Small Wars

This Week at War: Let's Talk About China

A new book argues that it's time to have an open conversation about the security challenges posed by the Middle Kingdom's rise, even if Beijing gets offended. 

A Contest for Supremacy calls on America's China-watchers to get real

In the preface to A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, Aaron Friedberg, an international relations professor at Princeton, describes how, in the waning months of the Clinton administration, he was hired to review the U.S. intelligence community's assessment of China. The experience, he says, left him deeply troubled about what he saw coming between China and the United States. By contrast, the "China hands" he knew in and out of the U.S. government "seemed to believe that a Sino-American rivalry was either highly unlikely, too terrifying to contemplate, or (presumably because talking about it might increase the odds that it would occur) too dangerous to discuss. Whatever the reason, it was not something that serious people spoke about in polite company."

Like tossing a dead skunk into a garden party, A Contest for Supremacy aims to shake things up among the foreign-policy elite inside the United States. Friedberg presents all of the arguments employed in favor of optimism and complacency regarding the trends facing the United States in East Asia then systemically shoots them down. His book is the most thorough wake-up call yet regarding the security challenges presented by China's rise. It is also a plea to have an honest conversation about the difficult questions facing the United States in Asia. 

The book's straightforward organization bolsters Friedberg's arguments. The first four chapters summarize the history of China's dealings with the West and explain the origins of the Middle Kingdom's rivalry with other great powers, including the United States. Thucydides and Bismarck would quickly recognize Friedberg's description of a rising China that has growing interests and that sees that it must take action to defend its position. The unfortunate fact that China's new interests overlap with those of the current dominant power is nothing new in the history of great-power collisions.

The second section of the book discusses China's view of its strategic situation. Friedberg draws extensively from Chinese sources to describe Beijing's view of the United States and the Chinese leadership's conceptions of its long-term interests and probable grand strategy. According to Friedberg, China's leaders view the United States not as a status quo power, but as a revisionist force determined to one day overthrow one-party rule inside China. This argument may come as a surprise to those in the United States who thought a revisionist China was challenging the status quo United States. 

Friedberg analyzes why, in addition to its economic potential, China is such a difficult challenge for U.S. policymakers. It has been two centuries, with its struggles against Britain, since the United States faced a strategic adversary that was simultaneously a broad and deep trading and financial partner. Friedberg catalogs the numerous business and academic interests inside the United States that profit from their relationships with China and who seek to downplay the strategic rivalry. Finally there are China's tactics, which emphasize patience and outwardly profess modesty about China's intentions and capabilities. Meanwhile, according to Friedberg, China seeks "to win without fighting" by establishing alternative networks and alliances that will eventually supplant and replace those global institutions created and defended by the United States and its allies.

After conducting a net assessment of China's and America's hard and soft power, Friedberg concludes with an analysis of the strategic options available to U.S. policymakers. He has little regard for the idea that being firm with China's leaders will merely catalyze an avoidable conflict. For Friedberg, China's rulers are tough and thick-skinned realists whose decisions will benefit from a firm U.S. approach and who, by contrast, could tragically miscalculate if they perceive American vacillation. He recommends reinforcing conventional military deterrence, reaffirming U.S. alliances in Asia, and taking steps to maintain U.S. research and technological advantages. Perhaps most important is Friedberg's plea for U.S. policymakers and citizens to openly discuss the adverse trends facing the United States in East Asia and to reject the idea that merely discussing these issues will create a confrontation.

The fragility of China's internal situation and the cresting in two decades of its demographic advantage do not escape Friedberg's scrutiny. Although Chinese leaders have displayed caution and patience, the window will close on their ability to take advantage of their growing power. With the next decade or so possibly being the most dangerous, there is all the more reason for both U.S. policymakers and the electorate to engage the difficult arguments presented in his book. 

Upgrading Taiwan's F-16s avoids a problem now but may create another one later

Obama administration officials no doubt knew that their compromise package of arms sales to Taiwan would end up angering everyone involved with the issue. The White House passed on a proposal this week to sell 66 new F-16 C/D fighter-bombers to Taiwan, an aircraft assembled at Lockheed Martin's Fort Worth, Texas plant. Instead, Taiwan's old fleet of 145 F-16 A/B models will get an extensive upgrade including the latest generation radar, and much improved navigation, electronic warfare, and targeting electronics. Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) are leading a congressional push to pass a bill requiring the administration to sell the new airplanes to Taiwan. For its part, China's Foreign Ministry registered a strong protest at the decision and called in Gary Locke, the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, for a dressing down. 

The administration's path was calibrated to avoid the regular ritual of provoking Beijing to cut off military-to-military contacts with the United States. With concerns over China's military buildup rising, U.S. officials have placed a high priority on military exchanges, with the hope of preventing miscalculations. This time around, the gambit may be working with China yet to invoke another suspension. Having left the possibility of an F-16 C/D sale in reserve, Washington gave Beijing an incentive to refrain from blowing up the relationship again. Should Chinese officials opt to escalate, the United States would have little to lose by then approving the sale of the new aircraft.

Lost in the discussion of the F-16s was the decision to supply Taiwan with 96 smart-bomb precision-aiming kits and 64 cluster bomb dispensers. Combined with the navigation, electronic warfare, and bomb-targeting upgrades, this package will significantly improve the offensive strike capability of Taiwan's F-16 fleet.

This offensive strike capability would permit Taiwan to hold at risk important targets in Southeast China. The package thus enhances conventional deterrence and could boost strategic stability across the Taiwan Strait. 

But this would require the F-16s to survive a Chinese missile barrage aimed at Taiwan's airfields and then get into the air. As discussed in the Pentagon's latest report on Chinese military power, China's large and ongoing buildup of land attack ballistic and cruise missiles threatens to shut down Taiwan's Air Force before it can take off.

Without a survivable second-strike capability, Taiwan could find itself in a "use it or lose it" dilemma during a crisis. Rather than wait for a Chinese missile barrage to either destroy or ground its Air Force, in extremis Taiwan might find itself compelled to attack pre-emptively in order to make use of its F-16s and in an attempt to minimize the damage it might think it would inevitably suffer. 

This is obviously an unstable and undesirable situation. In a previous column, I argued that what Taiwan really needs is its own inventory of mobile and concealable land-attack missiles, a force that could deter a Chinese attack.

Alternatively, Taiwan could acquire strike aircraft that don't require fixed air bases for their operations. The United States is developing just such an airplane for the U.S. Marine Corps, the short-takeoff vertical-landing F-35B Joint Strike Fighter. It should thus come as no surprise that a Taiwanese defense official suggested that if Taiwan can't get the F-16 C/D, maybe it should get the stealthy F-35 instead. An Obama administration official scoffed at the idea: "It's like not getting a Prius and asking for a custom-built Ferrari instead." 

Instead of scoffing, White House officials should instead think about what is required to prop up strategic stability in the southwest Pacific. With China's military spending galloping higher and the Pentagon's about to crash, the United States will need all the help from its allies it can get. In addition, simply repeating past practices without taking account of the dramatically changed circumstances over the Taiwan Strait could make things less rather than more stable. Policymakers on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue would benefit from assessing the Taiwan situation with a clean sheet of paper.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: The New Pacific Theater

The United States and its allies take the first steps toward countering a growing China.

The U.S. and Australia try a new military deployment plan for the southwest Pacific

This week Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to San Francisco to meet with their counterparts from Australia. The occasion was the anniversary of the ANZUS mutual defense treaty, signed 60 years ago in San Francisco's Presidio. That treaty was signed near the start of the Cold War, while the United States and its allies were locked in bloody combat against the Chinese army in Korea. This week's event in San Francisco was an effort to update the defense pact, with China again looming over the meeting.

Six decades later, the Korean War still seems to have a strong influence on the positioning of U.S. military forces in East Asia. U.S. ground, air, and naval forces remain concentrated in Japan and South Korea in the northwest Pacific, seemingly focused on the prospect of renewed fighting in Korea. North Korea's continued belligerence since 1950 created a requirement for a U.S. military presence in the northwest Pacific. Over the decades, the United States, Japan, and South Korea built up a basing structure to support this permanent deployment, which they have long settled into.

But China's improving air and naval power and its assertion of claims in the South China Sea are very likely moving the most important defense mission 2,000 miles south from where U.S. forces in the region are now concentrated. This mismatch is presumably not lost on the U.S. and Australian ministers gathered in San Francisco.

In addition to pledging greater cooperation on cyberdefense (a problem increasingly blamed on sources in China), the United States will gain greater access to Australian military training areas, pre-position military equipment in Australia, obtain access to Australian facilities and ports, and establish options for more joint military activities in the region.

This step-up in military coordination with Australia follows similar U.S. diplomatic forays around the South China Sea. In 2005, the United States and Singapore signed a strategic framework agreement on military cooperation that was expanded this year with an agreement to deploy new U.S. Navy littoral combat ships to Singapore. The deepening of this agreement will enhance the ability of the U.S. Navy to support the multilateral military training exercises it leads every year with partners around the South China Sea.

However, Washington appears to be taking a notably different approach in the southwest Pacific. Unlike its agreement with Japan and South Korea, the new agreements with Australia and Singapore, along with other low-key arrangements with the Philippines and others in the region, do not call for the permanent basing of U.S. combat units in these countries. Both the United States and its partners in the region have an interest in maintaining the "forward presence" of U.S. military forces in the region. But the permanent bases and garrisons in South Korea and Japan have become corrosive, especially on Okinawa, where the local population has become hostile to the U.S. military presence. In addition, restrictions on training areas in Japan and South Korea are impairing the readiness of U.S. forces there and reducing the utility of their presence.

The model the U.S. planners appear to have in mind for Australia, Singapore, and around the South China Sea involves regular and frequent training exercises, temporary access to host countries' facilities, and frequent consultation by staff officers and advisors. For training exercises or in response to crises, U.S. air and ground forces would fly in and meet up with pre-positioned equipment, with naval forces arriving soon thereafter. This method would avoid the political friction the United States has encountered in Japan and South Korea and allow U.S. soldiers to remain at bases inside the United States that have better training facilities and provide better living arrangements for soldiers and their families.

This new method of providing security for the southwest Pacific remains mostly a theory and will face increasing pressure if Chinese forces eventually threaten easy access to the region. But if the model succeeds, it could call into question the utility of maintaining the existing garrisons on Okinawa and South Korea, which in any case are increasingly untenable as the Chinese missile threat expands. The trick for U.S. military strategists and diplomats will be implementing this more flexible deployment model while simultaneously reassuring regional partners that U.S. security commitments are as firm as ever. As pressures increase, that trick may not be easy to pull off.

Does the Army need to prepare for another Afghanistan-sized training effort?

It took 20 hours this week for Afghan police and international troops to subdue the Taliban insurgents who attacked several high-profile sites in downtown Kabul, including the U.S. Embassy compound. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker described the attack as "not a very big deal," while the coalition military commander, Marine Gen. John Allen, conceded that the Taliban "did get an IO [information operations] win on this." Eleven Afghan civilians, four police officers, and 10 insurgents were killed during the battle.

Although the attack did not display much Taliban expertise or have much lasting effect, it raises questions about whether the effort to train Afghan security forces is on track. Last week the Rand Corp. released "Security Force Assistance in Afghanistan," a detailed study of the training program and its lessons for future large-scale training efforts. The report described the immense challenges specific to the Afghan case and cataloged numerous suggestions to improve the program.

The Pentagon and the rest of the U.S. government have learned quite a lot about security force assistance from Afghanistan. There is a near-consensus among policymakers that successful assistance programs elsewhere in the world should be an effective and low-cost way of both preventing conflict and lowering the probability of future U.S. military interventions. The question for the Pentagon is whether the Afghanistan case, with its high level of difficulty, should be the standard scenario that U.S. forces prepare for.

The Rand authors found numerous shortcomings with the Afghan security force assistance program during the time of their field research. That research wrapped up in 2009 just at the time U.S. policy in Afghanistan was undergoing a major overhaul, many changes in top leadership occurred, and a large infusion of additional troops, equipment, and money came in. The researchers found that the assistance effort in Afghanistan lacked a tight linkage to the actual security requirements in the country, lacked appropriate measurements for tracking progress, and did not match up well with the enfeebled capacities of the rest of the Afghan government. In spite of the steep challenges of training an indigenous army in war-torn and largely illiterate Afghanistan, much has improved since 2009, some perhaps due to the interaction between the researchers and the training staff in Afghanistan.

U.S. policymakers have high hopes for using security force assistance to build up regional deterrence, help partners prevent insurgencies and lawlessness, and reduce the demand on U.S. forces for global security. Security force assistance and foreign internal defense training are normally tasks for special operations forces. But the training requirements in Afghanistan and Iraq were so large that conventional forces were drawn into the effort. The U.S. Army established new doctrine and wrote training manuals for conventional combat units reassigned to assistance duties.

But a sharp reduction looms for the Pentagon's budget, with the Army facing a substantial cut to both its force structure and very likely its training budget (indeed, the assistance effort in Afghanistan is getting a big cut). The Army envisions its combat forces having mastery of "full spectrum operations," which could range from complex high-intensity offensives to "wide area security," peacekeeping, support to civil authorities -- and security force assistance.

But reductions in manpower and money for training will likely require officials to set priorities and make choices. Regarding security force assistance, Pentagon leaders will have to make a judgment about how many training resources should be consumed preparing conventional ground combat units for training duties. Do policymakers predict another "worst case" Afghanistan-scale assistance scenario, requiring training resources far above the capacities resident in the special operations forces? If so, in what other areas of conventional readiness are they willing to take risks?

Over the past decade, U.S. soldiers have learned a lot about training indigenous security forces. Skill at security force assistance is a major U.S. asset just like aircraft carriers, fighter jets, and missiles. And it will have to compete with those other assets during the looming budget crunch.

Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Greg Johnson/U.S. Navy via Getty Images