Former US president George W. Bush’s critics liked to say that during his term the US was “getting its derriere kicked” by China. By this the critics presumably meant that the war in Iraq was a big distraction and that it was not attending enough Asian multilateral conferences and showing off its “soft power”.
While never overwhelming, the case had a kernel of truth. Beijing did gain regional influence at Washington’s expense under Bush’s watch. Now President Barack Obama is doing his predecessor one better: By imposing draconian defence cuts, heavily targeted on high-technology weapons systems and “power projection” platforms essential to preserving US military superiority in the Pacific, America may not have much of a derriere left in Asia at all.
Though “soft power” and “smart power” are all the rage in foreign-policy circles, Asia remains a dangerous place where good, old-fashioned “hard power” still matters. Certainly, China and North Korea think so. Pyongyang poses a major conventional threat to South Korea and is inching closer to obtaining delivery systems for nuclear weapons that can pose a threat both to Japan and the continental US. Its ballistic missile launch this month is only the latest sign of its growing threat to regional security.
China has built up its military across the board. Its submarine fleet has grown faster than any other in the world, it now has a large and lethal arsenal of conventional cruise and ballistic missiles, and it has announced plans to deploy aircraft carriers. Worrying about China is far from a case of what US defence secretary Robert Gates calls “next war it is”. The US isn’t in a war with China—mercifully—but there is a military competition. China has already changed the military balance in the Asia-Pacific region to the consternation of US allies such as Japan and India.
The point is not that Washington is poised to go to war with North Korea and China. To the contrary, only by maintaining its role as Asia’s security guarantor can the US hope to secure an enduring peace in this dynamic region.
That is why the Obama administration’s defence cuts are so detrimental to the US strategy. The day after North Korea’s missile test, US announced deep cuts to missile defence and satellite programmes. The airborne laser programme that Obama axed is not only the most promising and immediate method for intercepting ballistic missiles in the early “boost” phase, shortly after launch, but also the first significant use of directed energy, a technology that may prove to be another revolutionary change in warfare sparked by US ingenuity.
There are further implications for Asia in the Obama defence cuts: The decision to reduce production of stealthy F-22s ends any hope that Japan can buy this air supremacy aircraft and add to its own deterrent. Nor can US dominance of the skies, historically the cornerstone of its military superiority, be assured.
Also missing from the defence budget is any increase in the submarine or surface fleet. The navy set a goal of a 313-ship fleet only a few years ago, up from around 280 today (roughly half of that at the end of the Cold War), yet the Obama plan falls short of that number.
Indeed, the yin of US cuts is almost perfectly reflected in the yang of China’s skyrocketing investments in its fleet. This will inevitably chip away at America’s ability to track the Chinese deployment of submarines throughout the western Pacific and Indian Ocean. Last month China demonstrated its military muscle when its warships harassed a US surveillance vessel conducting lawful missions in South China Sea.
Worse still, growing Chinese dominance of Pacific waterways will begin to affect maritime commerce and will soon become a factor in America’s strategic calculus in the region. Chinese military attack boats and ballistic missile submarines that carry the means for nuclear attack cannot be easily dismissed if the US is to maintain its status as keeper of the peace in the Pacific. Regional commanders, presented with the reality of growing imbalance between the US and China, will be forced to give up important regional missions, from presence and security cooperation in South-East Asia to deterring aggression and defending allies in north Asia.
In announcing his defence cuts, Gates stated that he was making “a virtue of necessity”, conceding that the Obama plan was an exercise in budget cutting to pay for favoured domestic programmes. Gates promises that he will explain his judgements about “balancing risks” soon, but a risk assessment is no substitute for a strategy. If Obama wants to continue America’s strategy of guaranteeing Asia’s security, his defence plan will not give him the means.
In the near future, Obama will announce his policies towards China and North Korea and they will, in some way, continue those of his predecessors. He will undoubtedly want to “engage” China and “hedge” against a downturn in relations. He will pronounce a nuclear North Korea unacceptable to US. The problem is that without the military power to back diplomatic goals, these policy proclamations ring increasingly hollow. US allies know it. Even worse, China and North Korea know it. The question is, can Congress find the political will to stop these cuts and the blow they strike to US objectives in Asia?
Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow in Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC
The Wall Street Journal
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