US-China Relations: Why Obama's 'Asia Pivot' Strategy Could Lead to Disaster


In an interesting policy move that has been dubbed the "Asia Pivot," the Obama administration has shifted its priorities to the Pacific region. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta indicated that by 2020, 60% of U.S. naval ships will be in the Pacific, and 40% percent in the Atlantic, "compared with the current 50-50 split." Critics of the pivot say that it is verbal bravado and a mere "repackaging of policies begun in previous administrations, although still enough to unnecessarily antagonize the Chinese."

This American response is due in part to the surprising advancements made by the Chinese military, such as the successful developments of its aircraft carrier, advanced jet fighters, and more cost-effective drones. China-U.S. relations expert Wu Xinbo advises the U.S. not to just focus on China's rising capabilities, but also to "pay attention to how China will use its military power." It is not surprising that China wants to catch up militarily, as it is a dominant economic power that has the means to do so. However, the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Liberation Army may not necessarily want to undermine U.S. global military preeminence, but rather wish to assert their country's sovereignty in regional disputes involving territories in the East and South China seas. The Chinese might threaten U.S. dominance in these regions insofar as they see American forces as encroachments that they must guard against. Conversely, Washington sees itself as an important player in the Pacific, with certain obligations and diplomatic interests to which it must attend. Notable strategic maneuvers stemming from this perception include the stationing of 250 U.S. Marines in Australia, and military drills with Japan. 

An important plan that is receiving greater official attention and Chinese condemnation is "Air Sea Battle," a comprehensive strategy developed by the Department of Defense in case "an angry, aggressive and heavily armed China" should decide to attack American forces. This counterattack by the Air Force and the Navy would involve conventional strike tactics. A graphic depicting the strategy can be found here. Developed by Andrew Marshall and Andrew Krepinevich, the Air Sea Battle concept involves the following:

1. Increasing bomb resistant aircraft shelters and bring repair kits to fix damaged airstrips.

2. Using stealthy bombers and quiet submarines to wage a "blinding campaign" in which long range Chinese surveillance and precision missile systems are targeted to open up the area of denial, which includes the disputed areas within the East and South China seas.

3. Dispersing aircraft to Tinian and Palau islands, which are outside the range of Chinese land-based anti-ship missiles, in order to confuse the enemy's targeting processes.

Critics doubt the necessity of such a plan. MIT Security Studies Program director Barry Posen says that instead of questioning whether there will be security concerns or threats, the highly influential Office of Net Assessment in the Pentagon, which Andrew Marshall heads, “convince[s] others to act as if the worst cases are inevitable.” In fact, over two dozen war scenarios run by Krepinevich's defense think tank, the Center for Budgetary and Strategic Assessments, cast China as an aggressive enemy.

This potentially alarmist thinking has lately attracted the attention of top military officials, suggesting that the plan or something similar may come to fruition. However, to realize this plan, there would have to be an increase in or reallocation of military spending, which is something that may not be realized if the U.S. goes over the fiscal cliff this upcoming January.

Undoubtedly, such strategies have been a growing source of concern for Beijing. Colonel Fan Gaoyue said, “If the U.S. military develops Air-Sea Battle to deal with the [People’s Liberation Army], the PLA will be forced to develop anti-Air-Sea Battle."

The back-and-forth defense escalation bespeaks the suspicious nature of security agencies in general that could contribute to the deterioration of bilateral relations. With things as they are now, tensions are quickly rising on both sides because they are both approaching each other with a zero-sum mentality. Even with their almost inextricable economic and trade interdependence, the politics of Chinese containment and American repulsion could become a military conflict before long. As shown by the Chinese-Japanese dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, Chinese citizens are willing to boycott foreign goods and services in a surge of patriotic fervor. Therefore, even economic interdependence may not deter war if the strategic interests of both the U.S. and China are compromised. The two leaders must engage in an open discussion which addresses these problems honestly, and come up with practical solutions that move beyond their ideological and cultural differences. If not done soon, we will all suffer.