The United States has a vested interest in maintaining the strategic status quo in the Asia-Pacific given that its position as a power in the region could be undermined should China succeed in changing the regional security landscape. As anxiety has grown about China’s intentions following an increase in tensions over the Senkaku/Dioayu dispute between it and Japan, and a host of territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the U.S. military has set up several symbolic responses to possible Chinese moves. A report in the Wall Street Journal highlights the U.S. military’s broad contingency planning for responding to Chinese provocations in the East and South China Sea where territorial disputes abound with several important U.S. allies.
According to the report, the plans comprise everything from a symbolic show force by flying B-2 bombers to more provocative aircraft carrier exercises in the waters around China. The WSJ‘s sources noted that the U.S. response to the Russian annexation of Crimea has unnerved important allies in the region and that this new action plan for the Asia-Pacific strives to make U.S. intentions known to China, which may continue to attempt to coercively change the status quo. The issue driving U.S. planning seems to be credibility — ensuring that the United States’ presence in the Asia-Pacific remains a credible deterrent for China as it strives to pursue its claims to territorial disputes.
“They’re concerned. But it’s not only about Crimea. It’s a crescendo that’s been building,” one official told the WSJ. The strategic and tactical planning for responding to provocations in the region — be they from China or from North Korea — was conducted by the Hawaii-based U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), the combatant command responsible for the Asia-Pacific. The planning was accelerated by China’s moves late last year, including setting up an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) along its East China Sea coastline. “Combatant Commands plan…for everything from exercises and humanitarian assistance, disaster relief operations all the way up to full-scale combat operations,” said Capt. Chris Sims, the PACOM spokesman. “In the plans that they create, options are provided to senior military and civilian leadership.”
Overall, expect to see the U.S. military respond to any unilateral Chinese provocations in the East and South China Seas. While Washington won’t engage in an escalatory game of tit-for-tat, it will ensure the the U.S. presence and posture in the Asia-Pacific is pegged to the relative assertiveness of Beijing’s behavior. Under the new PACOM plans, any attempts at unilateral coercion by China will be met by the United States bearing down in the region.
U.S. officials believe that this strategy avoids the risk of a skirmish or a “shooting war” between the U.S. and China. This belief is based on intelligence estimates that the People’s Liberation Army remains divided about how China’s military should respond to assertive moves by the United States. Still, one official noted that the U.S. would be prudent to avoid cornering China, or setting up a state of affairs that left Beijing with few viable options apart from escalation. “Never push your enemy into a corner because you might get a reaction you don’t want,” notes one official who spoke to the WSJ.
That this report emerged as President Obama returns from Asia should be no coincidence. The president’s trip to Asia was intended as a grand tour for the purpose of reassuring the United States’ allies and friends who have grown skeptical of U.S. credibility after witnessing the U.S. response to Ukraine and Syria in recent years. PACOM’s new plans are one way to make the “pivot to Asia” more credible and will likely draw the support of most U.S. allies in the region.