Since the Pivot to Asia was announced on November 17, 2011, President Barack Obama has sought to refocus American diplomatic, economic, and military attention to the Asia-Pacific region. Now known as the Rebalance to Asia, the effort remains designed to refocus American policymaking on the world’s fastest growing and most populous region, following long wars in the Middle East and the 2008 financial crisis. The fundamental premise of the Rebalance is that the history of the twenty-first century will be written in Asia. How the United States protects its allies and interests, contributes to institution building and security provision, and helps to manage a rising China will determine whether it can maintain a twenty-first century regional leadership role. This strategic turn has a central, but by no means exclusive, role for the Department of Defense. This study seeks to assess some of the Pentagon’s leading Rebalance initiatives to date, with an eye to helping a new administration to strengthen these efforts.
In its Asia-Pacific Maritime Strategy, the Department of Defense (DoD) has described three fundamental U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region: securing the freedom of the seas, deterring conflict and coercion, and promoting adherence to international laws and standards.1 The Pentagon’s initiatives are directed toward securing continued access to the seas and skies of the Western Pacific despite growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) challenges from China. The Department has begun to implement four distinct initiatives to that effect, which this report addresses in turn.
First, the Department of Defense has sought to reinforce its military force posture. Free movement throughout the Asia-Pacific maritime theatre, supported by forward-deployed troops and platforms, has underwritten regional security there for decades, but is due for a post–Cold War update to confront modern challenges. Next, the United States is pursuing new security assistance initiatives aimed at building partner capacity in the region. This line of effort seeks to reshape (and reform) traditional Cold War or counterterrorism-inspired relationships to confront contemporary challenges. Third, the United States is pursuing a Third Offset military modernization effort. Following in the tradition of the two prior offset strategies – efforts to balance Soviet quantitative military advantages with superior qualitative ones – the Third Offset strategy seeks to reassert American technological dominance for a new era. Finally, the Pentagon is developing new operational concepts by which it can fight and prevail in conflict using the capabilities and personnel to which it has access today.
This study aims to assess and provide prescriptions that may strengthen these initiatives. It scrutinizes the Pentagon’s assumptions about the Rebalance, offers alternative analyses, and attempts to anticipate how China might respond to U.S. efforts. Our study employed a Red Team method: a structured process of discussion and analysis designed to challenge traditional assumptions among policymakers and experts and to identify and overcome preexisting cognitive biases. Over the course of five workshops in 2016, teams of leading regional and functional experts examined the Pentagon’s four lines of effort, as well as how the four would interact in a scenario exercise based in the year 2020. These sessions, combined with the authors’ extensive research and interviews with policymakers leading the Pentagon’s Rebalance efforts, informed this report’s analyses and recommendations.
The fundamental assumption animating the force posture elements of the Rebalance is that a greater U.S. presence will reduce or blunt the impact of Chinese assertiveness. The United States has sought to achieve this through the conclusion of new rotational access agreements, which accommodate temporary U.S. deployments abroad, tailored as needed for specific places and circumstances.2 This force posture assumption may be true, but should be scrutinized in light of the tradeoffs inherent in an enhanced U.S. force posture in the Asia-Pacific. A more visible presence is not the same as a more effective posture. Large forward operating bases and local platform rotations may appear reassuring, but could also be less effective in a high-intensity conflict than distributed platforms based over-the-horizon. However a U.S. force posture upgrade is pursued, Chinese planners may interpret this line of effort as a validation of their own efforts: namely, that the United States sees its position in the region as slipping in the face of Chinese military modernization and anti-access investments. A new administration should commence a global force posture review that acknowledges the need to retain substantial forward forces in Asia, and should assess whether existing rotational agreements meet DoD needs; it should conduct a new annual exercise that demonstrates the capability and the capacity at its disposal from new access arrangements; and it should consider cluster basing, by which multiple, proximate, outposts serve similar functions, for the purposes of resilience.
In contrast to the assumptions underpinning force posture upgrades, which are clear, if untested, those shaping U.S. security assistance programs and strategy are numerous and indistinct. Security assistance programs vary significantly across agencies and countries: they are sometimes aimed at improving a partner’s defensive capabilities, sometimes at improving U.S. regional access by way of that country, and at times perhaps merely a means of managing the relationship. U.S. policymakers have struggled to align security assistance efforts under unified strategic objectives, although the new Pentagon-based Maritime Security Initiative (MSI), a partner capacity building program for Southeast Asia, could begin to change that. However, China could reap outsized benefits if it undertook its own competing effort to provide hardware assistance, such as by provisioning basic radio communications equipment. Instead, it will likely benefit more from shaping the political cost calculations of countries that receive U.S. assistance. China has shown a willingness to wield economic pressure as a weapon, and may seek to inflict harm upon or woo away perceived or potential U.S. partners. To counter this, the Pentagon should institute an annual assessment that explicitly coordinates security assistance programs with strategic goals; it should work with MSI countries to develop their own plans and proposals for maritime domain awareness (MDA); it should enlist regional armies in maritime domain awareness development efforts; it should encourage near-term cooperative projects such as coast guard academies; it should coordinate the MSI with International Military Education and Training (IMET) and Foreign Military Financing (FMF) programs; and it should adopt lessons from past successful programs like the Partnership for Peace.
Faced with the prospects of the proliferation of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and the return of near-peer military competition, the Pentagon’s nascent Third Offset strategy acknowledges that the American way of war faces fundamental challenges. Our Red Team analysis found that the Third Offset held promise, but requires far more definition to confront the obstacles posed by China’s military modernization. The Third Offset differs from the prior two strategies in several fundamental ways. First, China is an uncommon challenge as the “pacing threat,” with its ability to field large quantities of “good enough” capabilities. It will be no easy feat for Washington to innovate its way out of competition. Both Beijing and Washington, however, recognize that China is more likely to pursue targeted efforts at balancing against specific individual platforms, rather than to attempt a broader confrontation with U.S. technological superiority. U.S. defense planners should define the Third Offset carefully to send calibrated signals of intent to China and to partners; they should include efforts beyond traditional innovation, to harness existing technologies and to slow the pace of fast-followers; they should publicly emphasize those capabilities that will be funded and produced in short order; they should explain to allies their role in this initiative; and they should seek to put China at a disadvantage by encouraging Beijing to spend where it is relatively weak and improvements would be costly.
By investing in new operational concepts such as Air-Sea Battle (ASB), the Pentagon has signaled its belief that legacy operational concepts may no longer be adequate in the event of a war with China. Recent operational concepts for the Pacific have centered around legacy platforms and capabilities which may allow the Department of Defense to wield them in new and inventive ways. Chinese strategists have seized upon publicly available evidence about new U.S. concepts and used this to justify their own ongoing modernization efforts. When new guidance is made public about the concept known as Joint Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons, it should acknowledge but not concede that access is contested; it should attempt cost imposition by encouraging China to spend on its areas of weakness; it should increase stability by emphasizing resilience; and it should produce multiple concepts of operations, including concepts for lower-intensity conflicts that originate in maritime and territorial disputes.
Strengthening Strategy in the Asia-Pacific Region
The four defense Rebalance initiatives this report examines hold a great deal of promise, but the Pentagon would be well advised to examine the assumptions underpinning them, as well as how China is likely to respond when planning its future. These lines of effort do not exist in a vacuum: they each intersect with one another and could be mutually reinforcing, or instead might work at cross-purposes. China is likely to respond to these initiatives in a calculated manner. While it is difficult to point to instances in which specific U.S. programs have inspired direct Chinese countervailing efforts, it is also clear that most U.S. defense initiatives feed China’s larger narrative that it is threatened by containment or encirclement. U.S. initiatives seem to make the most significant impression on Chinese planners when they seek to discern U.S. intentions from capabilities. While the United States thinks of its regional defense posture largely in traditional military terms, China’s responses to each of these lines of effort may rely on political counteractions, such as coalition splitting or the use of economic coercion. China’s most likely responses make apparent the need for careful, top-down Rebalance coordination as a new administration takes office in 2017.
A new National Security Council (NSC) staff should issue classified strategic and agency-specific guidance early in 2017 that charts the course for the next phase of the Rebalance. It should task the Pentagon, State Department, Treasury Department, and others agencies with preparing an annual Rebalance report. The Pentagon should evaluate the utility of adopting a concrete defensive objective – namely, the defense of the First Island Chain – and of focusing its lines of effort toward this end, even if only in private.3 A new administration will also want to craft a counter-coercion concept to accompany the Pentagon’s new operational concepts; prioritize those Third Offset capabilities that may have near-term applications; and think through some fundamental strategic questions in advance of crisis or conflict: what exactly does the United States seek to deter and defend in the waterways of Asia, and to what lengths will it go to do so? The Pentagon has made substantial progress in implementing four of its most prominent regional defense initiatives. But these initiatives are based on premises and assumptions that may not always hold true, and China has ample tools to respond, some of which exist outside of the defense domain. China has consistently assumed the worst about U.S. defense initiatives in East Asia, and is likely to continue to view these initiatives through a containment or encirclement lens, however they take shape. China’s prospective responses suggest that the Department can best strengthen the Rebalance if it begins from the top down, with careful and concerted coordination across offices and agencies. The success or failure of U.S. efforts will be determined in large part by how nimbly they respond to China’s inevitable countervailing actions.
Our analysis of each of the Pentagon’s four major initiatives yielded a number of specific policy recommendations presented in the preceding chapters. We summarize them here, and then outline how a new administration can strengthen the Rebalance and prepare for future challenges.
To enhance U.S. force posture, the Pentagon should:
- commence a global force posture review at the beginning of the new administration that assumes the United States will need to retain substantial forces in Asia, and that assesses whether existing rotational agreements meet DoD needs;
- conduct an annual large-scale military exercise to demonstrate U.S. and partner capabilities from new access points, to maximize the deterrent effects of recent force posture upgrades;
- consider cluster basing to spread capabilities across multiple host nations for the purpose of resilience.
To improve security assistance, the United States should:
- institute an annual assessment to coordinate technical and operational program details with strategic goals;
- work with each of the Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) countries to develop its own proposals for where it would like to see its maritime domain awareness (MDA) capabilities in five years, and to identify the steps it will need to take to get there;
- enlist regional armies in MDA development efforts, especially in countries where ground forces have the greatest influence;
- facilitate the transition to a multilateral MDA architecture through near-term cooperative projects such as international coast guard academies;
- coordinate MSI with Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs on a quarterly basis;
- study and adopt lessons for MSI from successful past programs, including counterterror initiatives and the Partnership for Peace.
To develop and refine the Third Offset strategy, the Pentagon should:
- define the Third Offset to send clear signals of intent to China and Russia and to U.S. allies;
- include efforts beyond technological innovation, including those that harness existing technologies in innovative ways, promote resilience, and slow the pace of fast-followers;
- couple intentions with capabilities by publicly emphasizing Third Offset technologies that will be funded and produced on relatively rapid timelines;
- develop clear metrics for measuring Third Offset impact that consider its effects on the regional balance of power over time;
- explain the role of allies and include them in counter-A2/AD planning, emphasizing their comparative advantages while addressing possible concerns such as affordability and technology sharing;
- encourage Beijing to spend in areas in which it is relatively weak, such as anti-submarine warfare.
To develop new operational concepts, the Pentagon should:
- acknowledge that access is contested but not concede denial of access: continued access and maneuver may be possible in much of the Western Pacific;
- use concepts for cost imposition, encouraging China to spend on operationally weaker areas, particularly ones where it will cost more for China to address the problems than it costs for the United States to pose them;
- increase stability by emphasizing resilience, reducing the necessity of early strikes;
- produce multiple operational concepts, including concepts for lower-intensity conflicts that originate in maritime and territorial disputes.
Our Red Team analysis of each initiative also yielded some systematic conclusions about China’s responses and likely future reactions to U.S. defense efforts.
First, most U.S. defense efforts, ranging from relatively minor operational changes to major statements of strategy and policy, appear to feed China’s narrative that it is being contained or encircled. Containment fears do not necessarily appear to be calibrated to the supposed U.S. catalyst, and they do not seem to abate following U.S. decisions to refrain from security-related actions Washington might otherwise have taken. Policymakers should expect this to continue.
Second, it is difficult to point to instances in which specific U.S. initiatives or programs have inspired directly countervailing efforts from China. Because China is already engaged in substantial military modernization efforts, and because its military planning proceeds in 5–10 year cycles, new U.S. initiatives may have a more diffuse effect, mainly by feeding the persistent containment or encirclement narrative. Few discrete Pentagon actions result in identifiable Chinese reactions. If the United States and China are trapped in a security dilemma, it is strategic and structural rather than tactical in nature.
Third, U.S. initiatives appear to leave an impression on Chinese leaders when they couple capabilities with intentions, that is, when a new military program or initiative is announced and funded in short order, and when there is evidence that it will be fielded in due course. Chinese planners pay less attention to declaratory policy if related action does not take place quickly.
Fourth, while the United States thinks of its regional defense posture primarily in traditional military terms, China may rely more on political counteractions, such as coalition splitting or the use of economic coercion against partners to erode the relationships that support U.S. access. China’s most effective responses to force posture upgrades, security assistance, military modernization, and new operational concepts may primarily take the form of opportunistic wedge strategies and a commitment to its own military modernization efforts.
Toward a Robust Rebalance in 2020
Along with developing recommendations for strengthening each initiative and anticipating China’s most-likely responses beginning in 2017, our study team also sought to analyze how a new administration can strengthen the defense Rebalance as part of a whole-of-government approach, and do so in ways that anticipate future security challenges. Our approach to this task has two major components.
First, we constructed a scenario exercise. It presumed that each initiative continued to be successfully developed and implemented by a new administration: that MSI had produced a small-scale common operating picture for participating countries; that existing rotational access agreements had been fully implemented, with two new agreements in progress; that Third Offset investments continued; and that the Pentagon had released public guidance on its JAM-GC operational concept, as well as another concept for operations addressing maritime or territorial disputes. We then assumed that a crisis erupted between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, and that the United States entered on behalf of Manila. An excerpt of the scenario exercise appears in the text box; and our major findings are reflected in our recommendations below.
Second, we constructed an organizational chart that attempts to show all of the U.S. government offices that have authority over the lines of effort that we have studied in this report. This chart conveys how expansive the defense Rebalance has already become and it allows us to make some additional policy process recommendations. (See Figure 13.)
As the Pentagon looks to strengthen the Rebalance in a new administration, it would do well not only to look ahead to potential future flashpoints, but to look inside and across the interagency process. Force posture, military modernization, security assistance, and operational concepts are overseen and implemented by a wide assortment of Pentagon offices, and the State Department also has substantial involvement in posture and security assistance activities in Asia. So too does Pacific Command, and the National Security Council coordinates and provides oversight to all of these efforts. This vast array of authorities is depicted in the organizational chart. (See Figure 13.)
Because each of these initiatives is at least in part a means to secure a broader objective – continued American access to and maneuver around the global commons in the Western Pacific – it is essential that each of these initiatives is understood by its organizers and implementers as part of a broader strategy. Despite the fact that each of these endeavors is distinct, our Red Team analysis emphasized that China is likely to interpret them similarly, that is, as further evidence of encirclement. It might not respond to each individual effort in kind, but use various means such as political warfare, economic coercion, or coalition-splitting wedge strategies to try to undermine the political basis of U.S. access in the region. The policymakers responsible for implementing each of these initiatives must have full situational awareness of how the broader regional access picture is evolving, taking into account both U.S. efforts and likely Chinese responses. The Pentagon has made substantial progress on each of these four initiatives, but some of them also involve coordination with the State Department, and all of them would benefit from clearer guidance from the NSC.
The South China Sea 2020 scenario exercise and our organizational analysis yielded some additional recommendations for the military-security approach to the Rebalance as a whole.
Issue NSC Strategic Guidance
Within the first 100 days of the new administration, the new NSC staff should issue classified strategic guidance on its objectives for the next phase of the Rebalance. This guidance should take stock of Rebalance progress to date across agencies and should set comprehensive goals for the Rebalance through 2020. It should issue agency-specific guidance to the Pentagon, State Department, Treasury Department, and others, framing each agency’s role in the Rebalance and next steps for implementation.
Release an Annual Rebalance Strategic Document
As other recent analytic work has noted, the U.S. government has not issued a document that articulates, in one place, its strategy for the Asia-Pacific region or that tracks the implementation of the various components of the Rebalance. While the Pentagon did articulate a 2015 Maritime Strategy, it should also produce periodic reports that assess its goals and strategy for the defense aspects of the Rebalance as part of a whole-of-government approach.165 An annual public strategic document would encourage the Pentagon to articulate its strategic goals for the region clearly and to assess its progress in each of its lines of effort. This document should also assess China’s responses to its initiative. This Pentagon document should stand as an important part of a broader NSC-led report to Congress on Rebalance implementation. It would also serve as a useful signaling device for regional audiences.
Define Priority Defense Objective: Securing the First Island Chain
Our Red Team sessions revealed the need for the Pentagon to define its defensive objectives in the Western Pacific, and to direct its four lines of effort towards that end. Our analysis suggested that the defense of the First Island Chain is an objective that would allow the United States to protect its allies and its interests in the region, while acknowledging China’s growing capabilities. Our South China Sea 2020 exercise assumed that the Pentagon had adopted the defense of the First Island Chain as its strategic objective. Our participants found this to be an objective that was consistent with U.S. interests. They made reference to it throughout the scenario exercise, evaluating their options in the contingency with this goal in mind. Even if the Pentagon does not wish to articulate a regional defense objective publicly, the defense of the First Island Chain is consistent with the historical U.S. strategic approach to the region, and it and would serve to protect Washington’s Asia-Pacific security objectives in the twenty-first century.
Craft an NSC-led Counter-coercion Concept
Even if the Pentagon develops multiple concepts of operation for Western Pacific contingencies – and it should, to ensure that the U.S. president has context-appropriate options – distinct operational concepts run the risk of lack of coherence and coordination across the conflict spectrum. By separating JAM-GC from a concept for lower-level maritime events, U.S. defense planners may inadvertently send the message that grey-zone conflicts are viewed as totally distinct from more intense clashes. The NSC staff is best positioned to coordinate the development of a counter-coercion strategy for maritime and territorial flashpoints, incorporating diplomatic, military, and economic components consistently, and specifying how they may relate to higher-end conflicts. The decision to aid an ally or to resist coercive Chinese grey-zone behavior is fundamentally a political one, and the White House should tackle planning for this in 2017.
Prioritize Third Offset Capabilities that Have Near-term Applications
Rail guns, UUVs, and non-lethal undersea capabilities would be of great value in a contingency that began around a maritime or territorial dispute, particularly one that involved dredging, building, or other activities that may be difficult to disrupt once they are in progress, but even more costly to reverse once they are complete. Undersea capabilities in particular can serve a valuable compellence role without being excessively escalatory. Some of these systems could be accelerated, and some could be built through federated defense cooperation with major allies such as Japan, Korea, and Australia.
Answer Strategic Questions Before They Are Asked
As the United States continues to put in place the ways and means to secure its defense objectives, the Pentagon should focus on answering some vital strategic questions before they arise in crisis or conflict. These include:
Should the United States actively seek to deter China from building on or militarizing Scarborough Shoal? Why does the United States care about it; what role does it play in the South China Sea; will Washington fight over it if deterrence fails?
Are there other land features that are especially vital from a defense perspective? Are there specific activities that China might take that the United States would find unacceptable? Over what actions or principles are we willing to escalate?
In a lower-level conflict, would the United States treat China’s artificial island outposts as fundamentally different from the Chinese mainland? How would it signal this to Beijing?
If China and the Philippines negotiate a diplomatic settlement that reduces near-term tensions but not necessarily long-term Chinese goals, how would this change the short-term and medium-term future of U.S. security assistance and access programs?
Answering these questions requires that the United States define its interests in and around the South China Sea and determine its objectives for this waterway and the region. Peacetime deterrence and crisis management will be enhanced if U.S. policymakers have declaratory or at least private answers to these questions. They should also communicate some of these answers to China, and to close allies, if only privately.
Recognize the Role of Special Operations Forces in Asia-Pacific Contingencies
To respond to a South China Sea or other island contingency while minimizing escalation, Special Operations Forces (SOF) may play an important role in early intervention. Special Operations Forces have, however, been overwhelmingly oriented towards counterterror missions. The Pentagon should evaluate the operational role that both SOF and counter-SOF forces could play in an island-related contingency and train those forces accordingly. Grey-zone scenarios in the South China Sea point to possible new SOF missions beyond those that have been their principal focus over the past decade and a half. As the U.S. military continues to strive for jointness, it should evaluate the role that the Army could play in SOF and counter-SOF operations in the Western Pacific.
Emphasize C2 Connectivity and Crisis Management with Allies and Partners
As the United States invests in partner capacity-building and increases ties through rotational access agreements, there is increased risk of moral hazard – that is, that greater access to security will embolden its partners. In a contingency that begins with a dispute between China and a U.S. partner, close command and control (C2) connectivity between the United States and its partner is vital to ensure coordination and to minimize unnecessary escalation. The United States and its allies must also ensure that they have standing crisis mechanisms in place to facilitate necessary communications when tensions flare. These steps will reduce the risk that an ally could entangle the United States in an unwanted conflict, or that the United States is unprepared to respond when called upon.
A Strategy for a Renewed Rebalance
When the Pivot to Asia was first unveiled, audiences at home and abroad wondered whether the strategic turn would prove to be no more than a public relations effort. They also worried whether it would be fiscally and politically sustainable. In the intervening five years, the strategic need for a rebalancing in U.S. foreign policy has become all the more apparent, as China has continued its significant military buildup and has become more assertive in the maritime domain. Yet critics have continued to assert that there is a lack of political will or compelling strategic rationale for the Rebalance. For this strategic turn to succeed, it will undoubtedly continue to need a coordinated approach. The success of the Rebalance, and of the U.S. position in the Asia-Pacific region, will not be determined in the defense realm alone. A setback to major trade and economic policies, such as a failure to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership, could sap America’s strategic influence. But success also depend on defense initiatives that make Washington well-prepared to manage crises, programs that do not provoke partner fears of abandonment, and access efforts that are not easily undermined by Beijing.
The Pentagon has made substantial progress in implementing four of its most prominent defense initiatives under the Rebalance, but these efforts are based on premises and assumptions that may not always hold true, and China has ample tools at its disposal that it could use to respond to them, some of which exist outside of the defense domain. China has consistently assumed the worst about U.S. defense initiatives in East Asia, and is likely to continue to filter these initiatives through a containment lens however they take shape. We have offered actionable recommendations to the Pentagon for how it can address these points by strengthening its force posture, military modernization, security assistance, and operational concept initiatives in Asia beginning in 2017.
We believe that the Department can go farthest in strengthening the Rebalance if it begins from the top down. The success of the defense initiatives studied here, and of other agency efforts to the same end, requires clear strategic guidance as a new administration takes up the Rebalance. For the Pentagon, the overarching security objective in Asia is clearly to maintain access to and maneuver around the seas and skies of the region. But this goal requires U.S. planners to consider contingencies ranging from the grey zone to high-end near-peer conflict, and to consider links between short-term and long-term competition. The new administration must identify its strategic objectives for the initiative. The Pentagon should then identify an explicit defense objective (maintaining access by defending the First Island Chain); assess its initiatives with that objective as a benchmark, including through a Global Force Posture review; issue an annual strategic document as part of a whole-of-government report; and coordinate all pertinent offices and agencies closely. In doing so, the Pentagon can ensure that its significant regional investments are mutually reinforcing, providing the ways and means for a broader strategy to assure access to the region in the twenty-first century. Through careful and concerted Rebalance coordination across offices and agencies, the Pentagon can also account for a fundamental reality of any strategy: success or failure will be determined in large part by how nimbly U.S. efforts respond to China’s inevitable countervailing actions.
The full report is available online.