Just as the history of the world was written in Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of the 21st century will surely be written in the Asia-Pacific. Four decades of almost uninterrupted economic growth and the expansion of democratic governance has created a region of peace, prosperity, and integration that rivals almost any in history. The United States has been one of the greatest benefactors of Asia's success – we have gained access to new markets, formed deeper alliances to ensure stability, and seen the winds of democratic change sweep away ruthless autocrats.
But unnoticed by many is the fact that US military power and its alliances have underwritten the region's security for the last seven decades, creating a stable environment that continues to enable success. However, after passage of a budget act that slashed defence – and with more potentially on the way at the hands of the Congressionally-mandated Supercommittee – all this could change. Worse yet, just as the United States is choosing to dismantle its military, the People's Republic of China is continuing to modernize its military at a rapid pace. The result is an impending shift in the regional balance of power that is raising alarm amongst China’s neighbours and has called into question the United States’ long-term security commitments. In short, further defence cuts will imperil the future prosperity and stability of the Asia-Pacific.
Going forward, the United States will have two paramount interests in this region. First, it must preserve the free flow of trade. The region’s economic rise has made countries such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China, and Singapore into major trading partners for the United States and the rest of the world. But just as goods in the United States are shipped from Pennsylvania to Virginia by truck, the geography of the Asia-Pacific means that even intra-regional trade must transit the maritime ‘highways’ that intersect the region’s seas and pass through important choke-points. Forty percent of world trade passes through the Strait of Malacca, for instance. Maintaining the ability to secure those shipping lanes and preserve freedom of navigation will remain critical for commercial and military vessels.
Second, stability in the region will continue to be a top priority for US statesman. A conflict in the Taiwan Strait or on the Korean Peninsula wouldn’t only put US military service members in harm’s way, but it would also cause major diplomatic and economic disruption in the region, possibly paralyzing global markets. Further, if states like South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, or Japan perceive the US is backing away from its security commitments, they may invest in nuclear weapons as a relatively cheap means of deterrence, setting off a round of nuclear proliferation that would leave the region and the international community in a far more dangerous position.
For its part, China insists it will pursue a course of ‘peaceful development’ that doesn’t seek to dominate its neighbours. While many hope China’s claims are true, the only verifiable metric we have to understand what the future might look like is the China’s growing military capabilities. Unfortunately, they don't paint a picture of benign intentions.
While the PLA is far from achieving parity with the United States, it is rapidly and consistently developing asymmetric capabilities – missiles, submarines, anti-satellite and cyber warfare capabilities – to counter the United States’ more sophisticated air and naval forces. Taking a page from their own philosopher of war Sun Tzu, Chinese strategists aim to achieve their objectives while avoiding conflict. Thus, China aims to acquire conventional capabilities sufficient to deter the United States from entering a conflict in the western Pacific Ocean, or, should one occur, to deny access to US forces operating from bases in Japan, South Korea, and Guam.
If the United States doesn’t counter these capabilities, the credibility of its security commitments will erode. Australia, Japan and Singapore have already begun to question the staying power of the United States in the region and their concerns about the rise of China.
Despite unprecedented evidence that Beijing’s efforts are maturing, the US Congress voted to cut another $465 billion from the defence budget over the coming decade. These cuts will force our military services to make considerable reductions in its procurement of new weapons systems necessary for maintaining a balance of military power with China, while reducing the resources necessary to maintain the readiness of aging platforms.
An even greater blow to our nation's defences could come this autumn: if Congress fails to agree to the Supercommittee’s recommendations, the automatic defence reductions required by the Budget Control Act’s ‘sequestration’ process would cut another $550 billion in national security. When asked if a reduction of this magnitude would be the equivalent of shooting ourselves in the foot, Secretary of Defence Panetta replied without hesitation ‘No, we'd shooting ourselves in the head.’
The Asia-Pacific is a theatre in which air and naval forces are vital. Yet the House Armed Services Committee has estimated that sequestration could lead to cuts that would reduce the Navy from 285 ships (already the smallest fleet in almost 100 years) to a paltry 238, far less than the Chinese Navy. The HASC study also found that the Air Force, which is deployed across the region as a means to deter aggression and project lethal power in the event of a crisis, would have to shed hundreds of fighters. Critical programmes like the next-generation bomber would likely also be cut. The Marine Corps, a force that can operate across a versatile set of missions at its forward-deployed location in Japan, would also face sizable reductions that could hollow the service.
In the decades ahead, there is perhaps no region more important to US interests than the Asia-Pacific. Yet at a time when we need even more attack submarines, destroyers, and modern fighters and bombers to keep pace with China's advances, our military leaders and allies are left to wonder if the US will choose to continue its leadership role in the region.
As Washington considers even more defence cuts, we cannot forget the long-term strategic challenges we face. Failure to properly resource our Asia-Pacific forces will weaken deterrence and make conflict more likely—conflict that can’t help but involve the United States given its critical interests in the region. By cutting defence now, we will incur unacceptably high costs in the future. Our military and our nation simply cannot afford it.
Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., is chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee and founder and co-chairman of the Congressional China Caucus.