Missing from the Campaign Debate: The Military Dimension of American “Pacific Power” and its Risks
Posted by Bill R. French
Last fall, Secretary Clinton published “America’s Pacific Century,” wherein she declared the policy of strategic rebalancing – then called the “pivot” – according to which the United States will prioritize developing its “Pacific power.” Since then, the policy has generated voluminous discussion and debate. In the political arena and 2012 campaign cycle, however, that debate has been regrettably shallow, increasing the risks entailed by differing visions of American policy in the region.
Of the questions relevant to implementing rebalancing, there is one more immediate than the rest: what is the responsible role of American hard power in the Western Pacific?
To be sure, rebalancing includes dimensions of power other than military. Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, has detailed the significance of diplomatic power and the need to engage in institution building across the region. In the economic domain, the administration announced in 2011 that it is negotiating accession to the Trans Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement of five economies with an addition seven negotiating accession and more still, including Japan, considering eventual membership.
While the diplomatic and economic axis of rebalancing will over the long-term form the backbone of US ‘Pacific Power’ in the economically dynamic and diplomatically troubled region, initiatives in these areas will proceed relatively slowly. By contrast, the role of military power in the rebalancing has operated on a much faster timescale – and with much more immediate risk.
And on that front, the Pentagon has been busy indeed. If one can forgive the cumbersome list, a sample of the Obama Administration’s reinforcing actions in the Western Pacific include: an agreement with Singapore to host 4 Littoral Combat Ships, an agreement to rotate marines and aircraft through northern Australia, the Air-Sea Battle operational concept, plans to deploy 60% of the Navy to the Pacific Command area of responsibility by 2020, beginning RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone flights over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands disputed by China and Japan, ongoing negotiations to gain access to facilities in the Philippines (including the possible deployment of reconnaissance drones and P-3C Orion anti-submarine warfare aircraft), a second round of talks for greater military access to Australia and dramatically expanding ballistic missile defenses in East Asia.
Therefore, when Leon Panetta remarked at the Shangri-La Dialogue that the Pentagon has “chosen to make this region a priority,” he is easily believed.
While the administration has downplayed the extent to which these moves are directed at China, there is no serious doubt that they are predominately intended to balance the enormous gains made by Chinese military modernization and deter conflict.
Troubling Parameters of Debate
Yet, despite the robustness of the military component of rebalancing, the alternative position in this campaign season has been Romney’s insistence that the current plans are insufficient and that even more is required. A top Romney foreign policy advisor, Aaron Friedberg, endorses the overal effort but wrote in a Foreign Affairs article that it lacked "serious substance." Romney himself, while bemoaning the threat that a rising China poses to the region, called the rebalancing "vastly under resourced." By accepting the premise of the administration’s strategic rebalancing, but by calling for even greater military resources to be accorded to the Pacific, Romney’s policy is effectively what distinguished Chinese security studies scholar David Shambaugh has described as a “pivot plus.”
Indeed, Romney’s hard power policy towards China states:
"In the face of China’s accelerated military build-up, the United States and our allies must maintain appropriate military capabilities to discourage any aggressive or coercive behavior by China against its neighbors. Maintaining a strong military presence in the Pacific is not an invitation to conflict. Quite the contrary; it is a guarantor of a region where trade routes are open and East Asia’s community of nations remains secure and prosperous…Toward that end, the United States should maintain and expand its naval presence in the Western Pacific."
In this context, “maintain” may be slightly misleading. While the underlying logic here is the same as that motivating much of the administration’s hard power moves in the Western Pacific, the “plus” arises from Romney’s severe defense policy which spends an additional $2.1 trillion on the Pentagon over the next decade and increases the Navy’s annual shipbuilding plan from 9 to 15 – both intended in part to prevent China from travelling “down a darker path.” While no detailed force posture proposals have been released by the campaign – for obvious reasons – the indication is that sizable portions if not the bulk of Romney’s massive military buildup would be directed to the Pacific.
Further, in line with the Romney platform, Paul Ryan has explicitly criticized the military component of the administration’s strategic rebalancing as falling short and called for a greater presence in the region, as I mentioned last week.
A key parameter of the debate, therefore, is between ‘more hard power’ and ‘even more hard power’ with few serious qualifying considerations, if any. And that’s dangerous: without a sense of the risks entailed by a greatly enlarged military footprint in the Pacific, responsible debate is impossible by definition. The risks in question are multiple, spanning from the economic and financial risks of sustained or heightened military spending to the strategic risks of a greater (or lesser) presence in the region.
Risks to Consider
Given the present course, the immediate set of risks most critical to consider are the consequences of overreaction and enlarging the US presence in the region too greatly or too quickly. That is, ‘more’ is not always ‘more’ in the sense that too much too soon can risk substantial unintended consequences. This consideration was recognized as a “constraint” on options for the future US military posture in the Western Pacific in a recent major CSIS study for the DoD, which observed that “US security posture and partnerships can lend itself to counterproductive narratives in China about US containment strategies.”
In particular, overreaction risks alienating Chinese foreign policy moderates who seek a restrained security policy and increases the likelihood that China perceives itself locked in a zero-sum security competition with the United States. Not only is this outcome dangerous and expensive, but would be opposed to the desire of American allies in the region who desperately want to avoid having to choose between the Washington and Beijing – allies whom the Unites States depends upon for military access to the region. Furthermore, any such outcome would actively undermine long-term US interests vis-à-vis China which depend upon Beijing restraining its behavior and better adopting international norms in its ascents as a great power.
Unfortunately, these risks are not theoretical. They are already evident and considerable. Comments from within Chinese elite circles already indicate troubling perceptions of growing American power in the Pacific. For example, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Senior Colonel Gaoyue Fan has raised the following concern:
"AirSea Battle indicates significant changes: the change of adversary from international terrorists to the PLA (clearly stated in the CSBA report); the change of battlefield from the Middle East and Central Asia to the western Pacific Ocean; the change of operational objectives from destroying international terrorist networks to defeating the PLA; and the change from capabilities-based military construction to threat-based military construction [against the PLA]."
As another example, prominent Chinese commentators have voiced concern that “the shift of U.S. strategic focus to Asia is aimed at constraining China completely” alongside the desire to maintain influence in the region more generally.
Of course, it is unclear to what extent such opinions have taken hold in Chinese elite and what they mean for the future of Chinese behavior. But given that one of Beijing’s greatest foreign policy fears is to find itself subject to strategic encirclement or containment by Washington, a pensive moment in the American political arena is duly warranted. Should perceptions like those above become generally accepted by Chinese strategic planners, the United States faces the serious prospect of an adversarial relationship with the world’s second largest economy. In that eventuality it is unclear what payoffs other than seeking a return to the status quo ante would be available to Washington, making ‘winning the competition’ a pyrrhic victory – hardly a desirable state of affairs.
As American Pacific power continues to evolve, the risks of the military component of strategic rebalancing, especially in its more severe forms advocated by Romney, entail no obvious conclusion as of yet. Nonetheless, risk must play a larger role in high-level public debate. In the absence of that debate, the burden of responsible discourse will not have been met and unfavorable outcomes will be made more likely. Fortunately, meeting that burden is hardly onerous on our campaign season. It does, however, require a commitment to basic democratic values in making national security policy.