Re­as­sur­ance and re­solve in East Asia

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

As ter­ri­to­rial fric­tions in­volv­ing China and many of its neigh­bours per­sist in the East and South China Seas, the United States needs a clearer re­gional strat­egy. Amer­ica must si­mul­ta­ne­ously up­hold its in­ter­ests and al­liance com­mit­ments and avoid coun­ter­pro­duc­tive con­fronta­tion, or even con­flict.

Do­ing so will be dif­fi­cult, es­pe­cially be­cause it is not clear whose claims to the re­gion’s dis­puted is­lands and out­crop­pings should be recog­nised, and the US has no in­ten­tion of try­ing to im­pose a so­lu­tion. At the same time, the US must mod­ernise its armed forces in re­sponse to new chal­lenges – par­tic­u­larly China’s rise. As China de­vel­ops ad­vanced pre­ci­sion weapons to cre­ate a so-called an­ti­ac­cess/area-de­nial ca­pa­bil­ity, the US must con­sider how to re­spond to the grow­ing vul­ner­a­bil­ity of its bases and naval forces in the re­gion.

There is no easy an­swer to these chal­lenges. What is needed is a nu­anced ap­proach, which is what we de­velop in our new book Strate­gic Re­as­sur­ance and Re­solve.

Our ap­proach is an adap­ta­tion of Amer­ica’s long­stand­ing “en­gage but hedge” strat­egy, through which the US and its al­lies have used eco­nomic, diplomatic, and some­times mil­i­tary in­stru­ments to give China in­cen­tives to rise peace­fully, while main­tain­ing ro­bust mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties in case en­gage­ment proves un­suc­cess­ful.

The prob­lem is that hedg­ing has typ­i­cally been in­ter­preted to mean sus­tain­ing over­whelm­ing US mil­i­tary su­pe­ri­or­ity. But China’s devel­op­ment and ac­qui­si­tion of ad­vanced weapons, in­clud­ing pre­ci­sion anti-ship mis­siles, makes it im­plau­si­ble that the US can main­tain its forces’ decades-long in­vul­ner­a­bil­ity in the re­gion, in­clud­ing the abil­ity to op­er­ate with im­punity near China’s shores. Given China’s own his­tory of vul­ner­a­bil­ity to for­eign in­ter­ven­tion, uni­lat­eral US ef­forts to main­tain over­whelm­ing of­fen­sive su­pe­ri­or­ity would only trig­ger an in­creas­ingly desta­bil­is­ing arms race.

Some Amer­i­can strate­gists ad­vo­cate a largely tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tion to this dilemma. Their ap­proach, a con­cept called “Air-Sea Bat­tle,” im­plies a mix of de­fen­sive and of­fen­sive tools to ad­dress the new chal­lenges posed by the pro­lif­er­a­tion of pre­ci­sion-strike weaponry.

Of­fi­cially, the Pen­tagon does not di­rect the con­cept of “Air-Sea Bat­tle” against any par­tic­u­lar coun­try. For ex­am­ple, Iran’s pos­ses­sion of pre­ci­sion-strike ca­pa­bil­i­ties – and a much more hos­tile re­la­tion­ship with Amer­ica – would war­rant new US ini­tia­tives to cope with grow­ing se­cu­rity vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties.

But it is clearly China, which has the re­sources to de­velop a cred­i­ble anti-ac­cess/area-de­nial strat­egy, that most wor­ries US mil­i­tary plan­ners. Some Air-Sea Bat­tle pro­po­nents pro­pose tac­ti­cal pre­emp­tive strikes on mis­sile launch­ers, radars, com­mand cen­ters, and per­haps also air bases and sub­ma­rine ports. More­over, many of these at­tacks would be car­ried out with long-range weapons based on US ter­ri­tory, rather than at sea or on the ter­ri­tory of re­gional al­lies, be­cause these as­sets would be less vul­ner­a­ble to pre­emp­tive at­tacks them­selves.

Un­for­tu­nately, Air-Sea Bat­tle’s un­der­ly­ing logic poses se­ri­ous risks of mis­cal­cu­la­tion – begin­ning with the name. AirSea Bat­tle is, ob­vi­ously, a con­cept for bat­tle. Though the US clearly needs war plans, it also needs to be wary of send­ing China and re­gional part­ners the mes­sage that its hottest new mil­i­tary ideas base de­ter­rence pri­mar­ily on the abil­ity to win a war quickly and de­ci­sively through large-scale es­ca­la­tion early in a con­flict.

Air-Sea Bat­tle re­calls the Air­Land Bat­tle idea that NATO adopted in the late 1970s and early 1980s to counter the grow­ing Soviet threat to Europe. But China is not the Soviet Union, and Amer­ica’s re­la­tion­ship with it needs to avoid Cold War echoes.

“Air-Sea Op­er­a­tions” would be a much more ap­pro­pri­ate name for a more ef­fec­tive ap­proach. Such a doc­trine could in­clude clas­si­fied war plans; but it should cen­ter on a much broader range of twenty-first-cen­tury mar­itime ac­tiv­i­ties, some of which should in­clude China (such as the on­go­ing counter-piracy pa­trols in the Gulf of Aden and some mil­i­tary ex­er­cises in the Pa­cific).

More­over, war plans need to avoid de­pend­ing on early es­ca­la­tion, par­tic­u­larly against strate­gic as­sets on the Chi­nese main­land and else­where. If a skir­mish erupts over a dis­puted is­land or wa­ter­way, the US needs to have a strat­egy that en­ables a favourable res­o­lu­tion short of all-out war. In­deed, in the broader con­text of Sino-Amer­i­can re­la­tions, even “vic­tory” in such an en­counter might be costly, be­cause it could trig­ger a Chi­nese mil­i­tary buildup de­signed to en­sure a dif­fer­ent out­come in any sub­se­quent skir­mish.

In­stead, the US and its part­ners need a broader range of re­sponses that would en­able them to adopt ef­fec­tive mea­sures that are pro­por­tion­ate to the stakes in­volved – mea­sures that demon­strate a will­ing­ness to im­pose mean­ing­ful costs with­out trig­ger­ing coun­ter­pro­duc­tive es­ca­la­tion.

Like­wise, Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary mod­erni­sa­tion agenda needs bal­ance. Re­spond­ing to the threat that China’s grow­ing ar­se­nal of ad­vanced weapons poses to many of its as­sets does not re­quire greatly ex­pand­ing Amer­ica’s long-range strike plat­forms. In fact, do­ing so would in­evitably cre­ate in­cen­tives for US war plan­ners to em­pha­sise pre­emp­tive op­tions in con­tin­gency plans and deem­pha­size Amer­i­can forces’ day-to­day pres­ence in for­ward ar­eas near China, where they con­trib­ute sig­nif­i­cantly to main­tain­ing de­ter­rence. And it would cre­ate a pow­er­ful in­cen­tive for Chi­nese war plan­ners to de­velop fur­ther their coun­try’s anti-ac­cess/area-de­nial ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Con­tin­ued US en­gage­ment in the re­gion re­quires it to heed the les­son of the Cold War: No tech­no­log­i­cal fix will pro­vide com­plete in­vul­ner­a­bil­ity. Eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal mea­sures, as well as a sus­tained US mil­i­tary pres­ence, would be more ef­fec­tive than re­liance solely on of­fen­sive es­ca­la­tion should the US need to counter Chi­nese ac­tions that threat­ened im­por­tant Amer­i­can in­ter­ests. In­deed, re­ly­ing on the ca­pac­ity to at­tack the Chi­nese main­land to de­fend free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion and al­liance com­mit­ments in East Asia could tempt China’s lead­ers to test Amer­ica’s will­ing­ness to risk Los An­ge­les to de­fend the Senkaku Is­lands.

A more bal­anced US strat­egy to in­crease re­gional sta­bil­ity re­quires a ju­di­cious com­bi­na­tion of re­solve and re­as­sur­ance, and a mil­i­tary pos­ture that re­flects this mix. This ap­proach would give the US the best chance to in­duce China’s lead­ers to adopt a more co­op­er­a­tive ap­proach to the re­gion’s ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes.

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