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Even under ideal circumstances for the U.S. government, dealing with a possible confrontation with China is a problem that is, in many ways, intractable. And our circumstances are far from ideal. The U.S. economy is dangerously and closely linked to China, particularly in the high tech sector, making confrontation risky economically for both parties, but especially for the United States. China has also grown a significant military which, even though it is untested, presents a formidable problem for a status quo power such as the U.S. In addition, because of the long wars that took place in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the condition of the U.S. Army and Air Force are, to put it mildly, considerably degraded.

Beginning with President Barak Obama’s so-called “pivot to Asia,” the Pentagon has been trying to figure out how U.S. forces would operate in the region and what would happen in a real conflict. To this end, the Pentagon has sponsored a number of war game exercises, simulations, and actual exercises to test and assess capabilities. The results have not been pretty and, unless there are some profound changes, the attitude of American military leaders is and will remain to avoid conflict with China.

To add to the malaise and depression in decision-making circles there are many voices, both inside and outside the U.S. government, that see China as a rising power with industrial punch and scientific and technological prowess that exceeds that of the United States. Areas such as cybernetics, artificial intelligence, low observables (stealth), quantum computing, swarming drones, ceramics, and advanced manufacturing. Global Times reports that “China’s annual research and development (R&D) spending grew 169 times over from about 14.3 billion yuan ($2.21 billion) at the beginning of the 1990s to 2.44 trillion yuan ($378 billion) in 2020. Based on exchange rate conversion, China’s total R&D expenditures overtook Japan’s in 2013, becoming the world’s second after the U.S.”

Developments in the Region

Washington’s problem is exacerbated by three related developments –Taiwan, Japan, and regional peace and security. 

The most explosive is Taiwan because China has raised the stakes over Taiwan’s future, demanding that Taiwan be formally reincorporated into China. China has carried out extremely aggressive and risky air operations in Taiwan’s declared air defense identification zone (ADIZ), forcing Taiwan to constantly scramble aircraft and the PLA-Navy has complimented the air operations by demonstrating power at sea around the island, including sea invasion exercises. To further unsettle the Taiwanese and the Americans, China has allowed its military to significantly increase its boasting about how Taiwan would be destroyed.

America has no formal obligation to protect Taiwan and even the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 does not provide any assurance to the Taiwanese that the U.S. would come to help them. However in 1996, when China carried out an extremely threatening missile exercise focused on Taiwan and began assembling invasion forces, Washington responded by sending two aircraft carrier task forces to position between China and Japan. China pulled back from the brink. In the intervening 25 years, China has been devising ways to neutralize U.S. aircraft carriers and push the U.S. back so that coming to Taiwan’s assistance, at least by sea, has become fraught with problems.

Japan is not immediately threatened, but the Japanese know very well that Taiwan’s fate could also prove fatal to them. There is no love lost between China and Japan. In fact, the Chinese have a distinct hatred for Japan mainly related to the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) that took millions of Chinese lives, military and civilian, and involved atrocities including the use of chemical and biological warfare. Japan is protected by the United States, and the U.S. has air and naval bases on the Japanese islands and Okinawa, but should Taiwan fall, Japan’s position would be more precarious, and the Chinese would certainly push them very hard to terminate U.S. bases and other operations in Japan. Even now, China is exerting pressure on the Japanese, making territorial claims in the Senkaku Islands and even Okinawa, and challenging Japan’s navy and air force. Japan is quite nervous about where all this is headed, regarding with trepidation America’s apparent lack of clarity, and demonstrated unreliability, especially in the wake of Afghanistan. There are important voices in Japan saying Japan should not follow the U.S. strategic lead.

A Status Quo Power

A status quo power must maintain peace and security, which for the U.S. means demonstrating that it can and will insist on open sea lanes of communications, start with negotiations not force, and a responsible approach to interstate relations. When China illegally seized the islands and reefs in the South China Sea, the U.S. did not make threats, but began freedom of navigation exercises. However, even sailing ships past heavily defended Chinese outposts is becoming precarious, as China has chased away American ships and aircraft and may have caused damage to a U.S. submarine, a Seawolf class nuclear attack submarine, that may have been fed false sonar information leading to an accident that injured seamen and forced the submarine to the surface where it limped back to Guam (as a nuclear submarine showing up in Japan is too politically complicated). Things are not much better further north and east. For example American patrols in the Taiwan Straits consistently anger the Chinese.

What Should the U.S. Do?

American leaders can try to maintain the status quo as far as possible by continuing sea patrols, showing the flag in friendly ports and carrying out exercises with allies and friends to remind China that the U.S. intends to remain a player in the region. Unfortunately, the status quo cannot be maintained for very long in this manner, partly because China keeps growing more powerful and aggressive, partly because our allies will realign with China at least as a stopgap as America’s power fades, and partly because they cannot depend on Chinese patience. 

There are tensions within China in at least two crosscutting ways: in the economy, caused by heavy speculation and corruption, something that has never disappeared in China’s history; and between an assertive military class and civilian authority that could translate into a leadership conflict unless the military is palliated. For the U.S., this can mean a breakout by Chinese authorities who decide that the best way to solve internal problems is to externalize them while, at the same time, exploiting both Chinese nationalism and ancient hatreds.

Obviously, it is in the U.S. interest to try and block a devolving situation if that is possible, but the issue is how to change the game effectively enough to push back on evolving and enlarging Chinese threats?

When the Pentagon ran its war games and simulations, its framework was always the U.S. as the single factor intervening to save Taiwan. There is some truth in looking at the problem that way because in fact, there is no other framework at present where the U.S. can ally with others to strengthen deterrence. 

Unlike Europe, where NATO has been a successful counterbalance to Soviet, and now Russian power, in Asia there is no such thing. It is also significant that the strength of our partners in the region is far below what is desirable. That is what happens when the U.S. is the dominant leader regionally; the same happened in Europe (hence big countries such as Germany irresponsibly underfunded their military and underinvested in defense). 

An Asia Command Structure 

Japan has a tiny defense budget and almost no army (the fact that it is called a “self-defense force” is a tipoff). 

Taiwan has spent less than it could have, its excuse being that the U.S. its only source of defense equipment other than France in the past, delayed and often refused to provide front line equipment. For example, the Taiwan Navy, other than four rapidly aging French Lafayette class cruisers, is a mess made up mostly of cast-off obsolete US Navy ships. Taiwan has four submarines: two Guppy-2 class U.S. diesel submarines from the 1950’s, and two ailing Dutch submarines from the mid-1980’s. One is under refurbishment this year, and another is barely operational. Taiwan is getting new F-16s which are far better than the old ones that they got from President George W. Bush in 1992 which, to the degree possible, are in being upgraded with new radars and electronics. Even its home-built F-CK-1 fighter jets were deliberately underpowered and limited in range by the Pentagon in league with the State Department. 

Had the Washington been serious, it would have sold F-35s to Taiwan, built modern submarines for the ROC Navy, and provided air defense cruisers based on the AEGIS system.

There are some bright spots. With upgraded and new F-16s, Taiwan can inflict damage on the Chinese air force and sink Chinese ships if it must; Japan has F-35s that can operate as air superiority aircraft against the PLAF (China’s Air Force). The U.S. could, and should, move F-22s to Japan, because the F-22 can act as a deterrent. It is the aircraft China is trying to emulate in its stealth fighter bomber, the J-20, but is not there yet. Likewise, the U.S. can move AEGIS air defense cruisers and destroyers into a regular patrol around Taiwan, making it clear that China will have to face the latest in U.S. air defense missiles in the form of SM-3 Block IIs and SM-6s, which are interceptor missiles supported by AEGIS and by advanced radars onboard these ships.

The Missing Ingredient

The missing ingredient is a common command and control system shared by the U.S., Japan, and Taiwan. NATO’s Command Structure (NCS) is the backbone of the European alliance. It is comprised of permanent multinational headquarters at the strategic, operational, and component levels of command, distributed geographically and commonly funded. It offers the opportunity to all allies to participate in, and contribute to, the command and control of all alliance operations, missions, and activities across all military domains. It allows forward deployed forces to operated in a coordinated manner and assures that there is logistical support, adequate supplies, and reinforcements. 

A key advantage of a shared command system is that ports, harbors, and airfields can be shared. This facilitates supporting Taiwan and gives the Taiwanese an option to use facilities in Japan and Okinawa. Even more important, it means that China may be able to attack Taiwan’s airfields and harbors, but China would find it far more difficult if many other facilities outside Taiwan were part of the equation, including aircraft and ships from the U.S., Japan, and Taiwan.

It is clear beyond any doubt that for the U.S. to gain a force multiplier and to have an effective way to deter China, an Asia Command Structure (ACS) starting with the U.S., Japan, and Taiwan is essential.

Can Washington Get Its Act Together?

So far, at least, the current administration has not put forward a coherent policy on China; previous administrations didn’t either. All were kicking the can down the road, permitting American industry to make money in China, and hoping business would somehow deter China from hasty regional military action. Even now there are voices, even in The Wall Street Journal suggesting that China isn’t really a threat – it is all just bluster. 

In short, Washington is combining wishful thinking and the same failed approach that Nixon and Kissinger tried to follow toward the USSR – it was called détente, but it was not détente where the U.S. provided technology and money to the Soviets. China is expanding its nuclear arsenal and inflating its military in ways that is dangerous and threatening.

The bottom line is that voices must be raised to push the administration to see the seriousness of the danger and implement meaningful programs to push back against the danger ahead. Setting up an Asia Command Structure would be a good place to start.

Stephen D. Bryen, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and former director of the Defense Technology Security Agency at the Pentagon.

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