America's Asia Challenges: China, Air-Sea Battle and Beyond

June 9, 2014 Topic: SecurityDefense Region: AsiaChinaUnited States

America's Asia Challenges: China, Air-Sea Battle and Beyond

TNI speaks with Congressman J. Randy Forbes. 

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.

While I support the ASB initiative and continue to get periodic updates on the ASB Office’s progress, I believe the United States lacks a regional strategy for deterring China’s growing assertiveness. From the Scarborough Shoal, to the East China Sea ADIZ, to the Paracel Islands, and events like what occurred with the USS Cowpens in December 2013, I continue to witness a China ready and willing to badger its neighbors and the U.S. directly. We need a strategy - preferably a classified one with an unclassified version that can signal intentions to both China and our allies and partners in the region - for managing both China’s tailored coercion strategy and its high-end counter-intervention capabilities. In this regard, I was pleased to see Secretary Hagel’s announcement at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue that Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work will “oversee the implementation of our ongoing enhancements to America's military presence” in the Asia-Pacific. I look forward to working with the Deputy Secretary to see the development of an integrated approach to this challenge.

At the same time, tensions are also on the rise in the East China Sea. Over the weekend, while Americans celebrated Memorial Day and the world collectively was focused on the Ukrainian Presidential election, Chinese and Japanese aircraft almost collided in the East China Sea. Various reports note that the planes came within 100 feet of each other. Has the administration paid too little attention to such events over the past several years? How should Washington respond or how should it have responded if the aircraft had collided?

This aviation incident was only the latest in a consistent and growing pattern by Chinese PLA Air Force, PLA Navy, and State Oceanic Administration assets operating in and around Japan’s territorial sea and contiguous zone.

Some onlookers here in the U.S have declared it unnecessary to commit the U.S. to defending a “pile of rocks” in the East China Sea. Give in to Beijing’s coercion or split the islands in half and the problem can be solved, they insist. However, what is at stake are not maritime rights or airspace, but a set of rules-based principles that the United States has fostered and sustained in Asia since the Second World War. Allow these principles to be challenged or chipped away at by China today, and tomorrow Beijing will only press for more until commitments like “freedom of navigation” or “settling disagreements peacefully” are just phrases we once used to describe an orderly period in Asia’s history.

The U.S.-Japan alliance has remained strong for nearly seventy years because of a shared national interest in a peaceful, prosperous Asia and the tremendous ties forged between our two nations since 1945. It is clear to me that a vigorous U.S.-Japan partnership is the most surefire way to safeguard the stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific in the decades to come.

While many democracies around the world are tightening their defense budgets, I applaud Tokyo for seeking to counter this trend with their own real increase in spending. Additionally, as I see it, Japan is not just spending more on defense but spending on the right kinds of capabilities, including investments in sea control, mobility, and ISR assets that will allow it to secure its archipelagic interests. Coupled with recent moves to establish a National Security Council, Japan is positioning itself to be an anchor of stability in Northeast Asia. As Tokyo debates its future contributions to regional security, I welcome the development of a more “normal” Japan that can accept an equal share of alliance responsibilities and be a proactive contributor to international peace and security in the years ahead.

What our two countries must now work to do is develop a counter-coercion strategy for Chinese activities in what Japan officials have called the gray-zone - where China is using forms of non-militarized coercion. I look forward to finding ways for the Congress to encourage and support this critical effort.