The Skeptics

Who Will Respond to China?

Under the headline, "The Way to Respond to China," in today's Los Angeles Times, Andrew Krepinevich employs a big-picture claim to advance a narrow objective. The claim is that China's rapid economic and political ascent demands a coordinated response by both the United States and the countries in East Asia. This response, he explains, should be two-fold. On the one hand, continued economic and diplomatic engagement among all parties is essential. So, too, is "a military hedge"—maintaining credible military power in the region to discourage China from pursuing regional hegemony.

The latter claim reveals Krepinevich's narrower goal: to ensure that the Pentagon's budget is spared from deep cuts. He is particularly anxious to protect certain unique capabilities (including "long-range strike systems, attack submarines and robust battle networks") from the fiscal hawks' axe. He appreciates that the twin pressures of deficits and debt have begun to impinge on the Pentagon's appetite for taxpayer dollars, and he anticipates that the "super committee" might put the military on an even more stringent diet in the near future. He advises that "cuts of this magnitude must be informed by thinking—that is, they must be 'strategy driven,' to ensure that resources are allocated efficiently and effectively." According to Krepinevich, the potential for conflict with China should shape the Pentagon's current review of vital roles and missions as it anticipates a period of relative austerity. (With heavy emphasis on "relative." Krepinevich's colleague at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Todd Harrison, has shown that the Pentagon's budget might fall to 2007 levels. Others agree.)

As is almost always the case, Krepinevich's assessment of the challenge and many of his recommendations are thoroughly unobjectionable. He does not employ hysterical fearmongering to try to make his case. The tone is measured. The content solid and well-reasoned.

But it is the execution of Krepinevich's wise and balanced strategy that is likely to prove difficult, if not impossible. He essentially argues that we need to do more of what we've been doing for the last sixty years, only better. And with less money.

On the one hand, he implores policy makers and would-be budget cutters to retain and expand the U.S. military presence in East Asia. This presence, he explains, "has fostered unprecedented peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region." But it has done so by discouraging the countries in East Asia from spending more money on defense. Protected by the U.S. security umbrella, U.S. allies and states such as Taiwan have been content to spend far less on their militaries than Americans do—both as a share of GDP and on a per capita basis. And the trends for the near future are not favorable. See the charts below. (Note: U.S. figures are taken from the FY 2012 Budget Historical Tables, and include DoD base budget and war costs, but not other national-security spending, including for DHS and Veterans Affairs. In other words, the gaps between what Americans spend and what people in East Asia spend, are even wider than shown. Thanks to my colleague Charles Zakaib for his help compiling these figures.)

How, then, are we to interpret Krepinevich's call for the countries in East Asia to do more? Indeed, he argues that these countries "will have to contribute substantially more than they have in the recent past to preserve regional security." Greater burden sharing by America's allies is "equally important," Krepinevich claims, to the maintenance of a dominant U.S. military posture, and retaining our technological superiority in a range of weapon systems.

In fact, the twin pillars of Krepinevich's strategy are incompatible. Prodigious military spending by the United States, far in excess of what is needed to defend U.S. vital interests, discourages other countries from doing more to defend themselves and their interests. Many of the leading advocates of U.S. global dominance consider that to be its primary selling point—it is better, they say, that American taxpayers continue to foot the bill for global security.