyberspace -the old and new global commons. However, the U.S. is currently slashing its military budget, which by the middle of the next decade will have shrunk by roughly $1.3 trillion.
In a world where China has enough confidence to challenge the U.S. and Japan in the skies of Asia; where North Korea has achieved, and Iran progresses towards, a nuclear weapons capability; and where a reassertive Russia pressures neighbors like Ukraine while rebuilding its own military, the current U.S. policy is deeply irresponsible. A world without a strong America is not naturally inclined to peace. Rather, it is guaranteed to be far less stable.
China’s recent actions remind us that in many ways, America remains the sole global superpower because of its command of the skies. Since the Korean War, the U.S. military has been able to operate globally without fear of being denied access to crucial areas. It has been able to reach any part of the globe almost instantaneously and with deadly effect.
Despite reduced budgets in coming years, the Congress must maintain support for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as currently the only next generation air superiority program, especially as China, Russia and Iran invest heavily in sophisticated air defenses.
Similarly, a full commitment to the next generation Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) program is essential to maintaining a credible capability to threaten targets deep inland. America must field a stealthy, survivable bomber capable of carrying our largest ordnance loads, so as to deter peer competitors and smaller nations alike trying to gain access to nuclear weapons capability.
It is also time for the U.S. to invest in long-endurance, fast and stealthy unmanned vehicles that can survive in contested airspaces. With growing crisis areas in the East China Sea, North Korea, Iran, and Syria, it is clear that current systems cannot be presumed to provide the U.S. or its allies with all the information needed to detect and respond to threats.
Underpinning much of this is the need for greater intelligence and surveillance capabilities and better-protected communications systems. Cyber attacks on our communications networks and anti-satellite capabilities could cripple our military’s operational effectiveness, convincing China they could win a quick victory. The U.S. Air Force’s ability to maintain world-wide communications needs to be a priority in defense planning.
China has shown how a rising power expands the dimensions of its military capabilities into realms long under American control. While no one believes the Chinese air force is a match for American airpower today, a combination of lack of political will at home and a slow deterioration in our traditional advantages may lead to a dramatically different environment in just the next decade. Then, for the first time in over a half-century, American troops will look to the skies wondering if they are safe, as our ability to maintain global stability is increasingly tested.
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