Military Officer | 4.1.12
By Alan W. Dowd*

The Pacific Ocean is not living up to its name. In fact, the waters and nations of the Pacific are growing less peaceful by the day.

Many of the region’s tensions are related to the behavior of China, which has laid claim to much of the oil-rich South China Sea, bullied its neighbors and carried out a breathtaking military buildup in recent years.

However, China may have overplayed its hand and forced the Asia-Pacific region into closer cooperation. The result is the emergence of a region-wide hedge against Beijing that could have the effect of deterring China, circumscribing its power and keeping the Pacific relatively peaceful. But it all hinges on America’s military muscle and political resolve.

A Rising Power
Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria argues that many observers are guilty of “wildly exaggerating China’s capabilities” and points out that Beijing “is still spending a fraction of what America does, at most 10 percent of the Pentagon’s annual bill.”

While it’s true that Beijing’s military budget is a fraction of Washington’s, there is an emerging consensus that friction between these Pacific powers is inevitable. As military author Robert Kaplan observes, “The Chinese navy is poised to push out into the Pacific” and could trigger “a replay of the decades-long Cold War, with a center of gravity not in the heart of Europe but, rather, among Pacific atolls.” Historian Niall Ferguson bluntly describes China as “a military competitor.”

Just consider Beijing’s military buildup.

According to the Pentagon’s annual report on the Chinese military, Beijing increased military spending by 12.7 percent in 2011, resuming 10 years of double-digit increases. (The year 2010 was an anomaly due to the global recession.)

With those resources, Beijing is deploying aerospace, cyberspace and naval capabilities “to deter or counter third-party intervention, including by the United States,” according to the Pentagon.  Among China’s growing arsenal of “anti-access and area-denial weapons” are carrier-killing missiles with a range exceeding 1,500 km, upgraded bombers armed with new long-range cruise missiles, 75 surface combatants, more than 60 submarines and emerging stealth and aircraft-carrier capabilities. (1) 

“China increasingly will be able to project power in East Asia and therefore interfere with U.S. freedom of access to the region,” according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (2).  

That’s no small matter given that the U.S. has dominated the Pacific since World War II.  It pays to recall that MacArthur described the Pacific as “a vast moat to protect us—as long as we held it.”

Beijing is trying to loosen that hold. As Adm. Michael Mullen has observed, China’s new weapons systems “seem very focused on the United States Navy and our bases that are in that part of the world.” 

Indeed, it appears that China’s goal is to nudge the United States out of the Asia-Pacific region and, short of that, to dissuade the United States from getting involved in areas of interest to China.

That brings us to China’s newfound assertiveness. The Pentagon notes that “China’s broad claim to potentially all of the South China Sea remains a source of regional contention.”

•    For instance, Beijing recently claimed territories within 50 miles of the Philippines. China has built permanent platforms in Philippine waters. And Chinese frigates intruded six times into Philippine waters in 2011, firing on fishing boats in some cases. “The intrusions are getting more aggressive,” according to Albert del Rosario, Philippine secretary of foreign affairs.
•    Chinese ships have rammed Vietnamese ships and violated Vietnamese territorial waters, prompting Vietnam to ram Chinese ships and conduct live-fire naval drills.
•    The Chinese navy ordered an Indian warship operating in international waters off Vietnam to explain its presence in “Chinese waters.”
•    After the first violation of Taiwanese airspace by China since 1999, Taiwan scrambled fighters last July to intercept Chinese warplanes.
•    China has made outlandish claims on the waters near Japan. Chinese vessels violated Japanese waters 14 times from late 2010 through late 2011. Ten Chinese warships sailed into waters near Okinawa in 2010. Chinese aircraft encroached on Japanese airspace 83 times in the first half of 2011, forcing Tokyo to scramble interceptors. 
•    In 2009, there were six incidents involving U.S. and Chinese vessels.
•    Simmering beneath all of these new tensions is the Cold War legacy problem of North Korea, made all-the-more perilous by Kim Jong-Il’s death. But that’s a subject for another essay.

Regional Response
Answering Beijing’s aggressive behavior, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in 2010 that “The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” 

Clinton’s comments incensed China, but they were welcomed elsewhere in the Pacific, largely because China’s neighbors are threatened by China’s behavior. As a consequence, they are making heavy investments in military hardware.

•    Australia is in the midst of a multibillion-dollar buildup of naval and air forces, and is doubling its submarine fleet.
•    Japan is investing $8 billion in new warplanes and is adding six new submarines to its fleet.  Tokyo recently elevated the Defense Agency to a full-fledged ministry. 
•    India will christen 75 new warships by 2019, is deploying new missiles and military units on the Chinese border, and is acquiring squadrons of AH-64D Apache attack helicopters and 126 fighter-bombers.
•    The Philippines is scrambling to rebuild its woefully under-equipped military, recently purchasing new helicopters and a decommissioned U.S. cutter to monitor its swath of the South China Sea. Another destroyer is on the way, courtesy of the U.S. 
•    Vietnam is purchasing anti-ship missiles, attack submarines and Su-30 warplanes.
•    With 1,600 Chinese missiles trained on their island, the Taiwanese are deploying anti-sub and anti-ship missiles, precision land-attack missiles and a missile capable of striking Beijing.
•    The U.S. is in the midst of a $15-billion upgrade of military facilities on Guam. And the Pentagon’s new AirSea Battle concept is tailored to countering China.

China’s nervous neighbors increasingly recognize that only by pooling their resources can they build a credible deterrent. That’s where the emerging security structure in the Asia-Pacific region comes into play. This is not a single alliance like that of Cold War Europe, but rather an alliance of alliances, with the U.S. as the common denominator to each.

•    Japan, for example, has deepened security partnerships with the U.S., South Korea, Australia and India; dispatched warships into the South China Sea for maneuvers with Australia and the U.S.; contemplated intervening in contingencies in the Taiwan Strait and on the Korean Peninsula; and even mulled developing nuclear weapons, according to Defense News.  (3)
•    The U.S. and Australia inked a landmark deal in late 2011 granting the U.S. broad access to Australian ports and bases. Some 2,500 Marines will be based in northern Australia, and the U.S. is prepositioning weaponry in Australia.
•    The United States plans to base littoral combat ships in Singapore.
•    India and the U.S. increasingly view one another as a counterweight to China, each providing strategic depth vis-à-vis Beijing. The two have conducted large-scale military maneuvers since 2002. India is supporting Vietnam’s claims on energy deposits in the South China Sea. And Vietnam has granted India port access.
•    The U.S., India and Japan held their first-ever trilateral security talks in late 2011.
•    Vietnam and the U.S. Navy have a deepening relationship, including regular port visits by U.S. warships and training exercises.
•    In a tectonic shift from the 1990s, when the Philippines sent the U.S. packing, Manila has sought clarification on whether the 1951 U.S.-Philippine defense treaty would cover Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, and Manila is even offering to host U.S. warships and aircraft.  “We are determined and committed to supporting the defense of the Philippines,” Clinton declared in 2011. 
•    The U.S. and Indonesia restarted mil-to-mil cooperation in 2010.
•    The U.S. led 18 major exercises enfolding 27 of Pacific Command’s partner nations in 2011.  Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the U.S. is “looking at increasing exercises in the Pacific region.”

In short, the U.S. military is pivoting toward the Pacific. As Obama puts it, “The United States is stepping up its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific region.”

“We’re concerned about China,” Panetta concedes. “The most important thing we can do is to project our force into the Pacific—to have our carriers there, to have our fleet there, to be able to make very clear to China that we are going to protect international rights to be able to move across the oceans freely.” 

Clarity is essential to keeping the peace. Yet China’s motivations are opaque at best. Citing the “pace, scope and structure of China’s military modernization,” the Australian military worries about the “the possibility of miscalculation.”  Likewise, Mullen has warned that “Ongoing incidents could spark a miscalculation and an outbreak that no one anticipated.”

Misunderstandings already abound in the South China Sea. Take, for example, Beijing’s view of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Beijing expects others to observe its EEZ as sovereign Chinese territory, even though Beijing refuses to respect the EEZs of other nations. Just ask Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines.

Of course, EEZs are not sovereign territory, which explains why the U.S. military sometimes operates relatively close to China’s shores. In doing so, Washington contends it is keeping the sea lanes open, while Beijing views it as trespassing.

This difference of opinion, as the ESRC warns, “could lead to further incidents involving the U.S. military”  —the very kind of incidents Mullen worries about. Vice Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the Seventh Fleet, describes such incidents as a “tactical trigger with strategic implications.”

Some argue that the risk of war—even an accidental, unanticipated war—is precluded by the economic linkages between China and its neighbors. After all, China needs the Asia-Pacific region’s markets, and the region needs China’s cash. China owns $900 billion in U.S. debt. China’s annual trade with the U.S. is some $450 billion, with Japan $300 billion, with South Korea $200 billion, with Australia $90 billion. 

We can hope that such intricate trade ties mitigate the likelihood of conflict, but it pays to recall that European nations enjoyed deep commercial connections a century ago. German iron-ore imports from France, for instance, grew “almost sixty-fold from 1900 to 1913,” as historian Dale Copeland observes.  Then came the summer of 1914.

Crumbling Credibility?
Joint Forces Command noted in 2008 that China has “a deep respect for U.S. military power.”  We cannot overstate how important this has been to keeping the peace. But with the United States in the midst of massive military retrenchment, one wonders how long that reservoir of respect will last.

Even before Washington forced hundreds of billions in cuts onto the Pentagon, the size of the U.S. combat fleet had shrunk to 285 ships. Pressed by budget-cutters, the Navy may decommission aircraft carriers and lengthen the carrier procurement cycle. Just 45 percent of the Navy’s deployed aircraft are combat ready. One in five ships are deemed less than satisfactory or unfit for combat. (4)  There are plans to cut Marine Corps end strength below 187,000. 

Yet given the capabilities of the U.S. military, 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 neighborhood.

Without mentioning China, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno warns, “We’ll have those who attempt to exploit our vulnerabilities, if we’re required to cut too much…They will challenge our credibility and they could miscalculate.”

Those words should sober all Americans. An atrophied, hollow force makes miscalculation more likely—and a peaceful Pacific less likely.

*This article received the 2013 Apex Award of Excellence in Feature Writing and the 2013 International Academy of Visual Arts Communicator Silver Award of Distinction.

1. DoD, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2011
2. ESRC, 2009 Report to Congress
3. AFP, “Japan must prepare for contingencies: panel,” Defense News, July 29, 2010
4. Hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, July 12, 2011, http://1.usa.gov/qc2rKI