By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
JULY/AUGUST 2020—This is part two of our discussion on how Washington can negate, or at least contain, the metastasizing threat posed by Beijing. Part one focused on some of the soft-power options the U.S. could pursue; this essay explores the hard-power tools the U.S. could bring to bear against the PRC.
Even as Congress considers economic responses to Beijing’s criminal mishandling of COVID19, it is crafting ways to flex America’s military muscle in the Indo-Pacific. A House bill proposes $6 billion in fresh spending for an “Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative.” A Senate bill earmarks $15.3 billion for new weaponry, infrastructure and alliance support in the Indo-Pacific.
These are appropriate first steps, but they are just that. If the U.S. is indeed in the early phases of Cold War 2.0, the U.S. will need to return to Cold War levels of defense spending. However, given America’s spiraling debt, shifting back to a Cold War footing will not be easy. Today’s defense budget is 3.1 percent of GDP, down from an average of 4.6 percent of GDP the past 50 years.
Those years taught us that military preparedness—and military messaging—help deter aggression. In an obvious message to Beijing, freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, transits of the Taiwan Strait and bomber flights across the region have increased. For the first time in three years, summer 2020 saw the U.S. simultaneously surge three aircraft carriers into the Pacific. The Navy carried out a robust deployment to support Malaysian vessels under harassment by PRC ships.
Still, America’s Navy needs more ships to deter China. Thanks to a 170-percent increase in military spending the past decade—and a 210-percent spike since 2000—China bristles with hundreds of anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, deploys a high-tech air force, and boasts a 335-ship navy. China’s navy is 55-percent larger than it was in 2005. Beijing added 24 warships to its fleet in 2019, 21 in 2018, 14 in 2017. By way of comparison, the U.S. Seventh Fleet, which is tasked with operations in the Pacific Ocean and part of the Indian Ocean, deploys 50 warships. At just 296 ships, the U.S. Navy lacks the assets needed to deter China, let alone carry out its many responsibilities in other parts of the world. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.”
The best pathway to a bigger Navy is a bigger defense budget. Navy leaders say they need $120 billion in extra funding. But there are other options: “Multi-purposing” and “up-gunning” existing ships is a way to grow the fleet rapidly. Navy and Marine Corps officials propose “bolting small naval strike missile pods” onto the decks of Littoral Combat Ships and even “parking a HIMARS missile-launcher truck” on the topsides of unarmed vessels, as Breaking Defense reports. In fact, Army units and Marine units are testing elements of the concept.
Land-based assets can also strengthen America’s hand—and limit China’s reach—in the Indo-Pacific. Over the past 20 years, the PRC has deployed large numbers of anti-ship missiles (ASM), as part of an anti-access/area-denial strategy (A2AD) aimed at deterring Washington from sending warships near PRC territory or claims. But A2AD can cut both ways. RAND proposes “using ground-based anti-ship missiles as part of a U.S. A2AD strategy” to “challenge Chinese maritime freedom of action should China choose to use force against its island neighbors.” RAND points out that Washington could link several strategically located partner nations—Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines—in an ASM coalition. “Indonesia and Malaysia have robust arsenals of medium-range ASMs,” according to RAND, and could put at risk Chinese warships transiting the Strait of Malacca. ASMs deployed in Taiwan, the Philippines and Japan (Okinawa) “could effectively cover all naval traffic south of Okinawa.” ASMs deployed on the southern tip of South Korea and Japan’s Kyushu island could deny Chinese warships freedom of movement further north.
Given Beijing’s trade and financial tendrils, an anti-PRC coalition seemed unlikely just a few years ago. Today, it seems inevitable. The preventable pandemic, the brutal oppression of Christians and Uighur Muslims, the South China Sea bullying, the illegal island-building campaign, the smothering of Hong Kong and intimidation of Taiwan, the Himalayan border attack, the aggressive and sometimes racist “wolf-warrior diplomacy”—China’s own behavior has laid the groundwork for a new international coalition.
Australia led the effort to launch investigations into what Beijing did and didn’t do about COVID19. Japan was the first to offer subsidies for firms to relocate factories outside China. Tokyo is converting its helicopter carriers into flattops capable of deploying F-35Bs. French military leaders have outlined plans to strengthen French capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. Japan, Australia, Britain and France have joined the U.S. in promoting freedom of navigation in the region. The U.S., Japan, India and Australia are breathing life into the Quad security construct. The Czech Republic has dispatched high-level officials to build trade ties with Taiwan. The Philippines reversed plans to terminate a military-training agreement with the U.S. Britain scrapped plans to allow Huawei—which has ties to the PRC government—to build out Britain’s 5G network. And Britain is calling on the D10 to pool their extensive technological resources and existing interoperability to create an uncompromised telecoms network. Indian trade groups are pushing for a boycott of Chinese goods; the Indian government is buying American weaponry and pivoting toward Washington; the Indian military is labeling China “treacherous” and “barbaric.” All 10 ASEAN members recently rebuked Beijing for its lawlessness in the South China Sea.
Deft diplomacy is needed to build this disparate group into a bulwark against China—for we know that allies will be key to waging Cold War 2.0, as they were during the long, twilight struggle with Moscow.
Washington has other cards to play in the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. could sell Taipei more tools tailored to defend the island and deter the Mainland—high-end anti-ship missiles, anti-aircraft batteries and anti-missile systems to deter an invasion, non-digital communications systems in case of a PRC cyber-siege, vertical-takeoff F-35Bs in case of PRC attacks on airfields and airports. Even more dramatic, the Navy could begin making routine port visits to Taiwan, and U.S. air assets could start landing in Taiwan due to “mechanical issues.” Along with higher quality and larger quantities of defensive weapons for Taipei, the U.S. could update the Taiwan Relations Act for today’s realities. The TRA basically enshrined a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” leaving both sides of the Taiwan Strait uncertain as to how Washington would respond in the event of conflict. To prevent a war no one wants, U.S. policymakers should make clear that America is committed to preserving Taiwan’s security, opposes any alteration of the status quo by force, and would countenance only one form of unification of Taiwan and the Mainland—a unification initiated by Taiwan, reflecting the will of the people of Taiwan.
Further up the ladder, Washington could publicly explore with Japan and South Korea deployment of U.S. deterrent-nuclear assets. (Officials in all three countries have raised the idea.) Washington could even suggest that it may be time for Japan and South Korea to deploy their own nuclear deterrent. (Again, officials in South Korea and Japan have broached the idea.) Adding nuclear capabilities to Japan’s and/or South Korea’s armed forces may seem a dramatic step. But in the context of China’s recent actions—its refusal to rein in North Korea, illegal island-building, massive military buildup, attempted annexation of the South China Sea, regional intimidation, cyberespionage, intentional or incompetent unleashing of COVID19, and program of nuclear-weapons expansion—it seems more necessary than dramatic.