Pacific Power Play By Kevin Baron

National Journal
June 9, 2012

Need To Know: National Security

The United States is advertising its pivot to Asia, and the subtext — containing China — isn’t lost on anybody. But how much containing does China really need?

There’s a great line from the movie Master and Commander,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared on a U.S. naval vessel in Vietnam’s Cam Rahn Bay this week. “The captain of the ship says, ‘We may be a long way from England, but this ship is England.’ Well, this ship is the United States.” Panetta was on a tour of Southeast Asia to project American power as part of the Obama administration’s “pivot” eastward — a military buildup designed at least in part to contain its only competitor: China.

Already, the U.S. Pacific Command presides over some 325,000 troops, or about one-fifth of the military: It has 145,000 troops, 180 naval ships, and 1,800 aircraft. An additional 1,200 special operations forces and 40,000 civilians cover the region. And by 2020, Panetta said, the U.S. naval fleet will have 60 percent of its forces in the Pacific, up from 50 percent today. It will rotate 2,500 additional Marines through Australia and conduct more multinational military exercises. US. ships will patrol Singapore, the strategic Cam Ranh Bay, and Guam. The cost will likely be enormous: The Navy’s long-awaited stealth destroyer, for instance — a craft designed to thwart Chinese-like antiship defenses — has already reached a per-unit price of more than $3 billion per copy ($7 billion if you count R&D). It’s so expensive the Navy slashed its orders from 32 to seven.

Less clear, however, is the reason for all this. The People’s Liberation Army is only about 1.25 million strong, has no deployable force of any significance, has no joint combat experience, and operates no foreign bases. The PLA navy has one rebuilt, Soviet-era aircraft carrier still in sea trials and no pilots able to fly off it. China has no stealth fighters ready for battle and few nuclear-powered submarines capable of long-range patrols.

It is not, in short, a force to be feared. “China is not an enemy,” says House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash. “This is not a situation where we have any significant reason to believe that they are a military threat to us.” Smith said that the pivot, along with diplomatic and economic engagement, is intended to bolster allies like Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia — and to stop Qaida-inspired terrorists.

But the real reason for the pivot is, in Panetta’s words, to protect “key maritime rights for all nations in the South China Sea and elsewhere.” Beijing’s military buildup, close watchers argue, shows no ambition to challenge the U.S. military except in those key waters off China. It covets ownership of the vast majority of the sea, hundreds of miles beyond its nearest southern shore, including several island chains claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. And the behemoth insists that international shipping lanes run through Chinese waters. Washington is in a race to ensure access to that area before China develops the capabilities to keep it out. In five or 10 years, China’s antiship, missile, and electronic-warfare capabilities “will make it risky for the United States to try to operate in the region,” says Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

According to the Pentagon’s latest annual assessment, the PLA is building an arsenal — cruise missiles, short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, and antiship missiles — ostensibly intended to fight a “high-intensity” war in the Taiwan Strait. But if Beijing ever gets possessive over its neighbors’ resources, as it has begun to do, its arsenal could threaten American assets in the region. “We have a lot of tactical air power in the area, but that doesn’t do you much good if those bases are inundated and destroyed,” says Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute. In other words, the pivot isn’t just about outgunning China; it’s about geopolitical hegemony and calming regional nerves. “This is a little bit like sports. Momentum does matter,” Schmitt says.

The Congressional Research Service said in a March report that while U.S. moves do not yet add much military power, they are designed for symbolic impact. Nervous Asian leaders want the United States “signaling to China that it cannot intimidate and coerce its neighbors,” Glaser says. “What we are doing is assurance.” Meanwhile, Washington leaders fear that Asian nations could change their bets and hedge toward China if the U.S. does not keep Beijing in check.

A few thousand Marines in Australia might not keep them in line, but Panetta’s Cam Ranh Bay visit — a demonstration that U.S. force resides at their front door — might. To thwart China, which claims rightful passage to the Indian Ocean across Vietnam’s internationally recognized border in the South China Sea, Hanoi is buying six Russian submarines and refurbishing the bay to make it ready for American warships.

“We’re not naïve about the relationship, and neither is China,” Panetta said, as he claimed America’s right to sail in the South China Sea at last week’s Shangri-La Dialogue, the annual conference of Pacific defense ministers. There, he inked a deal to station U.S. warships in Singapore, at the sea’s southern edge, where they will stand guard much as the Rock of Gibraltar guards the Mediterranean. With Washington, Moscow, and Hanoi conspiring against Beijing — and with the Marines in Australia — the United States will surveil China’s doorway to the Indian Ocean.

Panetta denies that the pivot is a challenge to Beijing — there’s no reason to admit it if doing so will only inflame relations — but he still needed an explanation for the military buildup. In Singapore, he offered one: “Increased U.S. involvement in this region will benefit China as it advances our shared security and prosperity for the future.” Got that, Beijing? Washington is doing you a favor.

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