October 16, 2013

The United States Pivot to the Pacific

Featuring Patrick M. Cronin

Source: International Relations and Security Network

Journalist George Galdorisi

Without putting too fine a point on it, beyond the economic, demographic, trade and other reasons the United States is becoming more focused on the Asia-Pacific region, the rise of China as a major Asia-Pacific and world superpower is clearly driving U.S. initiatives. It is fair to say that the moves by the United States are a natural response to new geopolitical realities of a rising China in general and the rise of China’s military in particular. Most would agree the United States’ rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific is one of the most effective ways for the United States to provide and sustain credible military presence in the world’s most dynamic area.

The Rise of China

Volumes have been written about the rise of China and much thought has gone into enhancing the understanding of this development. Suffice it to say that China’s stunning economic rise has happened faster than most predicted. Further, China’s economic growth has had beneficial spillover effects for the entire Asia-Pacific region. And to be sure, in spite of some speed bumps along the way, due to globalization and a host of other factors, China’s economy and that of the United States have become more intertwined over the years.

Additionally, China’s new President, Xi Jinping, as well as Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, have been vocal in speaking of the need to reform China’s society where, as Andrew Jacobs noted in his article, “In China, New Premier Says He Seeks a Just Society,” inThe New York Times, “Li Keqiang laid out a vision of a more equitable society in which environmental protection trumps unbridled growth and government officials put the people’s welfare before their own financial interests.” Many “China watchers” take comments like these by China’s new leaders as indications that China will be internally-focused in the short term looking to tend to significant domestic concerns.

This is one of the reasons that the U.S. Intelligence Community’s comprehensive view of the world we will inhabit in 2030, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, noted, among other findings, “China will not challenge the United States’ preeminence or the international order.” And many China scholars have pointed out, while China’s military spending - buoyed by its rapid economic growth - has increased substantially, there are limits to what China can do. As Andrew Erickson and Adam Liff noted in their article, “A Player, But No Superpower,” in ForeignPolicy.com:

On March 5, at the opening of the National People’s Congress, Beijing announced its official 2013 defense budget: roughly $114.3 billion, a 10.7 percent increase over the previous year and in nominal terms, nearly four times the official budget a decade ago. This level of spending is enough to make China a force in its neighborhood, but not one to engage in combat overseas.

Erickson and Liff go on to make additional points in their article and they note since the early 1990s China has been forthright about its reasons for strengthening its military. The primary focus for China’s military is in the “Near Seas” (the Yellow, East China, and South China Seas). But what their article doesn’t state is the United States longstanding – and growing – equities in the Asia-Pacific region mean the United States, and especially the U.S. Navy, must operate in China’s “neighborhood.” And clearly, China’s interest in the region, and those of the United States, are not always aligned.

The Rhetoric Has Not Been Positive

Those who would question the United States’ Pivot to the Pacific and suggest the United States might be over-reacting to the growth of China might have a more powerful case if it weren’t for some of the strong rhetoric coming from China’s new leaders. This starts at the top with China’s President, Xi Jinping. As Jeremy Page noted in his article, “For Xi, a ‘China Dream’ of Military Power,” in the Wall Street Journal:

Soon after taking over as Communist Party and military chief, Xi Jinping launched a series of speeches referring to “the China Dream.” It was music to the ears of Col. Liu Mingfu of the People’s Liberation Army. Three years ago, the former professor at its National Defense University wrote a book of the same name, arguing that China should surpass the U.S. as the world’s top military power and predicting a marathon contest for global dominion.

The “China Dream” has become Mr. Xi’s signature. Officially defined as the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, it in some ways echoes previous leaders dating back to the Qing Dynasty’s collapse in 1912. But Mr. Xi is making it his idea by giving it a striking military flavor. “This dream can be said to be the dream of a strong nation. And for the military, it is a dream of a strong military,” Mr. Xi told sailors in December on board the Haikou, a guided-missile destroyer that has patrolled disputed waters in the South China Sea. “To achieve the great revival of the Chinese nation we must ensure there is unison between a prosperous country and a strong military.”

And these strong words from President Xi Jinping have led many diplomats, party insiders, and analysts to conclude that China will be embracing a more hawkish worldview and this, in turn, will usher in a prolonged period of tension between China and its neighbors and lead to increased tension with the United States. Indeed, asThe New York Times reported in an article in March 2013, “China’s new foreign policy team, announced at a news conference Saturday, includes officials whose records suggest the government will concentrate on consolidating what it considers the country’s rightful place at the center of Asia.”

Many of China’s Neighbors Are Worried

This strong position by China’s new leaders has not been lost on China’s neighbors. These neighbors include nations such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand who the United States is formally allied with. Additionally there are a growing number of nations such as Singapore, Indonesia, India and others with which the United States has increasingly close ties.

And worrisome is the fact that this strong rhetoric has been accompanied by threatening military actions. As Wendell Minnick put it in his article, “Responding to Beijing: Asian Markets Strengthen as China Turns Bully,” in Defense News:

Only ten years ago, no oracle could have predicted the aggressive Chinese territorial claims over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and the totality of its claims over the area the size of India, the South China Sea.

Chinese fishing boats, maritime surveillance vessels, naval vessels and military surveillance aircraft have backed up those bold assertions with aggressive maritime and aerial encroachment in areas that have traditionally been judged non-contested.

Clearly, none of this has to lead to conflict between China and the United States, and as many commenters have noted, the Obama Administration’s Pivot to the Pacific is designed to reassure allies and partners and not to provoke China. The deciding factor will be China’s reaction to this pivot. As Curt Campbell, the outgoing U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs noted in an interview inAsahi Shimbun, “As Washington implements its ‘Rebalance to Asia’ strategy, it will be important for China to accept the enduring and strong role of the United States in the region.”

Capabilities and Intent

While is oftentimes difficult to divine a nation’s intent, for the most part, their capabilities are well known. And given that China's economy will overtake that of the United States in the 2020s, and that China’s military buildup is underpinned by this economic growth, virtually all analysts agree that China’s military growth will continue on the double-digit upward path it is currently experiencing.

Again, the United States’ Pivot to the Pacific is designed to reassure allies and partners, not to threaten China. Naval War College Professor James Holmes put it this way in The Diplomat:

It's not because a U.S.-China war is fated, but because of expediency. Military planners are negligent if they don't plan against the toughest challenge elected leaders may order them to face. For instance, the U.S. Navy planned for war with Britain's Royal Navy well into the interwar years. No one wanted or expected an Anglo-American conflict, but the Royal Navy remained the gold standard for naval power. It only made sense for the U.S. Navy to measure itself against the most exacting standard available while hedging against the unexpected.

Some would downplay China’s military capabilities, as Andrew Erickson and Adam Liff do in their article, “A Player, But No Superpower,” in ForeignPolicy. com where they note, “Even with this surging investment, there are several major obstacles to China’s developing military potential far beyond the Near Seas.” But the point is this: the United States has allies, partners and substantial equities inside the Near Seas. The Near Seas cannot become a Chinese moat. But are China’s military capabilities really substantial enough to potentially foreclose U.S. options in the Asia-Pacific?

The Growth – and Capabilities – of China’s Military

While some question China’s strategic intent and downplay China’s increasingly bellicose statements – especially toward the United States – regarding its maritime interests, a September 2011 Center for Naval Analysis study, Uncertain Waters: Thinking About China’s Emergence as a Maritime Power summarized the rationale for China’s moves. It noted:

China continues to have vital interests that touch on questions of sovereignty and territorial integrity in maritime areas near the mainland. Until these issues are resolved, a key component of how Chinese policy-makers think about maritime power is their need to develop the means necessary to prevent de jure independence for Taiwan, prevent an attack on the Chinese mainland from the sea, and defend China’s territorial and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) claims. The United States is perceived as the single most important potential security threat and the one actor that could prevent China from attaining its goals with regard to Taiwan and other disputes in regional seas.

China has dramatically increased its military spending. Indeed, in the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) annual publication, The Military Balance, it reported Asia was set to spend more on defense than Europe for the first time in modern history. What was lost to many in the report was the fact that China alone accounts for 30 percent of Asian defense and that China’s official military expenditure in 2011 was more than two-anda- half times the 2001 level, growing by an average of approximately 11 percent per year in real terms over the period, even faster than the economy as a whole. Further, IHS Global Insight predicts that China’s defense budget will double over the next five years, reaching over $238B in 2015, and outstripping the combined spending of all other nations in the Asia- Pacific region.

Much of the contention between the United States and China has been focused of late, on the South China Sea. China’s continuing conflict with its neighbors in this geographically-strategic and resource-rich oceanic zone has been well documented in the international media and due to is alliances with several of these nations; the United States has important equities in the South China Sea. In January 2012, a Center for a New American Security report, Cooperation from Strength: The United States, China, and the South China Sea, highlighted the complex issues that have led up to the current situation. It noted the important American interests at stake in this body of water, and recommended a number of actions to secure American interests. Of note, the report was replete with references to China’s strategic intent as well as its substantial A2/AD capabilities, noting:

The South China Sea is where a militarily rising China is increasingly challenging American naval preeminence – a trend that, if left on its present trajectory, could upset the balance of power that has existed since the end of World War II and threaten these sea lines of communications…China continues to challenge this openness by developing military capabilities that allow it to threaten access to this maritime region…American military dominance in the South China Sea will recede in relative terms as other nations, principally China, improve their naval and air forces to better integrate ballistic missiles… If China can tip the balance of power in its favor, it can increasingly dominate its smaller neighbors while incrementally nudging the U.S. Navy further and further out behind the Western Pacific’s first island chain.

China has been increasingly strident regarding its claims to its near-shore waters; primarily as a buffer against what it states are moves by the United States to “encircle” it. As independent military analyst Michael Richardson explained in The Japan Times:

China evidently aims to dominate its “near seas” – the Yellow, East and South China seas – turning them into an extended security buffer protecting the Chinese mainland and enabling China to exploit valuable fisheries and seabed resources, including oil, gas and minerals. The three seas contain the vast majority of China’s outstanding territorial claims against its neighbors, as well as its disputed maritime claims. Beijing’s claims in the 3.5 mission square km of South China Sea are by far the most extensive. Beijing asserts sovereignty over the main contested archipelagos and their surrounding waters and seabed. It asserts other forms of jurisdiction in its claimed zone of control, which covers about 80 percent of the sea.

One notable effort in China’s military buildup is the development of the world’s first anti-ship “carrier killer” ballistic missile, the DF-21D. Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia Program at the Center for a New American Security, recently wrote, “The missile can be fired from protected land based bastions far away, travels at high speed, and provides mid-course correction and a maneuverable reentry vehicle with great precision and lethality… The DF-21D is the ultimate carrier-killer missile.”

The overarching level of concern regarding China’s capabilities is now a constant drumbeat in the mainstream media. A New York Times editorial captured the level of concern regarding China’s emerging capabilities:

Beijing's drive to extend its military and territorial reach is making America's close allies in the region nervous and raising legitimate questions about American diplomacy and future military procurement. The commander of America's Pacific forces recently revealed that China could soon deploy a ballistic missile capable of threatening American aircraft carriers in the region. The Pentagon has a long history of hyping the Chinese threat to justify expensive weapons purchases, and sinking well defended ships with ballistic missiles is notoriously hard. But what should rightly concern American military planners is not so much the missile but the new Chinese naval strategy behind it. China seems increasingly intent on challenging United States naval supremacy in the Western Pacific. At the same time it is aggressively pressing its claims to disputed offshore islands in the East and South China Seas. Washington must respond, carefully but firmly. The Pentagon must accelerate efforts to make American naval forces in Asia less vulnerable to Chinese missile threats by giving them the means to project their deterrent power from further offshore.

While some express genuine concerns that China cannot rise peacefully, many others downplay the threat posed by China and weapons such as the DF-21D missile, saying that state-on-state conflict between the United States and China is not likely a result of the so-called “Walmart Factor” that intertwines the two economies. However, what some observers miss is the fact that China need only make the cost of the United States intervening in western Pacific affairs—to counter Chinese threats against Taiwan or China’s bullying of its smaller neighbors in disputes over the South China Sea—too high that U.S. intervention is no longer a reasonable deterrent option.

And increasingly, many observers recognize China’s approach to protecting its interests and challenging the United States where it supports its core strategic interests demands a naval response, a response that is being operationalized by China’s substantial naval building program, with some suggesting China has embraced Mahan far more than the United States has. The United States Congressional Research Service’s Ron O’Rourke summed up the situation in an article in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings:

A U.S.-China conflict may be unlikely because of the economic ties between the two countries and the tremendous damage such a conflict would cause.

But that doesn’t mean the U.S.-Chinese military balance in the Pacific isn’t important. For one thing, showing that the United States is prepared to win such a conflict is a part of what makes it unlikely.

Equally important is that other countries in the region are constantly observing that military balance and factoring it into their decisions regarding whether to align their policies more closely with the United States or with China. The day-to-day U.S.-Chinese military balance in the Pacific, in other words, will help shape the political evolution of the Pacific basin, which in turn will affect the ability of the United States to purse various policy goals, both in the Pacific and elsewhere.

The widely reported United States “Pivot to Asia” has, perhaps understandably, increased the bellicosity of China’s rhetoric against the United States and raised genuine concerns that the predictions of those who see conflict with China on the horizon may come to pass. Indeed, as Admiral Robert Willard, former Pacific Command Commander, expressed in his 2012 testimony before the United States Senate Armed Services Committee:

The President has directed his national security team to make America’s “presence a mission in the Asia Pacific a top priority.”…major security challenges confront the U.S. across this region, including China’s military modernization – in particular its active development of capabilities in cyber and space domains – and the questions these emerging military capabilities raise among China’s neighbors about its current and long term intentions…China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/ AD) capabilities extend well into the SCS. China asserts these military developments are purely defensive in nature and pose no threat to neighbors in the region. Yet, combined with broad maritime and sovereignty claims and incidents with lawful operators in the SCS and ECS, there is ongoing international concern regarding China’s activities in the South China Sea.

The United States Pivot to the Pacific - the Long-Term Prospects

For the nations of the Asia-Pacific region, what the United States does vis-à-vis a “Pivot to the Pacific” is vastly more important than what it intends to do. From where the author sits as an analyst, there is little doubt the United States intends to execute this pivot in a significant way. But as a military officer, the writer is also well aware of German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder’s oft-quoted dictum, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

As to what will happen - it may be too early to tell. As a military aviator, the writer thinks of this in terms of the primary forces at work when an airplane takes flight: thrust and lift, which tend to keep the aircraft airborne; and weight and drag, which tend to bring it back to earth. If the preponderance of resultant actions - only some of which the United States can control - are in the thrust and lift category, then the pivot will likely continue - or even accelerate. But if preponderance of resultant actions - again, not solely under United States control - are in the weight and drag category, then the pivot will likely run out of steam. These bear watching.


  • Patrick M. Cronin

    Former Senior Advisor and Senior Director, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Patrick M. Cronin is a former Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, he was the ...