ASCF Report | 3.18.13
By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF
In 2009, President Barack Obama
proposed “spheres of cooperation” between the United States and China, and
insisted that “the United States does not seek to contain China.” Four years
later—as China bullies its neighbors, launches
countless cyber-attacks against U.S. targets, continues its unparalleled
military buildup and retools its military to take aim at the U.S. Navy—the administration is in the midst of carrying out a “Pacific
pivot” aimed at, well, containing China.
The goal of the “Pacific pivot”—and of the emerging alliance
of alliances in the Asia-Pacific region—is not just to contain China, but to
prevent the sort of misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to an
accidental war. After all, U.S. military planners are far less worried about
China launching an aggressive war than about a miscalculation or series of
miscalculations on either side of the Pacific that could lead to some sort of
test of wills. History reminds us that such miscalculations often lead to
crises and sometimes spiral out of control:
2003, the U.S. and Britain miscalculated the depth of Saddam Hussein’s
duplicity, concluding that if he told his generals he had vast stocks of
weapons of mass destruction, he surely had them. Saddam, too,
miscalculated, especially how dramatically 9/11 altered America’s threat
years earlier, Saddam badly miscalculated how the world would react to his
invasion of Kuwait. Washington then miscalculated Saddam’s prospects for
miscalculated Washington’s reaction to the deployment of missiles in Cuba.
Likewise, Washington miscalculated Moscow’s reaction to attempts to
overthrow Castro’s regime.
U.S. miscalculated China’s commitment to North Korea during the Korean
War, and Moscow miscalculated Washington’s commitment to South Korea
before the war.
miscalculated how far Nazi Germany would go—until September 1939. America
made the same mistake with Imperial Japan—until December 1941. And it
seems everyone miscalculated in August 1914.
The antidote to miscalculation is clarity plus strength. Clarity
alone is not enough. After all, Neville Chamberlain’s words were clear—the Munich
Pact said Britain and Germany would “never to go to war with one another again”—but
Britain lacked the strength by 1938-39 to deter Hitler.
Interestingly, neither are armaments alone enough to prevent
miscalculation. After all, the great powers were armed to the teeth in 1914.
But since they were not clear and open about their treaty commitments, a small
crisis on the far fringes of Europe mushroomed into a global war.
Worryingly, both Washington and Beijing are unclear about
their goals in the Asia-Pacific region. For instance, President Obama has
replaced a hard-nosed foreign-policy tandem—Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton strongly endorsed the “Pacific pivot”—with a
secretary of state who recently declared, “I’m not convinced that increased
military ramp-up [in the Asia-Pacific] is critical yet,” and a secretary of
defense more interested in contracting American power than projecting it.
Beijing’s motivations and goals 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.”
Misunderstandings already abound in the South China Sea. Beijing,
for example, expects others to observe its exclusive economic zone (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. Navy sometimes operates within
China’s EEZ. In doing so, Washington contends it is ensuring freedom of the
seas, while Beijing views it as trespassing. This
difference of opinion could lead to the kind of incidents Vice Adm. Scott
Swift, commander of the Seventh Fleet, describes as a “tactical trigger with
Some argue that the risk of war—even an accidental 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 $1.1
trillion in U.S. debt. China’s annual trade with the U.S. is some $535 billion,
with Japan $333 billion, with South Korea $246 billion, with Australia $123
However, it pays to recall that
European nations enjoyed deep and intricate commercial connections a century
ago. Then came the summer of 1914.
Indeed, Kevin Rudd, the foreign minister of Australia, describesthe South China Seas as “a tinderbox on water” and points to ominous parallels
to the Europe of 1913, where a combustible mix of “primitive, almost atavistic
nationalisms” and “great power politics” opened the door to a war no one
wanted. “The idea of armed conflict, which seems contrary to every element of
rational self-interest for any nation-state enjoying the benefits of such
unprecedented regional economic dynamism, has now become a terrifying, almost
normal part of the regional conversation,” he sighs.
Three times in the last century
alone, emerging empires posed existential threats to America. Two of
them—Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany—were defeated in bloody and costly wars.
The other—the Soviet Union—was vanquished through deterrence and resolve.
To be clear: China does not represent an existential threat,
as of today. But like those 20th-century empires, it does possess
the industrial, economic and military might to become such a threat, and it
clearly has the desire to use its multifaceted strength to circumscribe U.S.
power. As a Pentagon report concluded, China wants “to become the preeminent
Asian power.” That presents a problem for the current preeminent power in Asia:
the United States.
Pentagon report noted that China has “deep respect for U.S. military power.”
But with the United States in the midst of massive military retrenchment, one
wonders how long that reservoir of respect will last. Indeed, while the
“Pacific pivot” makes sense conceptually—given Beijing’s words and deeds—it may
not work in practice because the Pentagon may not have
the tools to deter a rising China.
By definition, sea power is an essential element of
America’s deterrent strength in the Pacific. But Washington is allowing U.S.
sea power to atrophy. At the height of the Reagan buildup, for example, the U.S. fleetboasted 594 ships. When Washington dispatched two carrier battle groups to smother
Beijing’s temper tantrum in the Taiwan Strait in 1995-96, the fleet totaled 375
ships. Today’s fleet numbers just 285 ships. The number of large surface
combatants will soon ebb from 85 ships to 78; the “build time” of new aircraft
carriers is growing from five to seven years; and the Navy recently had to
request a special congressional waiver to deploy just 10 carriers (rather than
the legally-mandated 11). Worse, Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, commander of Naval
Surface Forces, suggests that the ships in the surface fleet “don’t have enough
people, don’t have enough training, don’t have enough parts, and don’t have
enough time to get ready to deploy.”
Does that sound like a credible deterrent? Only Xi Jinping and his generals can answer
In short, the “Pacific pivot” must be more than a rhetorical exercise. To
work—to prevent the sort of misunderstandings and miscalculations that can lead
to an accidental war—it must be backed by military muscle and deft diplomacy. Toward
that end, here are a few guidelines for the pivot to Asia:
The fact that Beijing has
frightened its neighbors into building up their defenses actually enhances
the “Pacific pivot.” Even so, the key to deterring China’s military impulses
and preventing what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength” is
American military might. Just imagine NATO trying to deter Stalin without the
United States—or the United States trying to make NATO work in 1950 without
adequate defense spending.
If current trend lines hold, the United States will be
investing just 2.8 percent of GDP on defense by 2023. The last time Washington spent
such a paltry amount on defense was, ominously, 1940. Policymakers from both parties must stop
this downward spiral, restore defense spending at least to 4 percent of
GDP (the Cold War average was 7 percent
of GDP), andrecognize that a
well-equipped military is not a liability to cut but an asset to nurture.
Staying strong presupposes maintaining America’s protective nuclear
umbrella, which means the administration must abandon its reckless proposals to
unilaterally slash the nuclear deterrent. Some reports indicate the
administration has mulled taking the U.S. deterrent arsenal as low as 300
warheads. (The U.S. deploys 1,722active nuclear
warheads today, down from 2,500 in 2010.)
It pays to recall that a) China is building up its nuclear arsenal and b) the
West has underestimated China’s arsenal for decades. Once thought to be a
last-resort deterrent of 100 warheads, outside observers now believe the Chinese
nuclear arsenal is much closer to 1,700 warheads.
These opposite trajectories for the U.S. and PRC nuclear
arsenals raise an intriguing two-sided question: If Washington really wants to
prevent nuclear proliferation, won’t dismantling America’s nuclear deterrent
make Japan and South Korea—already in the crosshairs of North Korean and
Chinese nukes—all the more likely to go nuclear? And if China doesn’t want a nuclear South Korea and a nuclear
Japan on its doorstep, isn’t protecting North Korea’s nuclear program and
maintaining a veil of secrecy over its own making a nuclearized Pacific much more likely?
The time for “strategic ambiguity” has past. Washington should be clear about
its security commitments—Taiwan’s independence, Manila’s reefs, Tokyo’s southern
islands—and clear about the rules of the road in the South and East China Seas.
We can find inspiration from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, who recently declared, “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.” That statement
is neither belligerent nor unreasonable. It should be applied across the entire
China is at once an asymmetric challenger, strategic competitor and
economic partner. Such blurriness was never the case with the U.S.-Soviet
relationship. This makes dealings with Beijing more
complex. And complexity requires flexibility. The Cold War was like a
chess match. There were two sides with two very different visions for the
world, allowing and sometimes even requiring a one-dimensional approach. But
with 21st-century China, the U.S. is pivoting into a relationship
that’s more like Jenga—a contest played in multi-dimensions and demanding
That said, it
appears America’s friends in the Asia-Pacific region are borrowing a page from
the Cold War playbook. Robert
Kaplan, in his book “Monsoon,” concludes that something akin to a “Great Wall
in reverse” is taking shape around China, as “a well-organized line of American
allies, with the equivalent of guard towers on Japan, the Ryukus, South Korea,
Taiwan, the Philippines and Australia,” begin to focus their militaries on
A revived system of alliances in the Pacific need not be an
Asian equivalent of NATO, and probably couldn’t be, given the diversity of
relationships between China and its neighbors. However, what’s emerging is a
kind of chain-link fence of bilateral and trilateral partnerships stretching
from Japan and Korea to Thailand and the Philippines to India and Australia.
Those who counter that such a posture might trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy
of conflict don’t remember the lessons of the 20th century—and don’t
live in China’s neighborhood.
*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.