America Hedges Bets on China

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America Hedges Bets on China

Whether it’s a pivot or a rebalancing, the U.S. clearly has its eyes on a rising China when making policy.

The commencement at any university or college is usually filled with special events, ceremonies, and proud traditions. Speakers at such affairs often look to recent events and note the world around us as a source of inspiration in their remarks.

But the recent commencement ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy also offered perhaps as good an example of the sign of the times as anything else: U.S. Secretary Defense Leon Panetta  presented a diploma to the first foreign student to achieve top graduate honors,  young midshipman Sam Tan Wei Chen. His nation of origin: Singapore.

In recent months, the United States has laid out a carefully scripted strategy of “pivoting” or what has been recently re-termed as “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific region. Through carefully worded op-eds, speeches, and military maneuvers, U.S. diplomats have laid the foundations for a new strategic focus after a decade of war.  Yet, America’s new strategy seems more of a hedge to the broader Indo-Pacific than a simple rebalance to the Pacific.

In an especially timely speech delivered in Singapore on Saturday to the 11th IISS Asia Security Summit, Panetta detailed America’s vision for the Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific region. And make no mistake, the U.S. intends to hedges its bets with only one target in mind: The People’s Republic of China.

While cooperation will be encouraged, America plans to have the forces and military power in the region in case regional tensions erupt into armed conflict. Alliances and partnerships in the region will be strengthened as a backstop against any eventualities.

Hedging its bets in the Indo-Pacific makes sense for the United States, and by default its allies in the region for a number of reasons.

First and most importantly, the U.S. doesn’t have the simple option of trying to contain China. Many scholars have correctly observed China is a major part of a globalized economic order and the world's second largest economy. While containment may have worked against the Soviet Union, no similar wall can be constructed around a nation that has deep links to the rest of the world through the internet, social media, and global commerce.  Cold War strategies simply won't apply.

It should also be noted that China is a nation whose true strategic intentions are somewhat vague. For all its bluster in the recent Scarborough Shoal affair, China didn’t send out the PLA Navy (PLAN) to try to settle the matter. China does,however,claim the shoal,which sits 220 kilometers away fromthe Philippines’ Luzon Island – aconsiderable distance from the Chinese coast.

China is also facing a period of transition. Its economy seems to be slowing and faces pressures to adapt from being an export-led model of economic growth to a more domestic, consumer driven concept.  China’s party leadership will also be transitioning to a new generation of leaders who could conceivably have their own ideas about relations with the region and the United States. 

Before the U.S. can begin hedging on the future, past commitments that complicate such a strategy –namely significant American ground forces in Afghanistan and a global war on terrorism – need to be brought to a close, or at least deemphasized.

America’s true pivot seemed well underway judging by Panetta’s remarksashe noted “The United States is at a strategic turning point after a decade of war.” While not declaring victory, Panetta clearly signaled the U.S. intention to move on, saying: “We have significantly weakened al-Qaeda’s leadership and ability to attack other nations. We have sent a very clear message that nobody attacks the United States and gets away with it. Our military mission in Iraq has ended and established – established an Iraq that can secure and govern itself.”

In the case of Afghanistan, Panetta suggested that “we have begun our transition to the Afghan security lead and to an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself.”

The true meat of the speech,though, came as Panetta laid outthe strategy for the future.Panettarepeated many long stated U.S. priorities in the region, including a strong commitment to “international rules and order.”  Time honored alliances (Japan, South Korea) and new partnerships (India, Singapore) would be strengthened, he said. There was also a pledge to reassure U.S.allies that it will remain committed in the region over the long haul,despite budget cuts. This was reinforced by a pledge to utilizethe United States’state of the art armed forces.

On China itself, the secretary made it very clear the U.S. seeks a workmanlike relationship and cooperation overshared interests:

“China is a key to being able to develop a peaceful, prosperous, and secure Asia-Pacific in the 21st century. And I am looking forward to traveling there soon at the invitation of the Chinese government. Both of our nations recognize that the relationship – this relationship between the United States and China is one of the most important in the world. We in the United States are clear-eyed about the challenges, make no mistake about it, but we also seek to grasp the opportunities that can come from closer cooperation and a closer relationship.”

Panetta also paid special attention to military-to-military contacts, something also reinforced in the Pentagon's recent report on China, noting a goal

“to deepen our partnership in humanitarian assistance, counter-drug, and counter-proliferation efforts. We have also agreed on the need to address responsible behavior in cyberspace and in outer space. We must establish and reinforce agreed principles of responsible behavior in these key domains.”

Despites all the talk of cooperation, though, the most interesting section of Panetta’s speech noted the military component of the U.S. strategy, what he called “force projection”. He encouraged U.S. allies to look at not only the numbers of American forces in the regions, but to their advanced capabilities. He noted the United States would deploy 60 percent of its naval power to the Pacific, a strategy that began under the previous administration. Port visits will be increased and become more widely distributed, including in the Indian Ocean. Six carriers will be deployed in the region with “a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, Littoral Combat Ships, and submarines.” Special note was made of the technological prowess of American combat power that will be dedicated to the region. Fifth generation fighters, new “enhanced” Virginia class nuclear submarines, and improved precision weapons will all “provide our forces with freedom of maneuver in areas in which our access and freedom of action may be threatened.”

Panetta was also sure to mention the much-discussed Joint Operational Access Concept and related Air-Sea Battle concept. Such ideas would help “meet the challenges of new and disruptive technologies and weapons that could deny our forces access to key sea routes and key lines of communication.”

Access, specifically anti-access, seems to be the key military threat U.S. planners seem to wish to hedge against.  While not singled out specifically in the secretary’s speech, there’s no other nation in the Pacific that sports advanced anti-access capabilities more than China. More broadly known as Anti-access/Area-denial (A2/AD), such a strategy would be deployed through synergizing the combined military capabilities of ultra-quiet diesel and nuclear submarines, mines, cyber attacks, anti-satellite weapons and swarm attacks by ballistic and cruise missiles.  Slowing, limiting or denying a superior U.S. force from aiding a potential rival in combat  in areas like the South China Sea, Taiwan or elsewhere seems to be the goal.

Some consider the centerpiece of such a strategy an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), the DF-21D. The missile, fired from a mobile truck-mounted launcher into the atmosphere, with assistance from over-the-horizon radar, satellite tracking and possibly unmanned aerial vehicles, could strike a ship on the open ocean. There is considerable debate over whether current U.S. missile defenses could counter such a missile. 

In the end, any strategy is only as good as the resources that are devoted to it. With what many are calling “taxmageddon” approaching, funding for a U.S. hedging strategy in the Pacific is unclear at best. With a possible $500 billion in additional defense cuts looming if no compromise is reached, the U.S. force posture in the Indo-Pacific, in the short-term at least, is uncertain. Yet devoting a larger percentage of its military power and resources to its goal to protect its vital interests is a natural component to any U.S. hedging strategy. Failure to do so only invites failure.