The Conventional Wisdom
10/05/2011 – Clearly China is a central aspect of any US Pacific strategy. China is building up its forces, studies the US and its ups and downs very carefully, and are funding innovative technologies and shaping asymmetrical strategies to deal with US legacy forces and strategies. For example, the legacy approach to airpower as opposed to the new distributed operational approach, which is enabled by 5th generation aircraft, is widely understood and a benchmark against the PRC would seek to defeat US forces in the Pacific if needed.
US forces have formed the lynchpin of an Asian alliance, which has been central to deterrence of North Korea and the PRC who remain de facto partners. As US power projection capabilities have rapidly declined over the past 20 years, American allies have noted the REALITY of US capabilities and are making their own decisions about what they need to deal with the PRC and what kinds of policies are necessary as the US forces become smaller and with no clear US strategy towards the Pacific over the next 20 years. Even if forces are robust, the absence of strategy and of an ability to provide for coalition operations will lead to the perception of decline or defeat in battle. It is not just the forces; it is the strategy and the ability to implement the strategy, which matters as well.
When looking at the challenge, which the PRC poses now and into the future, a key element will be the perceptions of core allies about the ABILITY of the US to do what is needed in the decades ahead. It will not be about a photo opportunity with the US Secretary of State at one of the many international conferences in Asia.
When one thinks of directly confronting China the following view of the globe is what is operating in most people’s minds.
If we look at this view, what do we see? We see a giant landmass where China can swallow its enemies. It is the “sea” within which the PRC forces can operate. We see the Taiwan straits and the Dragon standing astride the narrow straits. We see a key zone of maritime transit, which provides for a significant conveyer belt of goods to the US and beyond. We see an exposed island continent Australia, which looks like it does not have a lot of independent options in dealing with the Dragon. We see the Koreas, with the divided Koreas remaining a festering point, but at some time in the period ahead perhaps the Koreas will decide to unite. Perhaps Taiwan will vote its way into the PRC. This is an area where the US forces intrude, not naturally live, operate and exist.
Such views raise the magnitude of the challenge for US forces to confront the PRC land mass and close in operational areas. The entire ordinance of the US Navy could probably be used with the PRC able to function quite nicely afterwards. In the current financial crisis, and absence of a significant effort to rebuild US power projection forces, this snap of the globe is quite discouraging for future of deterrence.
Such a view can lead to such amazing pieces as this one published in the US Naval Institute Proceedings. Entitled “Chinese Missiles and the Walmart Factor,” we learn that Scenarios of a military conflict with a rising China are pointless if they leave out a glaring detail—the global economy.
Multiple news outlets recently carried stories about a Chinese antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) that could target U.S. aircraft carriers at sea.1 It was just the latest in a long-running stream of news coverage and concerned dialogue over China’s expanding military capabilities and influence. As China’s growing strength gains greater global attention, more and more time, energy, and money will be spent asking how the United States will counter an increasingly capable Chinese military.
For some within defense circles, this is a routine question and a question the U.S. Navy (particularly Pacific Command) is expected to answer.
But fear of China’s perceived martial intentions is both overblown and unproductive for the United States and its military. Focusing solely on Chinese military capabilities clouds the critical challenge of preventing a catastrophic Sino-American conflict. Furthermore, this distraction obscures the real work of guiding China’s rise as an open, self-confident, fully integrated member of the world community.
One could ask this enthusiastic naval analyst why an assertive global power like China building military capabilities to influence events in the Pacific and abroad is going to ask him to “guide” the Chinese on anything. Influencing one can understand and part of this “teaching” effort requires a real US Pacific strategy, which works seamlessly with allies and convinces the Chinese that they have no easy options to push the world around. We do not need the next Tiananmen Square to be a regional or global event. If all we have are “guidance options” rather than deterrence options, the likelihood of a global or regional Tiananmen Square is very high indeed. And our Asian allies are very clear both on their fears as well as the need for the US to move out of the lemming like strategic debate inside the Beltway and into an approach to provide the assets, the fortitude and vision to provide real capabilities to provide the glue for the Asian alliance. When the Chinese are building icebreakers and we are not is a metaphor for not getting it in Washington.
The Chinese have built hundreds of warships since 1991; we have a one hundred year recapitalization for tactical aircraft. Allies, partners, and not friends will draw their own conclusions.
It is also important to underscore developments within this global picture, which provide some options and opportunities for the deterrence effort. As China has modernized, they are no longer the primitive country with space being able to overcome strikes. Building major cities, highways, and infrastructure, coupled with building air and naval bases for their power projection capabilities is exposing the PRC to strikes which can undercut their operational capability. It means there is no free ride for their maritime forces operating in the Pacific, because there is a vulnerable backside.
It is also the case that as the PRC develops weapons and capabilities, most of these are untested and their reliability unknown. The press and many strategists give the PRC weapons and systems effectiveness upon the mere appearance of the weapon or platform. Whereas the same folks would not allow Western weapons such a space in which to be effective merely by appearing.
The Chinese are entering a period of moving their capabilities to sea. They have done this operationally in global counter piracy operations and other operational opportunities. The last time the Chinese moved to see was a long time ago. The Admiral Zheng He sailed the globe with as many as 70 ships and 30,000 sailors. After learning a great deal, the Emperor rewarded him by burning his ships out of fear of contamination of foreign ideas and cultures. Zheng He died in 1433 so there is a bit of an operation gap here.
The point of this little historical excursion is to remember that the US and its allies have considerable operational experience, and only a deliberate lemming like approach to throwing this experience away can guarantee Chinese hegemony in Pacific waters.
To better understand how the US and its allies can work together to deal with China and other Pacific challenges we need to start with a different view of the globe and then organize our capability around this alternative view.
This is a contribution to the Strategic Whiteboard