Why we need a more sober debate on the US pivot to Asia

Discussion in 'Indo Pacific & East Asia' started by Ray, Feb 12, 2014.

  1. Ray

    Ray The Chairman Defence Professionals Moderator

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    How much is enough? Why we need a more sober debate on the US pivot to Asia

    Benjamin Schreer

    Jake Douglas’ recent post on The Strategist points to a serious problem for the US pivot to Asia: no matter how much Washington tries to reassure its allies and partners about its ongoing defence commitment, the widespread perception of an ‘asymmetry of resolve’ between the US and China persists. A focused Beijing is seen as increasingly able and willing to challenge the US in the Western Pacific while Washington is said to falter due to dwindling resources and domestic priorities. Perceptions are very hard to change. Even so, the empirical evidence indicates that it’s far from inevitable that the ‘balance of (military) power’ as well as the ‘balance of resolve’ will shift in China’s favour. It’s time for a more balanced discussion on this issue.

    Washington has found it almost impossible to get its ‘pivot’ message through to allies and friends, notwithstanding significant changes in US military posture. No matter what the US does, analysts are quick to discount it: forward deployment of nuclear attack submarines, strategic bombers and advanced fighter aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor to the region? So what? Intensified military cooperation with key allies such as Japan? That’s not unusual! Readjustment of US military operational concepts suited to address China’s ‘anti-access/ area-denial’ challenge? The Pentagon won’t implement it! Repeated public announcements that the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands are covered by the US–Japan Mutual Security Treaty? The US isn’t serious! American B-52 bombers flying through China’s newly declared Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ)? Yes, but…

    And the list goes on, begging the question at which point security pundits would be convinced that the US really means it? Would it take the President’s State of the Union address to mention the Asia-Pacific at least 20 times or the Pentagon to openly declare China to be the future enemy, or to deploy all of its carrier strike groups into the region?

    In contrast, China has by and large successfully bluffed its way to perceived strategic greatness. This isn’t to downplay some of the progress made by the PLA in recent years, particularly in the area of cruise and ballistic missiles. China’s latest test of a hypersonic glide vehicle also indicates some progress (and clear intent) in the area of advanced weaponry. But to become a major military power capable of seriously challenging the US, China needs to go a very long way. Today it has no carrier strike group. Its nuclear submarines have never been on extended patrol, and there have been no reliable flight tests of its ‘fifth generation, stealth’ fighter aircraft, the J-20. The PLA has no operational experience in modern warfighting. And the inventory of a ‘deceptively weak’ Chinese military continues. Surely, China could overcome all these deficits in the future but for the time being it hasn’t.

    Fundamentally, then, the debate about the US pivot should focus much more on America’s resolve rather than drumming up China’s progress in modern warfighting capabilities. Again, as Jake points out in his post, the perception is generally one of China playing its cards extremely well by chipping away at the regional status quo, using coercive power in a minimalist sense so as not to trigger a US response. The dispute with The Philippines (a US ally) over the Scarborough Shoal is a prime example, where China simply created facts. Indeed, Washington faces a real challenge in stopping China from maritime harassment of its neighbours via a combination of military and civilian vessels. Nevertheless, influential US strategists argue that the US should move to selectively intercept China’s non-military vessels involved in maritime coercion in order to send a strong signal to Beijing and the rest of the region that American interest in Sino-US stability doesn’t come at the expense of US deterrence credibility in this uneasy ‘grey zone’ of maritime diplomacy. That would be a strong statement, indeed, and one that certainly would be welcomed by many regional states.

    Further, I’d argue that the credibility of American resolve isn’t measured by its willingness to stand up to any Chinese provocation. That’s unrealistic and unnecessary. What matters is that the US puts a foot down in key disputes where it can’t compromise. In my view it has done so remarkably well: China will think twice before testing US resolve over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and over Taiwan. The US has demonstrated its will and capability to contest China’s ADIZ in East Asia. Moreover, it has already announced that it will ‘readjust its military posture’ should Beijing move to establish an ADIZ in the South China Sea.

    Finally, in all of this, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that while there are growing signs of Sino-US strategic competition, containment (or ‘roll back’) of any Chinese influence in Asia is not America’s plan. And China appears not (yet) willing to seriously test US resolve in Asia-Pacific hotspots. Until then, arguments about the lack of US resolve and declining military capability are premature and unhelpful.

    Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI.

    How much is enough? Why we need a more sober debate on the US pivot to Asia | The Strategist
     
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  3. Ray

    Ray The Chairman Defence Professionals Moderator

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    The paper tiger myth: how America is underestimating China’s resolve and power

    Most American policymakers are saying two things following China’s establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). (1) China’s challenge to the US-led Asian order is serious and calculated, and (2) America must get China to back down. We should be concerned, because their analysis is self-contradictory. The United States is falling prey to the ‘paper tiger myth‘—the belief that China is utterly threatening to America’s position in Asia and would retreat if we ‘pivoted’ just a bit more. This is a dangerous miscalculation of Chinese resolve and power.

    In past weeks, pundits have declared that the PRC leadership is increasingly willing to risk confrontation to achieve its goals. On Wednesday, Senator John McCain (R-AR) called China ‘a rising threat’ because of its ‘profound belief… that China must, and will, regain the dominant role that they had for a couple of thousand years in Asia’. Similarly, Michael J. Green of CSIS argued in Foreign Affairs that the new ADIZ is ‘part of a longer-term attempt by Beijing to chip away at the regional status quo’. In Foreign Policy magazine, Elbridge Colby (CNA) and Ely Ratner (CNAS) claimed it amounts to an ‘expansionist strategy’.

    In response, they want America to demonstrate it won’t accept China’s threat or use of coercion. Green suggests we ‘leave no doubt that the United States is prepared to… ensure Beijing understands that its attempts at coercion will not work’. Colby and Ratner likewise advocate ‘raising the stakes’ and elevating the risk of escalation. At the Joint Seapower and Asia Subcommittee hearing on January 14th, Congressman Steve Chabot (R-OH) reasoned that China must be acting on a ‘misguided hope that Japan, Southeast Asian nations and the US will just grudgingly accept it’.

    There’s an implicit expectation here: once China realises that the United States refuses to budge, it’ll bow out and stop contesting US primacy in the Asia-Pacific. But it’s paradoxical to say China is bent on changing the international order and will roll over easily if opposed. This paper tiger myth is a well-documented belief—look no further than the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Only this time, it’s the paper, not the tiger, that’s the illusion.

    Mainstream American analysis makes little sense for two reasons. First, China’s resolve is at least as strong as America’s. As all these observers say, recent assertive behavior isn’t a series of isolated slip-ups; it reflects a deeper strategy to force the United States to respect China’s growing power. You don’t just go and declare an ADIZ or apply military pressure against foreign territory for years on a whim. Backing down now over either would be absolutely humiliating for Beijing—all the more so given the government’s domestic campaigns that have plastered ‘The Diaoyu Islands Are China’s!‘ on everything from billboards to bumper stickers. Since President Xi Jinping took over the Leading Small Group (LSG) on maritime affairs, most signs indicate that these acts are part of a broader attempt to push back against US military activity in China’s immediate periphery.

    Second, China is rapidly acquiring the edge in operational capacity in Asia, and there’s little the United States can or is willing to do about it. With annual increases in defense expenditure over 10%, China is making steady relative gains. According to a recent net assessment from the Carnegie Endowment, the combined US–Japan alliance will no longer have a guaranteed advantage over the PLA by 2030. If we believe a 2009 RAND report, the US already lacks credible military options in the Taiwan Strait.

    In many ways, it’s a simple question of economics. Who cares how many F-35s and carriers we move to the Pacific? The fact that China’s economy will soon eclipse America’s ensures that the balance of power will gradually shift. The ‘tyranny of distance’, continued American preoccupation with the Middle East, and the shift from offensive to defensive advantage in maritime military technology only amplify this underlying reality. And if Obama’s State of the Union address is any indication, American voters are becoming less and less interested in sustaining its global role.

    American analysts are essentially calling for a re-rebalance to Asia. Before anyone hops on the bandwagon, we might note the effects of the original. If the Pivot’s purpose was to dissuade Chinese aggression by proving American staying power, it failed. China has only become more willing to contest American primacy, as the ADIZ and USS Cowpens incident demonstrate. It isn’t backing down, and America’s defence posture is no longer preventing the intensification of conflict in the Asia-Pacific.

    America should remember Otto von Bismarck’s words that ‘policy is the art of the possible’. All strategies must reconcile ends and means. If the US neglects to accept its increasingly vulnerable position and instead choose escalation, deeper and more precarious rivalry is certain. Success is not.

    Jake A. Douglas is a research assistant at the College of William & Mary, Virginia.
    The paper tiger myth: how America is underestimating China’s resolve and power | The Strategist
     

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