Friday, September 9, 2011
China’s Regional Push
America’s fiscal woes are placing the country on a path of growing strategic risk in Asia.
With Democrats eager to protect social spending and Republicans eager to avoid tax hikes, and both saying the national debt must be brought under control, we can expect sustained efforts to slash the defense budget. Over the next 10 years, cuts in planned spending could total half a trillion dollars.
Unfortunately, those constraints are being imposed just as America faces a growing strategic challenge. Fueled by economic growth of nearly 10 percent a year, China has been engaged for nearly two decades in a rapid and wide-ranging military buildup. China is secretive about its intentions, and US strategists have had to focus on other concerns since 9/11. Still, the dimensions, direction and likely implications of China’s buildup have become increasingly clear.
When the cold war ended, the Pacific Ocean became, in effect, an American lake. With its air and naval forces at bases in friendly countries like Japan and South Korea, the United States could defend and reassure its allies, deter potential aggressors and ensure safe passage for commercial shipping throughout the Western Pacific and into the Indian Ocean. Its forces operated everywhere with impunity.
But that has begun to change. In the mid-1990s, China started to put into place the pieces of what Pentagon planners refer to as an “anti-access capability.” In other words, rather than trying to match American power plane for plane and ship for ship, Beijing has sought more cost-effective ways to neutralize it. It has been building large numbers of relatively inexpensive but highly accurate non-nuclear ballistic missiles, as well as sea- and air-launched cruise missiles. Those weapons could destroy or disable the handful of ports and airfields from which US air and naval forces operate in the Western Pacific and sink warships whose weapons could reach the area from hundreds of miles out to sea.
Although a direct confrontation seems unlikely, China appears to be seeking the capability to deal a knockout blow to America’s forward forces.
The moves do not mean China wants war with the United States. To the contrary, they seem intended to overawe its neighbors while dissuading Washington from coming to their aid if there is ever a clash. Uncertain of whether they can rely on US support and unable to match China’s power on their own, other countries may decide they must accommodate China’s wishes.
In the words of the ancient military theorist Sun Tzu, China hopes to “win without fighting” — to establish itself as Asia’s dominant power by eroding the credibility of America’s security guarantees, hollowing out its alliances and eventually easing it out of the region.
If the United States and its Asian friends look to their own defenses and coordinate their efforts, there is no reason they cannot maintain a favorable balance of power, even as China’s strength grows. But if they fail to respond to China’s buildup, there is a danger that Beijing could miscalculate, throw its weight around and increase the risk of confrontation and even armed conflict. Indeed, China’s recent behavior in disputes over resources and maritime boundaries with Japan and the smaller states that ring the South China Sea suggests that this may already be starting to happen.
China’s military policies are not the product of a misunderstanding; they are part of a deliberate strategy that other nations must find ways to meet. Strength deters aggression; weakness tempts it. Beijing will denounce such moves as provocative, but it is China’s actions that threaten to upset the stability of Asia.
Many of China’s neighbors are more willing than they were in the past to ignore Beijing’s complaints, increase their own defense spending and work more closely with one another and the United States.
They are unlikely, however, to do those things unless they are convinced that America remains committed to the region. Washington does not have to shoulder the entire burden of preserving the Asian power balance, but it must lead.
The Pentagon needs to put a top priority on countering China’s burgeoning anti-access capabilities, thereby reducing the likelihood that they will ever be used. This will cost money. To justify the necessary spending in an era of austerity, US leaders will have to be clearer in explaining the nation’s interests in Asia and more blunt in describing the challenge posed by China’s relentless military buildup.
The New York Times
By Aaron L. Friedberg, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, is the author of “A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia.”
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