Military Officer | 7.1.16*
By Alan W. Dowd
It has many names: At the Pentagon it’s called the “Asia-Pacific
Rebalance.” At the White House it’s simply “The Rebalance.” In the press it’s called
the “Pacific Shift” or “Pacific Pivot.”
Whatever the name, the Obama
administration’s decision to reorient America’s
focus and forces to the Asia-Pacific region makes sense: U.S. trade with Australia,
China, India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand totaled $1.13
trillion in 2015.Although Beijing dismisses the U.S. as “external” to the region, the U.S. is a Pacific
power. It borders the Pacific, has territories throughout the Pacific and has
treaty commitments with several allies in
By building up its military and expanding
its territorial claims, China is not just alarming those allies; it’s striving
to become, as the Pentagon concludes, “the preeminent power in Asia.”That presents a problem for the United States, the incumbent preeminent power
in the region.
The Pacific Pivot provides a roadmap for maintaining peace in
a region of vital importance to America’s prosperity and security. However, the rest of the world isn’t cooperating: The rise of
ISIS in the Middle East, emergence of a revanchist Russia in Europe and
resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan are preventing Washington from
disengaging from those regions and redeploying assets to the Pacific. Moreover,
the fiscal crunch at home isn’t helping matters.
To ensure the pivot is more
than a slogan, Washington needs to resource the rhetoric, reassure the
allies, remind Beijing of the rules of the road and relearn the art of
signaling in great-power relations.
Before getting into
what Washington should do to make the pivot work, it’s important to discuss
what Beijing has done (and not done) to make the pivot necessary.
Beijing has done precious little to rein in its Frankenstein
monster North Korea, which regularly detonates nuclear weapons, tests
long-range missilery, conducts cyberattacks against U.S. and ROK targets, and
threatens U.S treaty allies in Japan and the ROK.
As for what Beijing has done: Chinese leader Xi Jinping
calls for “enhancing officers’ and troops’ thinking about serving in battle,
and leading troops into battle, and training troops for battle.”China’s mushrooming military budget suggests this isn’t mere bluster.Between
2011 and 2015, Beijing increased military spending 55.7 percent—and 167 percent
between 2005 and 2014.
China will deploy 73 attack submarines, 58 frigates, 34
destroyers, five ballistic-missile submarines and two aircraft carriers by
2020.The Pentagon reports China can “project power at increasingly-longer ranges,” deploys
more than 2,800 warplanes, and has a bristling missile arsenal with “the
capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the Western
Pacific.”Beijing’s goal: to dissuade Washington from intervening in what China considers
its sphere of influence. The Pentagon’s shorthand for this is “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD).
Armed with the confidence to challenge U.S. primacy, Beijing is laying claim to
90 percent of the South China Sea, flouting international norms,
violating Japanese airspace (Japan intercepted Chinese warplanes 571 times in 2015)and turning reefs hundreds of miles from its territorial waters into
man-made islands that “are clearly military in nature,” concludes PACOM commander
Adm. Harry Harris.
The good news is that China’s behavior has forced America’s
Asia-Pacific allies to get serious about defense.
The most dramatic transformation is Japan’s. Prime
Minister Shinzo Abe persuaded parliament to approve a reinterpretation
of the postwar constitution to allow Japan’s military to come to the defense of
its allies. A top Japanese diplomat says Japan is committed to “shouldering the
burden of global defense and security.” After
four consecutive years of defense-spending increases, Japan’s 2016 defense
budget is its largest ever. Japan
is increasing East China Sea troop strength by 20 percent (to some 10,000
personnel); expanding its suite of missile defenses; acquiring F-35
fighter-bombers; deploying massive “helicopter carriers” that can be up-converted
to launch VTOL F-35Bs; and creating an amphibious unit modeled after the Marine
The Philippines has invited the U.S. back with open arms,
offering Washington access to eight bases for prepositioning equipment, combat
aircraft and troops.In 2015, more than 100 U.S. warships docked in Subic Bay, and U.S. planes are
again landing at Clark Airbase.Tokyo and Manila have signed a long-term “strategic partnership agreement.” The
former foes have held joint naval drills, and they are exploring plans to base
Japanese troops on Philippine territory.Manila increased defense spending 25 percent this year.
Australia plans to increase defense spending 81 percent between 2016 and 2025.The Aussies are doubling their submarine fleet, procuring 72 F-35s, hosting thousands of U.S. Marines for
rotational deployments, and considering a U.S. proposal to base B-1Bs and B-52s
in Australia. Plus, Australia plans to join U.S.-India-Japan
India and the U.S. are mulling joint patrols in the South China Sea.“U.S.-India military exercises have grown dramatically in size, scope and
sophistication,” the Pentagon reports.The two are partnering on aircraft-carrier development.India, which boosted defense spending 50 percent 2007-2015, is deploying fighter-interceptors
and U.S.-built P-8s to islands west
Washington should build on this momentum by encouraging efforts
to internationalize the response to China’s aggressive behavior. Harris suggests
the development of a U.S.-India-Japan-Australia
Washington has lifted arms-sales restrictions on Vietnam and is increasing arms
deliveries to other Pacific partners.
Elevating the role and profile of ASEAN, as Washington did
with the recent ASEAN summit in California, is another step in the right
direction. ASEAN has issued a declaration endorsing “freedom of navigation in,
and over-flight above, the South China Sea.” Washington should put muscle
behind those words by organizing a multinational maritime taskforce to enforce
rules of the road and prevent the piecemeal annexation of the South China Sea.
The return to military deterrence by China’s neighbors enhances the
prospects of the rebalance. However, without American military might, it won’t
be enough to prevent what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.”
Just imagine Western Europe trying to deter Stalin with a waning U.S.
arithmetic. The U.S. military cannot carry out a growing list of missions with
the dwindling amount resources available under the bipartisan gamble known as
At the height of the Reagan buildup, the Navy boasted 594
ships. The Navy of the mid-1990s totaled 375 ships. Today’s fleet numbers just 272
ships.While today’s Navy may be more ambidextrous than its forerunners, deterrence is
about presence. And the sequestration-era Navy lacks the assets to be present
in all the places it’s needed. “For us to meet what combatant commanders
request,” according to former CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of
The Air Force is scrapping 500
planes.The Army’s active-duty endstrength will fall
from 570,000 soldiers to 450,000 by 2018, the
Marines’ active-duty endstrength from 202,000 to 182,000.
These cuts are directly related to
the declining defense budget, which, in a time of international instability,
has fallen from 4.6 percent of GDP in 2009, to just above 3 percent of GDP
today, headed for 2.7 percent of GDP by 2019.This shrunken military makes deterrence less credible—and miscalculation more
Given the sheer size
of the defense budget, the balance of power would still seem to favor the
United States—until one considers that America’s military assets and security
commitments are spread around the globe, while China’s are concentrated in its
“We may be seeing the leading edge of a
return of ‘might makes it right’ to the region,” warns Pacific Fleet Commander
Adm. Scott Swift.
As Abe observes, “What
is important, first and foremost, is to make [China’s leaders] realize that
they would not be able to change the rules or take away somebody’s territorial
water or territory by coercion or intimidation.”
In other words, the
time for “strategic ambiguity” has given way to a time for clarity. Washington
should be clear about its security commitments—ensuring the free movement of
ships through international waters and aircraft through international airspace,
defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of U.S. allies, preserving a
status quo that has kept the Pacific peaceful and prosperous—and clear about promoting
a rules-based order rather than allowing China to impose a might-makes-right order.
After the Cold War, the United States was the world’s sole
superpower. As a consequence, America’s civilian policymakers didn’t have to engage
in the sort of signal-sending that kept the Cold War from turning hot. With
China’s rapid rise, those days are gone.
However, the U.S. military hasn’t
forgotten the finer points of signaling America’s adversaries:
Beijing is opposed to basing THAAD anti-missile batteries in South Korea, yet the Pentagon is pushing to do
exactly that, and Seoul seems amenable.
two can play the A2/AD game, senior Defense officials envision the Army “leveraging its current suite of long-range precision-guided
missiles, rockets, artillery and air-defense systems” in the context of “our ongoing rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.”Such an effort could protect vital waterways and dissuade Beijing from further upsetting
the status quo.
To enforce freedom
of the skies, B-52s have cruised through China’s self-declared “air-defense-identification
zone.” To enforce freedom of the seas, U.S. warships have sailed within 12 miles
of the made-in-China islands, and B-52s have overflown the instant islands. F-22s
and B-2s are conducting similar display-of-force flights over Korea. To
dissuade Beijing from more island-building near Philippine waters, A-10s are
flying maritime patrols.
Two days after China
conducted bomber exercises near Taiwan, a pair of U.S. F-18s landed in
Taiwan—the first such landing in 30 years. The U.S. military said the
unexpected visit was due to a “mechanical issue.” But it seems the Pentagon was
sending a message: Taiwan is not alone.
With enough window dressing to allow China to save face and
enough substance to underscore America’s capability to project power, these are
the kinds of signals Beijing understands. But without adequate investment in that
deterrent capability, the signals will grow weaker—and the Pacific Pivot will
 See http://www.state.gov/r/pa/pl/2013/218776.htm and https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/11/16/fact-sheet-advancing-rebalance-asia-and-pacific and http://www.defense.gov/News/Special-Reports/0415_Asia-Pacific-Rebalance.
 See U.S. Census Trade in Goods tables, e.g., https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c5590.html.
 http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2814.htm and
http://www.state.gov/s/l/treaty/collectivedefense/ and http://www.ait.org.tw/en/taiwan-relations-act.html
 See DoD, Military Power of the People’s Republic of
China, 2004; DoD, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2009; DoD,
Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2008.
 SIPRI, Trends in World Military Expenditure 2014,
April 13, 2015.
http://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-usa-bases-idUSKCN0UR17K20160113 and http://www.stripes.com/news/pacific/us-to-rotate-more-aircraft-troops-through-philippines-1.404418
http://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-usa-bases-idUSKCN0UR17K20160113 and http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2015/12/02/1528261/us-military-aircraft-spotted-clark-air-base.
http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/international/asia-pacific/2015/02/04/china-voices-concern-us-missile-defense-south-korea/22869879/ and http://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/article/Article.aspx?aid=3004458.