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China’s Military Power and America’s Poor Pacific Hedge

Image: Associated Press, Yusha, Taipei Times

By Ian Easton |

As linguistic constructs in international relations go, hedges are far more appealing than walls. Unlike the image of static concrete block fixtures, the means of cold war containment that walls often bring to mind, the notion of hedging conjures a sense of a bucolic international landscape where nations live happily side by side with their neighbors, their respective plots of territory demarcated by living branches that allow reasonable passage through while also assuring sovereignty.

It therefore makes perfect sense that American policymakers and Pentagon officials frequently refer to America’s defensive arrangements in the Asia-Pacific as “hedges” against the inherent unknowns related to the emergence of the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, while Beijing’s economic reforms over the past three decades have created tremendous trade and business opportunities, China’s sustained investments into its military power are evoking a rising level of concern across the region. Chinese behavior in the East and South China Seas, the India-China border region, and across the Taiwan Strait has even led some observers to view China as potentially revisionist and aggressive power in the making.

Given the longstanding U.S. policy of engaging with Beijing to reduce misunderstanding and create win-win scenarios, any terminology even remotely reminiscent of 20th century style barrier building is understandably unwelcome in the lexicon of U.S.-China relations. This is why the idea of hedging, with all its benign associations, is so popular. There is just one problem. America’s hedges in the Pacific are becoming far too low to be of much defensive value.

As both allied and axis troops quickly learned in the post D-Day battle across northern France in World War Two, a high hedgerow represents a formidable obstacle to an offensive force, while a low hedge serves only to speed bump the crushing weight of tank treads. In other words, while a high hedge can keep an aggressor at bay, a low hedge invites conquest. If the U.S. is going to keep the nations of the Pacific from becoming the battlefields of the 21st Century, it will be critical that the proper defensive arrangements and security structures are cultivated in the region. Anything less could tempt catastrophe.

As should be clear from the Pentagon’s recently released report on the military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China, the strategic landscape of the Asia-Pacific has transformed in ways unthinkable ten years ago. According to the report, “Current trends in China’s weapons production will enable the PLA to conduct a range of military operations in Asia well beyond Taiwan, in the South China Sea, western Pacific, and Indian Ocean. Key systems that have been either deployed or are in development include ballistic missiles (including anti-ship variants), anti-ship and land attack cruise missiles, nuclear submarines, modern surface ships, and an aircraft carrier.”

It is therefore more than a bit disconcerting that the U.S. military presence and posture in Asia with respect to China has remained basically unchanged over the past decade and no drastic changes are planned for the coming years. As one former commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet recently remarked, “if you look at the number and quality of U.S. ships and aircraft stationed in the Western Pacific to defend Japan and Taiwan and others from a potentially hostile China, you’ll notice that they are basically the same as they were in the 1990s when China’s capabilities were a fraction of what they are today. You have to ask, are we keeping up? Numbers matter in this business after all.”

Indeed, despite repeated and widely publicized Pentagon messaging campaigns designed to allay regional concerns regarding America’s slowly diminishing preponderance and China’s growing strength, many U.S. friends and allies are left feeling that Washington is making a half-hearted effort to prepare for worst case scenarios. Catchy, non-specific references to a “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific sound great, but when no flood of new resources follow, these sound bites quickly begin to ring hollow.

Observers see U.S. military air and naval bases in Japan, Okinawa, and Guam that are highly vulnerable to China’s power projection capabilities. They see the U.S. military deploying its newest and most advanced fighter aircraft and submarines not to the Asia side of the Pacific where they are desperately needed, but rather to the American side of the Pacific where it is cheaper to base them; this leaving frontline U.S. airmen and sailors to operate platforms older than their most of their commanders and crews. They see a U.S. military that is making massive budgetary cutbacks, scaling back its war fighting capabilities and reducing combat readiness.

In sharp contrast, China continues to engage in a long-term, high tempo effort to prepare for all out war, constructing vast underground bunkers capable of housing thousands of fighter aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles and ballistic missiles – and dozens of submarines. This unparalleled military engineering program is backed up by redundant networks of deeply buried command posts that are protected by the world’s thickest screen of air defense radars and interceptors, the world’s largest cyber warfare force, and the world’s most active space warfare program. In short, China is preparing for all possible futures, while the U.S. is drifting rudderless without a strategy to deal with the unknowns lurking in 2020 or 2025.

Looking ahead, if the U.S. is to keep pace with the growing security challenges it is facing in Asia with regards to China, it will be imperative that Washington policymakers recognize the key trends, and adjust accordingly. America’s alliances and defensive arrangements in the Asia-Pacific have underpinned the region’s dramatic growth over the past half century. This legacy has earned Washington an unparalleled degree of credibility and access. If the United States can harness these advantages to maximize its leverage and strengthen its means of deterring aggression, the coming decades are going to continue delivering regional peace and prosperity.

But it won’t be easy, investments and sacrifices will have to be made. There is no silver bullet for assuring China will exercise its growing power benevolently, and Beijing’s track record so far inspires vanishingly little hope. As such, the United States needs to engage in a long-term effort to regain its atrophying traditional military superiority, instead of risking a greater emphasis on nuclear escalation. At the core of our mindset must be preparing for war fighting across a range of known and possible contingencies with a focus on high-end conventional war. The nation needs to make this ramp up in the Asia-Pacific a reality because strength deters aggression, hard power matters, and wars properly prepared for, rarely occur. Cultivating better hedges is the place to start.

Ian Easton is the Research Fellow at the Project 2049 Institute