(Question from Jennifer Rossi) There is a U.S. Presidential Election on Tuesday. How do you see this impacting U.S. policy towards Asia? How much difference is there between the two candidates on questions relating to the Asia-Pacific?
The election itself will have an impact, although how much is open to debate. I would argue ‘the unknown’ will certainly drive events more than a change in U.S. Presidential leadership. Could there be a crisis in the South China or East China Sea? Could tensions between Japan and China drive some sort of unknown crisis? While I think all claimants in these various island disputes understand a shooting war would be horrific for all concerned, we can look back at history and say the same thing many times over. Nationalism, territorial claims and leadership changes never exactly lend themselves to peace and stability. I think for the next several months tensions in the Pacific will be elevated. As new leaders take their positions and consolidate power, I am optimistic that negotiations can lead to compromises or at the very least smart diplomats can ‘agree to disagree.’
One thing that should be noted is that America’s ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ has been underway for a long time – and will continue no matter who is president. American military, diplomatic and economic power has been at play in the Asia-Pacific and in the wider Indo-Pacific for decades. As several scholars have pointed out to me, “America has never left the Pacific!” The 2007 U.S. maritime strategy, produced during the George W. Bush administration, clearly lays out America’s naval rebalancing towards Asia. Last year America made clear from a diplomatic and economic perspective that the region will be America’s top priority.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Where this gets tricky is the level of resources America will have at its disposal when it comes to the ‘pivot.’ With massive deficits that will need to reined in at some point, one could see the United States cutting back the military aspect of its rebalance to Asia as part of an overall reduction in military spending. If that does happen, the diplomatic and economic focus of such a strategy becomes even more important. Do nations that have various disputes with China begin to purchase more arms fearing American abandonment? Does an arms race begin? Could some nations decide to give in to certain territorial or economic demands from Beijing?
We must also remember that America has global commitments that Washington considers essential. Iran still looms large as no progress has been made towards some sort of compromise. Syria’s ongoing civil war also seems to be getting worse by the day. America still has commitments to Europe with Russia upset over planned missile defense deployments. And there is always the Eurozone debt crisis and America’s troubled economic recovery to keep U.S. leaders up at night.
(Question from Thomas Ross) This week Foreign Policy reported that the Pentagon is vigorously debating whether the U.S. should prioritize dispersing their bases in Asia or hardening existing ones. What are the advantages of each? Where do you come down in this debate?
The problem with hardening, according to senior officials I have spoken with, is that it is very expensive (I don’t have figures but when I broached the subject with one official he said it was “out of the question”). In an era where defense planners are looking for the best bang for their buck, it would seem force dispersion will win the day.
However, we need to look at this from a different angle, in fact, maybe even asking a different question all together: is the nature of warfare changing where ‘distance’and ‘access’ matters more? In any major conflict around the globe it seems very likely cyberwarfare would be the first weapon of choice. If you can blind your opponents command and control systems so they are unable to attack, you possess a great advantage. With the nature of cyberwarfare being such that a potential target may not even know entirely who is attacking them, why would someone even start a war with conventional munitions? Forget the revolution in military affairs; cyber is its own revolution that will literally change warfare for generations to come.
However, to answer your direct question, American planners if confronted with a crisis concerning Iran or China will have lots of ballistic and cruise missiles to deal with. I have spoken with many senior analysts that worry American missile defenses aboard Aegis vessels would be quickly overwhelmed with the numbers they would have to defend against. Missiles and missile defenses quickly become a numbers game – factor in how expensive a missile is (relatively cheap) vs. an interceptor (expensive) the offensive missile based on shore seems to win the contest against limited sea-based missile defense. Imagine an American president forced to withdraw from a combat operation simply because defensive measures were exhausted. These are the choice anti-access strategies force upon potential opponents.
Also, China for instance has a well hyped (but untested) ballistic missile with an assumed range of 1500km+ that could potentially come down on its target with a maneuverable warhead. Factoring this and other long range ballistic and cruise missiles, it makes sense to have bases that are diversified but approaching an anti-access challenge like China or Iran requires some distance in order one to have a successful and credible military strategy. This would require the deployment of an enhanced new long-range bomber, possibly unmanned. American forces would also need to maintain their conventional ballistic missile capabilities undersea. We witnessed during the Libya operation what American Tomahawk cruises missiles fired from below the waves can do. Future American submarines should be loaded with such weapons as they are mostly safe under the protective blanket of the oceans. That might be the best ‘hardening’ out there. So dispersing needs to happen over multiple domains in terms of bases, military platforms and new technologies.