How much is enough? Why we need a more sober debate on the US pivot to Asia
6 Feb 2014|

A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft refuels an F-22 Raptor fighter jet during a training sortie near Kadena Air Base, Japan. Raptors from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., are deployed to Kadena to demonstrate the continued U.S. commitment to fulfill security responsibilities throughout the Western Pacific and to maintain peace in the region.

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. Image courtesy of US PACOM Flickr.