It is now received wisdom that Asia will become the geopolitical pivot of the 21st century, and that the budding U.S.-China security rivalry will shape the region’s future and, through it, the future of the world. Whether this be so or not, the United States should look back with satisfaction on its post-World War II Asia policy. In a relatively short time, a solid majority of Asian nations has gone from rags to riches and from varieties of chaos and vulnerability to relative domestic order and external security stability. What is more, these countries achieved these goals while embracing democratic capitalism. U.S. policy deserves its share of credit for these achievements on three counts: American power, projected forward, was the shield protecting these changes; the American model itself, embodied in the post-World War II economic and normative order, inspired them; and when necessary American Presidents pushed their Asian friends in the right direction.At the same time, U.S. policy has also brought forth an irony, and with it the making of a new challenge. Perhaps the greatest benefactor of American policy over the years since the Korean armistice has been China. China has benefitted from the American shield ever since it decided to embrace the international economic system. It benefitted, too, from America’s successful containment of the Soviet Union, as well as from Washington’s decision to maintain its military predominance as the Soviet Union crumbled. But China, unlike its Asian peers, has never accepted the democratic part of “democratic capitalism”, and its consequent hybrid modernization path could imperil Asia’s relatively long peace if Chinese leaders try to translate its newfound clout into an assault on the geopolitical order. In the crosshairs of Chinese ambitions are America’s Asian allies, whose future orientation represents the currency of regional and global influence. While the United States wants to continue the open trading order, regional peace, the full flowering of democracy and nuclear non-proliferation, the Chinese government seems to have other priorities. It seeks first and foremost to make Asia safe for its continued rule. This means building military strength to ward off political pressure to liberalize. That formula clearly works; as China has grown stronger, the West’s calls for political reform have dissipated. China also builds its military to defeat any “separatist” threat within its current borders, or from Taiwan. The Party, or the People’s Liberation Army (it has become harder to sort out shares of decision-making authority in Beijing) thus seeks greater control of its maritime periphery, particularly the East, Yellow and South China Seas. It is doing so for three reasons. First, Beijing firmly believes that a great power must be able to exercise a veto over anyone seeking to operate close to its shores. Second, it wants the leverage to settle longstanding territorial disputes with Japan, Taiwan and many Southeast nations on its own terms. And finally, Beijing wants to project power farther into the seas through which so much of its maritime trade flows. All of these desiderata challenge the equities of America’s Asian allies and raise questions about the credibility of U.S. alliance pledges. None of this prefigures a new Cold War. That is too straightforward a metaphor to encompass the new reality. In this case increased levels of trade and economic integration will coexist with an intensified military competition not only between China and the United States but among many regional players as well. To uphold order in Asia, the U.S. government will seek to maintain the ability to deter conflict, reassure and protect allies and, when necessary, command the sea lanes that are the lifelines of the international trading system. In contrast, China will seek the means to coerce and intimidate its neighbors, and to project power into the surrounding oceans while undermining U.S. allies’ confidence in Washington’s ability to protect them. China also plays an uncertain role in Washington’s other regional challenges in Northeast and Southeast Asia. Unstable, nuclear-armed North Korea can threaten both South Korea and Japan with untold destruction, and should that regime one day collapse, no one yet knows how China would respond. Finally, Southeast Asian partners that are still facing jihadi and separatist threats now have the additional burden of contending with China’s desire to press its maritime claims and expand its operational reach into Southeast Asia’s maritime passageways and beyond into the Indian Ocean. Washington has been slow to adapt to these realities. It needs urgently to rethink and as necessary refashion its alliance system in Asia. A system erected in Cold War days for Cold War purposes will not also necessarily serve present and future ends. Three administrations over a period of twenty years have only marginally adjusted U.S. strategy to the new Asian reality. In the fast-changing Asia-Pacific, modest American changes are tantamount to failure. This failure is somewhat understandable; after all, nothing breeds failure like success. But to admit that it is understandable is not to say that it is sustainable. My purpose here is to sketch out in rough form the shape of the Cold War-era model for security in Asia—the “hub and spoke” model—and the shape of what should replace it—a “point to point” arrangement. My outline will primarily deal with security issues. Alliances, to be sure, are about much more than military planning; nevertheless, this is the bedrock of any alliance structure: Fail to lay the proper foundations, and the rest of your efforts will inevitably falter. Security Strategy and the Alliance System The old (successful) model for providing security to Asia, as just mentioned, was primarily based on a “hub and spoke” system of bilateral alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines. Washington also has a set of non-allied but close security partners in Taiwan, Singapore and, at times, Indonesia. With the exception of Australia, which has a world-class military of its own, the allies assume the same basic bargain: They provide bases and ports for the U.S. military and contribute generously to supporting their presence. Some allies also provide forces in support of U.S. conflicts, such as Afghanistan, Iraq and, earlier, Vietnam. In return, America provides deterrence and defense. As a result of this bargain, the American military can quickly react to crises from its forward bases and reinforce its power ashore in Asia from the Pacific. Perhaps most important, U.S. policy guarantees that should they be threatened or actually attacked with nuclear weapons, Washington would respond in kind on their behalf. This post-World War II alliance strategy has not only contributed to peace, stability and growth in Asia; it has also helped forestall the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Japan and elsewhere. In some cases, such as Australia and Singapore, U.S. partners are independent actors, making the region more secure without being asked. In other cases, particularly with capable allies such as South Korea, Japan and Australia, the U.S. government has negotiated a limited division of military labor. While Washington provides the ultimate deterrence, Japan conducted high-level anti-submarine operations during the Cold War, and South Korea carries a heavy burden of defending against an invasion. Australia provides for its own defense and has intervened several times in the South Pacific to ensure the stability of its periphery. But America’s other Asian relationships are more one-dimensional: Taiwan is primarily concerned with acquiring U.S. arms; Indonesia has been too fickle to set down any real pattern of cooperation; and, since the 1992 U.S. military withdrawal from Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base, the alliance with Manila has been relegated to modest support for Filipino counter-terror forces. Potential new partners such as India and Vietnam wait in the wings, but as of yet neither they nor Washington know where to focus their strategic energies. Washington’s alliance relationships are thus an uneven mix of high-end cooperation, unrealized potential and ambiguity about what either side would do in any given contingency. While the “hub and spoke” model was usefully defined by ambiguity, allowing the United States (the “hub”) and the allies (the “spokes”) flexibility of response, the challenge posed by China puts a premium on clarity. Today, each of the alliance spokes needs to be tied into a collective network that allows them to act quickly together, even without the United States. The need for speed and clarity in this case derives from the People’s Liberation Army’s formidable missile and aerospace forces, surface and sub-surface naval forces and lethal electronic and information warfare capabilities. These now threaten America’s capacity to respond quickly from forward bases that are reinforced by assets sailing and flying through the U.S.-commanded Pacific Ocean. Chinese missiles and aircraft can now ground forward-deployed U.S. forces in the region, and its navy can target and sink U.S. surface ships trying to reach allied ports. As China’s undersea force pushes into the Pacific and its long-range precision strike capabilities improve, Washington’s command of that ocean—the ability to “control its every wave”, as Dean Rusk once put it—is no longer assured. The iconic American response to a crisis in Asia, seared into the region’s recent memory, was the steaming of ships from Yokosuka in Japan to the waters around Taiwan in 1996 to quiet the furor that erupted after Chinese missile tests there. The move reassured most allies. There are many more examples of this American approach to Asian security, including most recently a series of exercises in the Yellow Sea aimed at deterring North Korean aggression. Indeed, former Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair observed that the U.S. military has consistently projected power into Asia, whether to fight in Korea and Vietnam, reflag vessels in the Indian Ocean, halt a coup attempt in the Philippines, conduct a massive humanitarian response in Indonesia, or conduct a series of annual exercises that “have made the American military part of the region’s geopolitical fabric.”1 Today, however, we ought to be less confident that we can stage a sequel to the 1996 performance in the Taiwan Strait: The Chinese could not only destroy much of Taiwan’s military before Washington could respond; they could also target ports of embarkation in Japan and U.S. ships on their way to defend the island. And as it grows ever more capable, China’s military will neither allow the United States to use its forward presence with impunity nor permit the U.S. military to reinforce it from the Pacific. American military action in Asia will carry much higher risks for U.S. forces and for countries that serve as enablers of American power. To make matters worse, as China gains first-strike conventional supremacy along its littoral (that is, the ability to strike a decisive blow against American and allied assets in the region), the risks of nuclear escalation will grow. All U.S. allies are aware of these changes, but there has been no coalition strategic dialogue, let alone a plan for coordinated responses to them. Instead, each ally has begun to independently modernize its military. Most are modernizing their submarine fleets and anti-submarine capabilities, acquiring Aegis-equipped destroyers optimized for missile and air defense, improving command, control, communication, computer intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities, and purchasing new fighter aircraft, ships and anti-ship cruise missiles. Notwithstanding the conventional wisdom that the allies would never want to choose sides between the United States and China, the allies have clearly made a choice without being asked: They are balancing against China’s power. Washington should now build upon these allied trends and knit them together. No ally by itself has the power to accomplish all the strategic tasks the region now requires. And while Washington should welcome allied military modernization, it also needs to avoid nuclear proliferation and intensified regional security rivalries. Unless it is ready to live with both, Washington must remain the region’s security provider; it just needs more help than it used to. The good news is that within the next decade most allies will have more equipment that is interoperable with that of U.S. forces. This is a good starting point for the formation of a more cohesive multilateral alliance. Most U.S. friends will either have fifth-generation fighters like the F-35 or fourth-generation ones like the F-16 and F-18, diesel submarines, and Aegis-equipped destroyers. The bad news is that habits of cooperation are minimal, legacies of distrust among several pairs of U.S. allies are strong, and concerns amid some of those pairs over ceding sovereignty—hard won after centuries of colonialism—for the sake of a multilateral alliance are acute. Moreover, Washington itself is deeply wedded to its current alliance model. Finally, through its shrill protests and démarches, China has conditioned the region to preemptively reject any proposals aimed at enhancing alliance cohesion. Difficult as it may be to overcome these obstacles, Asia’s future demands nothing less. A shared strategic concept that leads to coherent coalition action would multiply risks for any would-be aggressor. The allied goal should be to persuade an aggressor that targeting one ally means invoking the ire of the rest. This approach will greatly enhance regional stability. In addition, there are sound operational reasons for tighter alliance cohesion: It is next to impossible to defend South Korea or Taiwan without Japan’s assistance, or to secure the passageways from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean without the assistance of Singapore, India, Indonesia and Australia. Above all, Washington can no longer play its traditional pacifying role without help from its allies. It cannot expect freedom of action throughout the Pacific or maritime Asia. It needs more allied assistance in deterring conflicts and making it to the scene of a fight in a timely manner. Six Principles of Alliance Cohesion Six basic principles can guide America and its Asian allies both to do more and to do it together. First, the hub-and-spoke model needs to give way to a “point to point”, or network, model of alliances. All allies should have the means to defend themselves alone for a brief time or together for more protracted periods. If the United States can’t come to their aid, other allies can. Second, allies should help ward off destabilizing Chinese moves into the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Third, allies should be able to help ensure access to the global commons and the waterways that connect East with West—and to dominate them when necessary. Fourth, allies should be able to facilitate U.S. power projection. Fifth, the U.S. government must change its mindset about what weapons systems it builds and what technology it transfers to its allies. In an era when any adversary can obtain almost any technology it desires from one of several sources, the burden of proof should fall on those within the U.S. government who would deny an ally a needed technology. Finally, with several nuclear powers as potential adversaries, the allies need to develop many options for conventional responses to aggression in order to avoid nuclear escalation. The region’s strongest American partners—Japan, South Korea, Australia and India—are already acquiring capabilities that will serve most of these six military objectives. The smaller or weaker partners such as Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia will be primarily concerned with either counter-coercive capabilities or defending territorial integrity. (Thailand will be too concerned about internal stability and political chaos for the foreseeable future to participate in a coalition.) And now to a pertinent case: Taiwan. In times of peace, Taiwan may seem like an idiosyncratic concern left over from the history of the past century, but it would look very different if it were attacked. China’s coercive military strategy against Taiwan, moreover, can be applied to other allies. Indeed, since the recent downturn in Sino-Vietnamese relations, China may have moved more missile brigades into position to target Vietnam.2 Over the past few decades, Beijing has revealed its preferred military strategy in its unrelenting intimidation of Taiwan. The allies have an opportunity to think seriously about how Chinese military strategy may be used against any one of them. But it is also past time for the allies to discuss how destabilizing Chinese coercion of Taiwan would be, how best to forestall it, and how to avoid nuclear war should the Chinese attempt it. The allies know that if Taiwan falls into China’s hands, Asia could be cut in half; the U.S. command of the Pacific could be further imperiled, the South China Sea could become a Chinese lake, and Japan could lose strategic depth. China has built up the wherewithal to severely punish Taiwan through an air and missile campaign and blockade. It is developing capabilities to conduct an air and sea denial strategy against forward-deployed U.S. and Japanese forces, as well as forces steaming to the region. It would fall mainly to Taiwan, Japan and the United States to defeat such an effort. But Australia, India and perhaps some Southeast Asian nations may be called upon to help conduct blockades, clear the sea lanes of Chinese ships or help take command of the commons. Taiwan will need extraordinary resilience to counter such a campaign and demonstrate that it can still govern and function economically. Taiwan will also have to show some means of hitting back against Chinese military targets using fighter aircraft, diesel submarines, artillery and short-range ballistic missiles. Like insurgents fighting an occupier, Taiwan will have to show China that it cannot bring the island to its knees through a bombing campaign alone. To help the United States participate in Taiwan’s defense, Japan needs to more heavily arm the Ryuku island chain, construct more airbases, harden the ones they already have and create an anti-submarine barrier to deny China access to the Pacific Ocean, where the PLA Navy would seek to interdict U.S. forces. Finally, Japan should consider deploying conventionally armed, ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles of its own to retaliate in the event that China strikes the Japanese homeland. With more survivable airbases and ports in Japan, the U.S. government should be prepared to send aircraft over Taiwan to conduct combat air patrols, and send U.S. marines into Taiwan to help with the defense of the island. The United States and Japan could use their attack submarines for maritime interdiction and to break any attempt to blockade the Taiwan Strait while mining Chinese ports to halt PLA Navy operations. The allies should develop a diverse array of responses to an attack on Taiwan before resorting to anything but limited air operations against the nuclear-armed mainland. If U.S. and Japanese conventional forces make it clear that they are ready to interpose themselves between Chinese forces and Taiwan through combat air patrols, a ground presence on the island and counter-blockade operations, then the Chinese may think twice about striking the island in the first place. Quick allied moves into the Strait would send a clear message to China that if it attacks Taiwan it is in for a long and painful conflict. Another option should be a distant blockade of China’s maritime trade in the Indian Ocean or a closing-off of one of the key waterways to Chinese trade. These operations can only be conducted by Japan, the United States, Australia and India in cooperation. This form of “horizontal escalation” may get China to quit its attacks on Taiwan and Japan without the United States having to escalate its conventional responses. Taiwan may be China’s top priority, but Beijing has demonstrated that it is not averse to coercing other neighbors as well. Indeed, the allies should think of Taiwan as an opportunity to practice countering the many coercive strategies China is likely to employ against its neighbors. In the past two years alone, Beijing has intensified its disputes with Japan over maritime claims in the East China Sea, with Vietnam over the South China Sea, with India over Arunachel Pradesh and with Indonesia over the Natuna Islands. Some of the same strategies that Japan could employ to help defend Taiwan would be useful for other contingencies. If Japan militarizes the Ryukus and acquires greater mining, anti-submarine warfare and conventional strike capabilities, it will be better prepared to resist violent attempts by China to press its claims in the East China Sea. By hardening more bases, and thus allowing more airpower to be sortied over the peninsula, Japan could also contribute more to the defense of South Korea. Closer coordination with the Republic of Korea Navy could enable Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces to keep the sea lanes around South Korea open. Finally, with a robust submarine force, more Aegis-equipped destroyers armed with anti-ship cruise missiles, stealth-capable fighters and small fast-attack boats, Japan could help keep open (or close down) access to the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca and Lombok. With these capabilities Japan could also stop the Chinese navy from entering key sea lanes in the event of a conflict. (All of these Japanese activities are predicated on a successful political effort within Japan to lift self-imposed restrictions on collective self-defense, which is no easy task.) Preparations by India and Australia to conduct blockades and clear the maritime transit points in Southeast Asia of Chinese submarines or other vessels would enhance their strategic interests well beyond a Taiwan scenario. India does not want a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. With its fleet of submarines, surface destroyers, aircraft carriers, fighter aircraft, and C4ISR assets placed on the Nicobar and Andaman Islands, India could work with Japan, the United States and Australia to thwart any Chinese attempt at maritime encirclement or sea denial. For Canberra too, greater proficiency in sea denial, blockading and maritime strike would provide the strategic depth and operational sanctuary it seeks. Other Contingencies A nuclear-armed North Korea poses an array of threats, primarily to South Korea. In certain circumstances, however, the peninsula may again turn into a great power battleground. Given that North Korean forces have recently killed South Korean soldiers and civilians with impunity, the Republic of Korea needs to restore conventional deterrence by striking back at Pyongyang. It need not ask U.S. permission to conduct low-intensity retaliatory operations undersea, by air, or by clandestine services and special forces. (Of course, because Washington provides the nuclear guarantee, Seoul and Washington should discuss which moves may be too risky.) Two related scenarios require greater alliance dialogue. In the first, North Korea carries out attacks against South Korea and Japan that are much more violent than past ones. This situation will require Washington and Tokyo to cooperate in repelling invasion, responding to missile barrages, ensuring nuclear deterrence and interdicting North Korea’s maritime trade. In the second scenario, the Pyongyang regime’s collapse prompts China to unilaterally send military forces into the peninsula. This scenario may require many allies to send a clear and unequivocal message that they want a unified peninsula under Seoul’s rule. A well-coordinated network of allies could mobilize forces in ways that demonstrate to China that certain actions will carry a heavy price. China’s harassment of Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea and of Indonesian fishing boats in Indonesian waters indicates that Beijing may press its extravagant maritime claims. Vietnam could resist intimidation by arming itself with more small surface ships and submarines equipped with anti-ship cruise missiles, integrated air defenses and maritime strike capabilities. While Indonesia’s main concern is territorial integrity and the safety of sea lanes such as the Malacca and Lombok Straits, China’s maritime forays in and around its waters are not making Jakarta’s life any easier. As Japan and Vietnam have learned, Chinese forays can quickly pivot to coercion and intimidation. Before this happens, the Washington and Jakarta should plan for how Indonesian Intelligence can have a better picture of its sea and airspace, and how it can protect its waters with frigates, corvettes and maritime strike capabilities. Indonesia has the potential to become the most consequential power in Southeast Asia, but old habits die hard. Though the Obama Administration has promised to lift U.S. embargoes on arms sales to Jakarta, the process is moving at a snail’s pace. Thanks to a broken U.S. security assistance system, Indonesia has not yet succeeded in acquiring such benign capabilities as airlift—something sorely needed in a country made up of 17,000 islands. This brings us to a U.S. security assistance and defense industrial policy trapped in a bygone era. Defense Industrial Policy and Security Assistance For the United States to continue to lead, it must also change its defense industrial and technology policies. Interoperability works best when allies have similar capabilities and a common operating picture undergirding them. The United States can provide a lot of assistance in both categories, but it needs to make major policy changes for that to come to fruition. In an age when adversaries can acquire virtually any technology they want, the balance of risks in export control has changed dramatically. It is now riskier not to sell Japan F-22s or Taiwan F-16s, and not to create a coalition-wide C4ISR program. In this new environment, the presumption about arms sales should always be a “yes” unless a “no” can be persuasively justified. The U.S. government must also be prepared to acquire and sell capabilities that allies can actually use and afford. Programs like the littoral combat ship must be built in part around the needs of Asian allies. They must be smaller, less “gold plated” and more agile. The United States should also revisit its decision to get out of the diesel submarine business entirely, especially since all allies will operate them and China’s diesels constitute a great risk to U.S. Pacific forces. Putting at risk the very short takeoff and landing version of the F-35 is also unwise. In an Asia in which China can cut runways with its missile forces, few capabilities are needed more. There is a great need for new and survivable intelligence and missile defense technologies, running the gamut from smaller unmanned aerial vehicles to directed energy weapons. The Asian arms market is one of the world’s largest, and it is one that the United States has a strategic interest in dominating. No Asia-Pacific power benefits from Russia’s outranking the United States in arms sales. It certainly does nothing to advance coalition operations or enhance regional deterrence. China’s military modernization is rendering American post-World War II military strategy in Asia obsolete. That strategy took a minimalist view of allies; with the exception of Australia, the United States needed partners mostly for basing and not as parts of a cohesive coalition. But Japan and South Korea, the best examples of the traditional American approach, are now regional great powers in their own right that want to do more to defend themselves and contribute to regional security. Both need the power and mindset to act more independently in their own defense, while enjoying the assurance that the United States will provide the ultimate deterrent. Seoul and Tokyo should therefore form a trilateral alliance with Washington as the building-block of a new Asian alliance network. It is worth remembering that France and England accepted Germany in NATO only years after the defeat of Nazism. Decades after the demise of Imperial Japan, surely South Korea can put aside its mistrust of its neighbor and help incorporate it into an Asian alliance system. Once South Korea moves in that direction, other Asian allies will follow. There are of course many obstacles to forming alliances that are at once more independent and more cohesive. To paraphrase Napoleon, soldiers need to eat soup together for a long time before they can fight together. They must build up habits of cooperation, overcome mistrust, and summon the will to ignore China’s protestations (This last requirement applies to Washington most of all.) U.S. leaders must change their outdated assumptions about what military equipment to make, buy and sell to allies. U.S. military strategy needs to adjust. China’s military modernization means that all will have to take more risks if the considerable benefits of the post-World War II order are to be preserved. Perhaps the greatest obstacle, however, will be the U.S. temptation to pull forces “offshore” as Chinese forces increasingly come in range of the U.S. forward military presence. Nothing would do more damage to Asian security. The allies would be tempted to acquire nuclear weapons, and the United States would find it harder to gain access to the region in times of crisis. And if it becomes too reliant on a long-range strike strategy, Washington could find itself short of options in case of a limited, surgical Chinese attack. Instead, the U.S. commitment and U.S. forces need to remain in place, as they did in Europe during the Cold War despite an anti-access strategy, but with more capable allies and more robust force protection. Washington’s policy since the Nixon Administration has been to welcome China into the international system. Sadly, Beijing has accepted the invitation but at the same time has chosen to engage in a military competition with the United States that can undermine the post-World War II system from which China itself has greatly benefited. Competition need not lead to conflict. Washington’s greatest advantage is a set of highly capable allies. Now is the time to help them become greater than the sum of their parts.
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Appeared in: Volume 6, Number 5Networked Asia
Published on: May 1, 2011
Published on: May 1, 2011
Transforming America's Asian alliances into an integrated net-centric system.