The coronavirus consumes media space and government working hours. This is serious stuff, but it is not our only challenge. America’s target fixation on disease containment blinds it to other challenges. Autocrats see opportunity behind the coronavirus curtain to expand their power and settle issues in their favor. It could be a “springtime for dictators.”
Our challenge in Asia is particularly acute. Xi Jinping is exploiting the averted gazes of the United States and the world to tighten the noose on the South China Sea and its many islands and reefs. Pressure on the airspace and territorial waters of Japan, Taiwan, and various nations of South East Asia increases. Fishing vessels are harassed, rammed, and sunk. China’s de facto control of the South China Sea from their garrisons in the Spratly Islands, their presence in the Paracel Islands, and questions of U.S. access to the Philippines present a serious challenge in any crisis.
China pressurizes Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” autonomy through arrests of prominent democracy advocates and abrogation of the prohibition on Chinese government interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs. One Hong Kong bookseller was recently attacked by vandals. He relocated to Taiwan. Chinese political warfare continues unabated, not despite coronavirus but by making it an advantage. It was all caused by the United States, according to their story.
To be sure, Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) face daunting challenges. Like the SARS virus years ago, the coronavirus is a Chinese crisis. Its origin in Wuhan amid official denial and lack of response dented the Chinese Communist Party’s claim to unrivaled competence. China’s current economic contraction and a nearly certain economic “decoupling” of the United States and China will strain the extraordinary economic success—“to get rich is glorious”—that justifies continued CCP leadership. Nationalism will be intensified as the only recourse.
Strongman rulers and leadership structures matter. CCP leadership was intentionally collective in the past, the better to maintain ideological flexibility and diffuse blame for the things that inevitably go wrong. Decisionmaking was much more deliberate then. In more recent days, Xi has centralized leadership and acted to assume a lifetime tenure. Decisions can be made much more quickly but the responsibility lies with one man when things go wrong. Therefore, Xi cannot possibly compromise on anything, let alone reverse a bad decision, as that would undercut his claim to infallibility. Declining power is anathema, ever-expanding success is imperative. Playing nice over a contemporary issue does not buy cooperation in the next.
While confronting China’s comprehensive political warfare requires a coherent national effort that awaits full implementation, it must be based on undoubted conventional deterrent strength. But America’s conventional deterrence has declined over the past decades. China enjoys a “tyranny of proximity” and deployed a potent missile arsenal throughout her massive landmass. Couple this with China’s pervasive surveillance capability and America confronts China’s drive to assure sea and air control from the land. Chinese air and naval forces operating in the East and South China Seas will be directly supported by an arsenal of long-range weapons accurate—and guided—at distance.
The littoral theater is often described as one where sea and land forces can engage each other in a decisive combat. The range of accurate weapons greatly expands the dimensions of the littoral theater. But we lost the range of competition, from too many years without a serious challenge. Brad Roberts, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, puts it this way: “But when it comes to land-launched short- and intermediate-range missiles capable of striking Japan and U.S. bases elsewhere in the region, and U.S. forces at sea, the approximate current ratio is that China has approximately 1,900 such missiles and the U.S. has zero.” (Asahi Shimbun interview 5 April). If Adm. Horatio Nelson was right that “A ship is a fool to fight a fort,” then we need to look at how to fight for the security of our allies and friends when the “fort” is China.
Active defense is the requirement. Defense of the territory, the national interests, and the lives of our allies and friends mandates that we gain and maintain an undoubted capability to deny control of the South and East China Seas to an aggressor.
Despite the coronavirus, there is now an opportunity to bring together America’s allies and friends and begin reinforcing the country’s conventional deterrent. The National Defense Strategy of 2018 made the Indo-Pacific region the priority theater for the Department of Defense. Section 1253 of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act charged the Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to provide an independent assessment of resources required to meet the requirements in the strategy. That assessment is complete. Adm. Phil Davidson gave the report its title: Regaining the Advantage. That is exactly right.
It calls for a Pacific version of the European Defense Initiative, and it has support. It has five lines of effort:
Joint force lethality
Force design and posture
Strengthening allies and partners
Exercises, experimentation innovation
Logistics and security enablers
The practical effects include greatly increasing the range and accuracy of our weapons; dispersing them across the littoral in a widely distributed, agile, mobile force posture integrated with maneuver and fires across our joint force and the forces of our allies fighting as one. It calls for exercises across the length and breadth of the Pacific at various established training centers, all linked in real-time, supported by modernized, expanded logistical support networks. Davidson, Commander INDOPACOM, described it in part:
“Ultimately, the steps we take must convince our adversaries they simply cannot achieve their objectives with force.
This requires fielding an integrated Joint Force with precision-strike networks particularly land-based anti-ship and anti-air capabilities along the First Island Chain; integrated air missile defense in the Second Island Chain; and an enhanced force posture that provide for dispersal, the ability to preserve regional stability, and if needed sustain combat operations.”
Active defense is the mission. Japan has 6,852 islands to defend. Taiwan has its own unique challenges. If the Philippines is still on side, then that brings in many more islands. Air and sea denial, then control, is the goal.
Japan and the United States should quickly take advantage of this, creating the organization and structure for continuous education, experimentation, command-group exercises, and force development to achieve its full potential quickly. Resource investment should be shared within the alliance and with other allies, such as Australia, who will likely cooperate. Perhaps the once-lauded Alliance Coordination Mechanism can be made operational to exploit this opportunity. Effective collective defense under modern conditions is the goal.
Wallace C. Gregson, a retired Marine and former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs (2009–11), is currently a senior advisor at Avascent International and senior director for China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest.