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Tale of the Tape: Comparing Chinese and American Strategies in Asia

What does President Obama hope to achieve during his trip to Beijing for the APEC summit? How does he assess his ability to accomplish his China agenda?

There is no shortage of issues to discuss with Xi Jinping.   The two countries ostensibly share concerns about an unstable nuclear North Korea, Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons, and the failing old order in the Middle East. But little progress has been made.  While Xi talks about a “new-type of great power relationship,” he seems to mean the U.S. should come to China as a supplicant, as National Security Advisor Rice did recently, asking for China’s help on the Middle East—now of equal importance to Beijing and Washington.  

The presidential visit comes at a perilous time for Sino-American relations. Washington has not adequately answered China’s continued aggression toward Japan and Southeast Asian nations. Moreover, the People’s Liberation Army is continuing to harass the U.S. military operating in Asian seas.

U.S. Asia policy is not progressing because both Washington and Beijing are now overestimating China’s rise and underestimating the sustainability of American power.  This is a dangerous trend in perceptions with some grounding in reality. From Washington’s perspective, the Sino-American relationship will be unproductive if both sides think the balance of power now favors China.

Better policy outcomes require a reassessment of the balance of power that goes beyond straight counts of military forces and capabilities.  Trends in the military balance must be viewed in the context of each country’s preferred approach to the region as well as an accounting of the internal political obstacles hindering each side’s strategy.   The key questions are: What is each country trying to accomplish? What is each country’s strategy?  How well is each side implementing its strategy and what are the obstacles in the way of the outcomes for each country?

Competing Strategic Visions: America’s Strategy

Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has pursued a strategy of primacy.  Successive U.S. presidents have found that a “preponderance of power” best served its Asian interests, which have included:

1.  Defending the U.S. homeland far forward. In the post-Pacific war period, the U.S. created what used to be called the “defense perimeter,” now referred to as the First Island Chain.  The forward U.S. defense posture begins along the island chains and territories from Korea through Japan and the Ryukus, and the Luzon Strait down through the Philippines;

2.  Preserving a favorable balance of power in Eurasia, so that no power can dominate the continent;

3.  Ensuring free military and commercial access to maritime and continental Asia;

4. Maintaining and continuing to refine the liberal international order consistent with the “U.S. way of life,” as the framers of the U.S. Cold War strategy put it;

5. Supporting a network of allies who assist in reinforcing that order.

America’s grand strategy of primacy has been a success. It has tamed security competitions between historic Asian rivals and created the conditions for economic growth and peaceful transitions to democracy throughout Asia.  Countries that had the capacity to develop nuclear weapons were persuaded not to do so.  Asia’s rising wealth and power is not a coincidence.  Rather it is the result of wise decisions by Asian elites, the hard work of Asians to better their lives, and U.S. primacy.  It is no wonder that successive presidents have stuck with primacy.  

The Military Structure of Primacy

U.S. primacy in Asia has required a forward basing posture for combat aircraft, large numbers of SSN and SSBN submarines, and carrier strike-groups to project power in Asia.   These assets provide a continual deterrent against conflict. U.S. “boomer” submarines, armed with ICBMs, lurk underwater ready to act should the U.S. face an existential threat. Carrier strike groups serve as highly visible symbols of U.S power to deter would-be aggressors.  Depending upon the global security situation, the Navy can have up to five carriers strike groups base in Japan and along the U.S. Pacific coast.

These air-sea forces allow the U.S. to control the commons when necessary. [1] The ability to take command of the air, sea, and space has allowed the U.S. military to summon overwhelming force anywhere and anytime it needs.  For the U.S. to continue to be the prime player in Asia, it must retain the ability to command Asia’s commons.  This requires that alliances are maintained, new partnerships are cemented and the “infrastructure” of command— the tankers, airlift, and large surface ships necessary for the quick deployment of U.S. forces—is modernized and ready.

China’s Strategy

As China’s wealth and power increase, its influence and ambitions in the Asia-Pacific expand.  The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) march towards achieving regional hegemony is driven by the CCP’s paramount goal of maintaining its grip on power.  That does not mean an inward turn, as many misinterpret.  While Beijing faces  “internal” challenges such an increasingly dynamic and wealthy populace, and a restive empire that includes Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, keeping a grip on power requires far more:  

1. Ensuring that the world remains “safe” for autocracies.  At the very least it must stop any attempts by the U.S. to press for Chinese liberalization, and prevent the formation of democratic groupings in Asia;

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