Not long ago, there was talk that China’s immense economic power would gradually erode America’s role in the Asia-Pacific region and nudge the U.S. military out of China’s neighborhood. But something interesting has happened—something the “trade über alles” caucus never foresaw. It seems China’s behavior has awakened the region to the very real threat posed by a rising China. The result is the emergence of a region-wide hedge against Beijing—not an alliance of many nations like that of Cold War Europe, but rather an alliance of alliances, with the U.S. as the common denominator to each.
Before taking a tour of this alliance of alliances, it makes sense to take a look at the one thing capable of uniting the Asia-Pacific region: the People’s Republic of China.
On a percentage basis, the growth in military spending by China in the past decade is unparalleled: from $20 billion to around $180 billion. On the strength of that spending binge, China now deploys 79 principal surface combatants, 50 landing ships and 50 submarines. It has christened new supply ships, heavy-lift aircraft, stealth fighter-bombers and an aircraft carrier. According to the Pentagon’s latest report on China’s military power, Beijing is pouring increasing sums into cruise missiles, bombers, submarines and sea-skimming missiles capable of attacking ships from 1,500 km away, “particularly aircraft carriers in the western Pacific Ocean.”
In short, these assets are geared toward extending China’s reach and circumscribing America’s power. As Capt. James Fanell, deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Pacific Fleet, observes, China “is focused on war at sea.”
If Beijing’s buildup doesn’t get your attention, perhaps its words will. Ignoring Deng Xiaoping’s advice that China “disguise its ambition and hide its claws,” recent Chinese leaders speak in blustery, bruising language. “The great revival of the Chinese nation includes the revival of the militaristic spirits worshiped by our ancestors,” intones Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan.
In 2012, Hu Jintao, then-president of China, called on the Chinese navy to “make extended preparations for military combat.” Against whom or what, he didn’t say.
His successor, Xi Jinping, declares, “We must insist on using battle-ready standards in undertaking combat preparations, constantly enhancing officers’ and troops’ thinking about serving in battle, and leading troops into battle and training troops for battle. And we must insist on rigorous military training based on the needs of actual combat.”
The only thing more worrisome than warlike words is warlike actions:
• The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (ESRC) reports that a literal army of Chinese hackers is waging war on America in cyberspace, planting computers with codes that could be activated to steal or destroy data and penetrating computer systems at U.S. defense firms and government agencies.
• A Chinese coastal province has promulgated a new law unilaterally authorizing Chinese ships to intercept and repel foreign vessels sailing in a vast swath of the South China Sea.
• Chinese aircraft encroached on Japanese airspace 83 times in 2011. Japan was forced to scramble fighter-interceptors 91 times in the fourth quarter of 2012, according to The Wall Street Journal.
• Last month, Tokyo reported that a Chinese frigate used its weapons-targeting radar to “paint” a Japanese ship in disputed waters. China is seeding waters near Japanese islands with sonar buoys, apparently to monitor Japanese submarine activity.
• Beijing claims waters and islands 500 miles from the Chinese mainland. Its justification: a map created by Chinese cartographers in 1947. Based on that map, Beijing has fired on fishing boats in Philippine waters and earmarked $1.6 billion to build ports and airfields on islands long claimed by Manila. In fact, The Washington Times reports that China has eight military bases on reefs claimed by the Philippines.
• Chinese ships have rammed Vietnamese ships and violated Vietnamese territorial waters.
In short, it’s easy to understand why Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warns, “The South China Sea seems set to become a ‘Lake Beijing.’”
That brings us to the region’s response.
Let’s begin with something that’s obvious to everyone except China’s political leaders: As a nation bordering the Pacific Ocean and with territories in the Pacific, the United States is a Pacific power—not an outsider. So it is altogether appropriate for the United States to be engaged in this region.
As evidenced by the so-called “Pacific pivot,” Washington is expanding its level of engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. For instance, the U.S. is upgrading military facilities on Guam; has new basing agreements in place or in the works with Australia and the Philippines; has forged a new security partnership with India; and is expanding its missile defense-assets in the region. The U.S. will soon deploy an additional missile-defense X-Band radar in southern Japan to augment one already based in northern Japan, and Washington is looking to base a third X-Band radar in the Pacific region even further south, The Wall Street Journal reports, adding that the Navy plans to deploy 60 percent of its entire missile-defense fleet in the Pacific.
Declaring that “We must not allow the international commons, in particular the oceans, to become places ruled by might,” Abe recently warned, “China seeks to establish its jurisdiction in the waters surrounding [disputed] islands as a fait accompli.’”
To his credit, Abe has proposed a way to prevent that unhappy outcome: “a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific.” Abe is eager “to invest, to the greatest possible extent, Japan’s capabilities in this security diamond” and is backing up his words with actions.
Condemning “continuous provocations” by China, he has announced plans to increase the defense budget for the first time in 11 years and increase troop strength for the first time in 20 years. Even before Abe and his hawkish cabinet were swept into power, a Japanese government panel released recommendations in 2010 calling on the Japanese military to be prepared to participate in contingency operations in Korea and the Taiwan Straits, and urging Japanese officials to be open to lifting bans on “development and possession of nuclear weapons and their transportation to Japan,” according to a Defense News report.
Cold War Legacies
As Tokyo’s contingency plans suggest, China affects—and is affected by—the Cold War legacies in Taiwan and Korea.
South Korea is understandably preoccupied with its unpredictable northern neighbor. But China’s passive approach to North Korea—and its aggressive approach to the rest of the neighborhood—have brought Tokyo and Seoul closer together on regional security issues. Both realize they face the same threats. Indeed, just as Japanese leaders are mulling the nuclear question, recent nuclear tests by North Korea have revived debate in South Korea about going nuclear. (Skillful American diplomacy would use these nuclear ruminations in Tokyo and Seoul as leverage with Beijing; more on that in the next column.)
As for Taiwan, China sees it as a rebel province that will one day—one way or another—be reabsorbed by the Mainland. For the United States, Taiwan’s position has crumbled from being an ally—“an unsinkable aircraft carrier,” as MacArthur called it—to an irritant.
Beijing has deployed 1,600 missiles opposite Taiwan and based 490 combat aircraft within unrefueled range of Taiwan. Historian Paul Braken argued a decade ago that with just 45 missiles, “China could virtually close Taiwan’s ports, airfields, waterworks and power plants.” Indeed, Beijing’s buildup appears aimed at dissuading the U.S. from intervening—and should conflict arise, as a Pentagon report puts it, “to achieve a military solution before outside powers could intervene militarily.”
Mustering the best defense it can (given its untenable geopolitical situation), Taiwan recently deployed three squadrons of land-attack missiles capable of hitting the Mainland’s anti-Taiwan batteries. The Taiwanese are deploying indigenous anti-sub and anti-ship missiles, precision land-attack missiles, and missiles capable ofstriking Beijing. Taipei wants to be allowed to purchase F-35s and wants new F-16s. If the not-so-friendly government of Egypt can have new F-16s, it’s difficult to understand why Taiwan can’t.
No matter the history, no matter the current geopolitical situation, the reality is that Taiwan is a representative democracy today. To allow it to be absorbed by force or incorporated by coercive policies that would lead to Beijing’s de facto control over the island would be a stain as ugly as Munich. That’s what’s so worrisome about Beijing’s buildup. If Washington remains ambiguous about Taiwan, what’s to stop Beijing from one day simply giving Taipei—and Washington—an ultimatum?
Two decades ago, the Philippines sent America packing. Today, with a wary eye on China, it’s asking for deeper collaboration with America. Reuters reports that more than 70 U.S. warships stopped off at Subic Bay in 2012. Clark Airbase hosts more than 100 U.S. military planes each month. Manila increased defense spending by a jaw-dropping 81 percent in 2011, and is collaborating with Japan to deploy a credible deterrent force in its swath of the South China Sea. Tokyo is providing the Philippines with 12 new cutters and recently signed a long-term military cooperation agreement with Manila.
Vietnamese warships have responded to Chinese provocations by ramming Chinese ships and conducting live-fire naval drills in disputed waters. Vietnam is buying anti-ship missiles, attack submarines and Su-30 warplanes, and America’s Cold War foe has opened its deep-water ports to U.S. warships. Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, predicts that U.S. troops will soon train alongside Vietnamese troops—in Vietnam no less. “I would hope that someday down the road through relationships that we build over the next year or two that we’ll be able to train in Vietnam,” he said.
Singapore and Thailand
Later this year, the U.S. Navy will begin basing littoral combat ships in the strategic city-state of Singapore. Singapore has purchased new F-15s from the U.S. and new submarines from Sweden to support the Pacific’s alliance of alliances. Thailand and Washington updated their 1962 military pact last fall, with an emphasis on new maritime security roles for the Thai navy.
During the Bush administration, India and the U.S. began to view one another as helpful counterweights to China, each providing strategic depth vis-à-vis China. The result is an important security partnership, highlighted by $8 billion in U.S. arms sales to India in the past five years. India plans to build more than 100 new warships in the next 10 years. Thirty-two of the ships are already under construction, with 75 slated for christening by 2019. In addition, India recently purchased 126 fighter-bombers from France, added a new nuclear-powered submarine to its fleet and tested a new missile, the Agni V, with a range of 3,100 miles. The Indian press has dubbed the Agni V the “China killer.”
Australia is doubling its submarine fleet. The U.S. and Australia inked a landmark deal last year granting the U.S. broad access to Australian ports and bases. Some 2,500 Marines will be based in northern Australia under the deal. And the longtime allies are deepening their cooperation on missile defense.
Adm. Robert Willard, who served as PACOM commander until 2012, pointed to a trio of “burgeoning trilateral relationships” as essential to keeping the Pacific, well, pacific: the U.S.-South Korea-Japan partnership, U.S.-Japan-Australia partnership and U.S.-Japan-India partnership.
These countries possess all the ingredients necessary to serve as a bulwark against China: they are democratic, strategically located, wealthy and adaptive. Most important, they are awake to the dangers posed by an unchecked China.