Published daily by the Lowy Institute

How the US can prevent a China-dominated Asia

America should stop spreading itself far and wide in the pursuit of improbable power balances.

Photo: Jake Ingle via Unsplash
Photo: Jake Ingle via Unsplash

The US military is dangerously under-funded and could lose the next big war it wages. That is the key message from a new report by the influential National Defense Strategy Commission.

Established by Congress to provide an independent, non-partisan assessment of the 2018 US National Defense Strategy (NDS), the Commission is comprised of respected Washington insiders.

Its report certainly reflects a clear strategic logic, keeping in mind that Strategy is fundamentally about aligning ends, ways, and means.

On means, it contends that budget caps imposed by Congress in 2011 have brought the US military to the brink of “strategic insolvency”. The Commission suggests that the size of the US defence budget should increase by 3­–5% per year to fund a “rapid and substantial” augmentation in military capabilities.

The Commission is most critical when it comes to ways, charging the NDS with failing to lay out clear operational concepts for achieving US security objectives in an era of growing major-power competition:

We are concerned that the NDS too often rests on questionable assumptions and weak analysis, and it leaves unanswered critical questions regarding how the United States will meet the challenges of a more dangerous world.

Yet when it comes to ends, the report is surprisingly soft. It concurs with the NDS assessment of the strategic environment, characterising these circumstances as the most complex and dangerous faced by the US in decades. Nor does it quibble with the longstanding US strategic objectives recited in the NDS. The Commission describes America as a “global power with global obligations” and one which must thus maintain “favourable” power balances in key regions, such as the Indo-Pacific, to underwrite its global leadership.

But how realistic is it for the US to continue to realise these enduring strategic goals in a progressively multipolar world?

In my new book, The Four Flashpoints: How Asia Goes to War, I argue that the prospect of America maintaining such asymmetric advantages is increasingly fanciful.

The prospect of America maintaining its asymmetric advantages is increasingly fanciful.

For one, geography favours China and Russia too strongly. Taiwan, for instance, is 11,000 kilometres away from the continental United States. It lies a mere 160 kilometres from China. Coupled with its development of increasingly powerful and precise anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, this geographic advantage is fast enabling Beijing to block America from coming to Taiwan’s defence.

Second, even if America finds more funding to throw at this problem, the costs to Beijing of countering such responses are considerably lower. Washington, for example, is seeking to establish military bases at a greater distance from China and to project power into key theatres such as the South China Sea from these. The new joint US-Australia base at Manus Island could well be a case in point. But Beijing can simply react to these efforts by producing more missiles with the capability to strike at such facilities.

Third, countries are generally most willing to use military force to secure interests closest to them. Russia’s 2008 incursion into Georgia and its 2014 annexation of Crimea confirm this. China too has been unequivocal in its commitment that Taiwan constitutes a “core interest” that it would fight to defend.

Rather than spreading itself far and wide in the pursuit of improbable “favourable” power balances, I argue in The Four Flashpoints that America should draw inspiration from former Secretary of State Dean Acheson. During the 1950s, Acheson spoke of the need for the US to create more focused “situations of strength” – areas around the Soviet periphery where America and its allies were so strong that Moscow wouldn’t entertain employing aggression there.

In Asia, the US currently enjoys such situations of strength in the East China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula. The PLA would, for instance, be no match for the combined forces of the US and Japan in a clash over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. America should be doubling down here to ensure these situations of strength can be preserved.

By contrast, the US position on Taiwan and, increasingly, the South China Sea are situations of weakness. Sooner or later, strategic geography and China’s military modernisation will combine to give China the upper hand in these flashpoints. In anticipation, Washington should avoid making these areas the focus on deepening Sino-American competition.

By doubling down in the East China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula, and easing off on the South China Sea and Taiwan, America can still meet what has long been its overriding strategic goal in Asia – that of preventing a potentially hostile power from dominating this region. The type of Asian power balance that emerges from such an approach will be less lopsided, but that is in keeping with the original metaphor of balance in international politics.

Speculation is rife that growing Sino-American competition amounts to a new Cold War. In the early years of the original Cold War between America and the Soviet Union, US policymakers debated intensely what American strategic objectives in Asia ought to be and how these should be pursued.

Such debates are badly needed today. Even if the US defence budget receives the funding boost called for in the National Defense Strategy Commission Report – and there is no guarantee it will, following President Trump’s October 2018 call for 5% spending cuts across all Federal departments – this should not negate the need for a much closer, more critical assessment of US strategic objectives, especially in Asia.

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