Pentagon Turns Eyes Toward Asia

Recent Features

Features | Security | East Asia

Pentagon Turns Eyes Toward Asia

The new US military strategy underscores the challenge of a rising China. But there’s more to the plans than just more hardware spending.

According to the recently released US National Military Strategy (NMS), the international order has reached ‘a strategic inflection point.’ The US Department of Defence still has to win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but other regions are in increasing need of attention—particularly Asia.

That the NMS suggests Asia is the region of fastest rising global importance isn’t surprising—Pentagon leaders and other senior Obama administration officials note that Asia contains two rising powers (China, India), several particularly dangerous states (North Korea and Iran), numerous diplomatically important countries and the world’s most vibrant economic region (growing wealth allows regional armies to better bolster their capabilities).

Unsurprisingly, China looms large in the minds of US defence strategists. Managing China’s rising economic and military strength has for some time been a clear preoccupation of Pentagon planners, and some of the text in this latest report is explicit about the unease China’s rise is generating in Washington. The NMS declares, for instance, that the United States will closely follow how the modernization of the People's Liberation Army could adversely affect the military balance across the Taiwan Strait; the US Defence Department also states that it is ‘concerned about the extent and strategic intent of China's military modernization, and its assertiveness in space, cyberspace, in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea.’

Still, although there are some overt signs of US worries, most of the text’s concerns over China are implicit. For example, when the NMS expresses alarm about expanding ‘anti-access and area-denial capabilities and strategies to constrain US and international freedom of action,’ the allusion is clearly to China’s development of the Dong Feng 21D anti-ship ballistic missile, anti-satellite weapons, cyber strike capabilities, emerging long-range precision strike systems and other military-related technologies. ‘To safeguard US and partner nation interests,’ the NMS section on China affirms that the Pentagon ‘will be prepared to demonstrate the will and commit the resources needed to oppose any nation’s actions that jeopardize access to and use of the global commons and cyberspace, or that threaten the security of our allies.’

But despite the concern over China’s military build-up, the NMS supports the administration’s broader ‘shaping and hedging’ strategy of transforming China into a responsible global stakeholder. It states, for example, that the United States will pursue a ‘positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship’ with Beijing that ‘welcomes’ a ‘responsible leadership role’ for China. At the regional level, meanwhile, the NMS especially cites the potential value of working with Beijing to counter WMD proliferation, maritime piracy and instability in the Korean peninsula.’

The US side has made it clear in recent months that it hopes Sino-US defence diplomacy will be able to improve the often tense relationship between the PLA and the Pentagon—or at the very least avert unsought confrontations. With this in mind, it suggests that the United States ‘seeks a deeper military-to-military relationship with China to expand areas of mutual interest and benefit, improve understanding, reduce misperception, and prevent miscalculation.’

Ironically, at the same time that these words were appearing in print, the international media was publishing WikiLeaks cables documenting how the Chinese government had refused to engage in defence dialogue with the Pentagon on a range of important security issues. In addition, the PLA has continued to reveal new military technologies most likely designed to challenge US armed forces in the Pacific region.

So how will the United States respond to such challenges? The NMS insists that, ‘We expect to maintain a strong military presence in Northeast Asia for decades,’ but suggests that Asia’s elevated importance won’t necessarily result in an increase in the number of US troops stationed in the region. The reality is that few opportunities exist to base more forces in Japan and South Korea due to popular opposition, among other constraints. Indeed, the United States expects that these traditional US security allies will gradually use their own expanding military power to assume more regional security responsibilities.

Instead, the hope is to rotate more forces through the region on a temporary basis, especially to countries that don’t host a permanent US military presence. Southeast Asia is one area the Pentagon has in mind, and the NMS suggests there will be new attention and resources focused on Southeast and South Asia, including the strengthening of US ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other regional multilateral forums.

In Southeast Asia, the United States will ‘expand our military security cooperation, exchanges, and exercises with the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Singapore, and other states in Oceania.’ These rotations will allow the Pentagon to strengthen the capabilities of local military forces through enhanced training opportunities. In addition, the United States will pursue ‘expanded military cooperation with India on non-proliferation, safeguarding the global commons, countering terrorism, and elsewhere.’

Noting the confluence of interests between Moscow and Washington in the Pacific region—perhaps the geographic region where Russian and American interests overlap the most due to mutual concerns regarding North Korea, China and other developments—the NMS says the United States would ‘welcome’ a more active role by the Russians in preserving security and stability in Asia.

The big question looming over all these plans is the cost. The Obama administration is eager to shift more resources toward tackling the PLA’s growing capabilities. For example, the fiscal 2012 Defence Department budget submission includes $2.3 billion for fortifying the new US Cyber Command (CYBERCOM), for instance by launching the planning and design of the envisaged CYBERCOM Joint Operations Center at Ft. Meade in Maryland. The proposed funding for Science and Technology Programmes in fiscal 2012, meanwhile, exceeds $12 billion, which would represent 2 percent real growth in basic research in an effort to sustain US military technological superiority.

The sheer vastness of the Asia-Pacific theatre means it’s always going to be costly trying to ensure robust military air and naval assets. The Defense Department wants to spend almost $10 billion in fiscal 2012 to continue acquisition of all three variants of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The F-35, along with the F-22, will prove essential in enabling the US Air Force to counter the new Chinese J-20 stealth fighter and other PLA Air Force warplanes. When he defended the budget before Congress on February 17, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the Pentagon would have 325 F-35 jets by the end of 2016, and about 850 5th-generation aircraft by 2020 if the F-22s are included. The Australian Air Force and other US Asian allies also plan to acquire the JSF, which will enhance interoperability between the US military and its regional allies.

In addition, under the proposed fiscal 2012 budget submission, the US Navy would receive almost $25 billion to fund the procurement of 11 warships that can help defend Taiwan and contest the PLA Navy’s growing capabilities in the contested waters surrounding China. These include one DDG 51 destroyer, one Mobile Landing Platform, one LPD-17 amphibious transport dock ship, two Virginia class submarines, two joint high speed vessels, and four littoral combat ships.

But the NMS doesn’t just focus on conventional weapons—it also underscores the need to bolster the US nuclear arsenal.

The United States relies on its nuclear weapons both to deter a direct Chinese nuclear attack on the US homeland (something that is anyway unlikely), as well as strikes on US regional allies. It’s with this in mind that the United States has extended nuclear security guarantees, in an effort to dissuade Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and other states that have the capacity to make nuclear weapons from doing so. Although the Obama administration has endorsed the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, and has taken some steps towards this end, the NMS reaffirms the administration’s commitment to retaining US nuclear weapons as long as they exist.

To this end, the US budget submission for both the Departments of Defence and Energy support the continued strengthening of the US nuclear arsenal. In part to overcome China’s improving air defence network, the Defence Department has also decided to commit to the development of a new long-range strategic bomber that could carry both nuclear and conventional weapons. Interestingly, in recognition of recent advances in unmanned aerial vehicles, the department has left unresolved the question of whether the new bomber needs to have a pilot.

All this said, although the NMS naturally focuses on military power, it does note the importance of strengthening and applying other US national security tools, such as economic, diplomatic, information, legal, and intelligence assets. With this in mind there’s one thing that the US Congress could do if it wants to help bolster the US presence—oppose the administration’s plans to end the Voice of America’s Mandarin-language TV broadcasts into China. At a time when China is emerging as a global power, and as Chinese becomes an increasingly important global language, such a move might be penny wise, but it would be pound foolish.