ASCF Report | 3.18.13
By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow

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:

  • In 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 perception.
  • Thirteen years earlier, Saddam badly miscalculated how the world would react to his invasion of Kuwait. Washington then miscalculated Saddam’s prospects for survival.
  • Moscow miscalculated Washington’s reaction to the deployment of missiles in Cuba. Likewise, Washington miscalculated Moscow’s reaction to attempts to overthrow Castro’s regime.
  • The 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.
  • Britain 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 strategic implications.” 

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 billion.

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.

Power Failure

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.

A 2008 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 that question.

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:

Stay Strong
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?

Speak Clearly
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 Pacific.

Stay Flexible
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 ambidexterity.

Stick Together
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 containing Beijing.

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.