America's Asia Challenges: China, Air-Sea Battle and Beyond
Editor's Note: The National Interest’s Managing Editor Harry J. Kazianis spoke with Congressman J. Randy Forbes concerning present day challenges in the South China Sea, the ongoing debate over the Air-Sea Battle Concept, the UCLASS project, and more.
Tensions in the South China Sea are rising with China placing a large oil rig in disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam. This comes on the heels of both Secretary Hagel and President Obama's recent trips to Asia. All of this seems to lend itself to a very natural question: Is America's policy of a "rebalance" to Asia credible in the face of unnerving and quickly escalating tensions between Beijing and its neighbors? How should Washington react if a full-blown crisis between China and Vietnam should erupt?
Unfortunately, the ‘rebalance’ is not a policy, nor is it a strategy. It is in fact a phraseology the administration has used to describe a grand-strategy for how the United States should prioritize the Asia-Pacific with it’s interests and responsibilities in the rest of the world. In Asia, this has meant a desire to shift some of the time, energy, and resources to the region that have been devoted elsewhere the past decade. But, as I have argued before, I am not concerned with debates about bumper-sticker slogans and undefined metrics for how we are actually rebalancing. What does concern me is the actual and perceived military balance between the U.S. and China. For decades now the U.S. has been able to call itself a unipolar regional power in Asia, able to uphold a rules-based order by dissuading disruptive behavior or diffusing rising tensions. This order is being challenged by China’s capable military modernization and more assertive behavior, starting with the USNS Impeccable harassment in March 2009. Whispers throughout the region about America’s staying power have steadily grown louder ever since.
I will avoid commenting on specific scenarios. However, I strongly believe that crisis and even conflict in the region have only become more likely as China has been able to alter the military balance, employ tailored coercion packages with military and non-military tools, and slowly induce doubt about American leadership across the region. Some have tried to argue that China’s behavior is merely a reaction to the United States’ newfound focus on the region or the result of allies like Japan or the Philippines feeling emboldened to act more provocatively thanks to American support. Unfortunately, this level of analysis carries the same weight as the talking points coming out of Beijing these days. From Tokyo to Manila to Hanoi, China’s neighbors are looking for a clear signal that the U.S. is determined to maintain the existing regional status quo where freedom of navigation is respected, disputes are managed peacefully, and the military balance continues to favor the U.S. and its allies. As to the security portion of our interests in the region, I believe stabilizing the military balance to the advantage of the U.S. and our allies is the central task at hand.
Turning to a topic you know quite a bit about, the Air-Sea Battle Concept (ASB), there has been some recent calls, specifically in the pages of The National Interest, that ASB does not do enough to mitigate Chinese tactics of using non-naval maritime assists to slowly change "facts on the ground" in places like Scarborough Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal and various other small islands and reefs Beijing claims. While ASB is meant for a large kinetic conflict, some have argued that it does nothing to stop Chinese "salami-slicing" tactics. What should Washington do, if anything, when considering Beijing's non-kinetic actions to bolster its claims over various islands?
I’m glad you asked this question. Too often the debate about America’s credibility in the western Pacific Ocean has focused solely on the high-end military capabilities the United States and China have in their arsenals or are procuring. In fact, as we learned during a series of hearings and briefings the Armed Services Committee conducted last winter, the challenge being posed currently by China is far more complicated - we find ourselves in a competition during peacetime, or the space short of traditional wartime, where military power is just one coercive tool being employed alongside diplomatic, legal, economic, and other forms of power, in a calculated attempt to alter the status quo. Managing this competition, and effectively balancing against the PRC’s designs for the region, will require more than just new bombers and attack submarines, but a strategy that aligns all elements of American power.
You point out that the Air-Sea Battle concept does not do enough to mitigate China’s non-militarized forms of coercion. I would agree in principle, but of course it was not designed to do this in the first place. Like the term ‘rebalance,” Air-Sea Battle continues to be debated as if it were a specific strategy for addressing Chinese coercion. In fact, it is merely an ingenuitive effort amongst the services to coordinate doctrine, training, and programmatic decisions, among others, to provide the Combatant Commander (in the Pacific or elsewhere) with forces tailored to operating in contested warfighting environments. How these forces are used - for presence missions, to perform exercises, to de-escalate a conflict - is the political and diplomatic prerogative of the Commander-in-Chief and the Pacific Commander.