Can the United States Defend Its Allies in East Asia?

Lately, tensions between the United States and China have been heating up. With a raging trade war, increasingly-scrutinized Chinese investments, Chinese companies banned from the United States and even talk of conflict, it is no wonder that many are starting to wonder if a new Cold War has begun. Nowhere in the world has this conflict physically manifested itself more than in the South China Sea. It is here that the U.S. routinely sends armed ships through what the Chinese claim are their territorial waters, causing the world to watch nervously as the respective navies stare each other down. For decades, the United States has enjoyed unmatched global primacy (military dominance) in every corner of the world. However, as China rapidly expands its military, it is quickly whittling away at the U.S.’s dominance in Asia. The United States cannot hope to maintain primacy in East Asia long term. Therefore, in order to protect commerce and allied states in the region, America must place more emphasis on AD/A2 penetration and less on pure power projection. This must be coupled with actions to formalize the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and other multilateral alliances to create a long term check to China’s growing influence.

The South China Sea stands as one of the most important and the most contested body of water in the world. Over a third of all global maritime trade, totalling $5.3 trillion a year, passes through each year. Further adding to its value are an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that lay untapped and ready for extraction. This combination of strategic, economic, and resource value has led this area to be hotly contested by nearly every country in Southeast Asia. However, no country’s claims are as extensive as China’s. According to Chinese maps, Chinese territory in the South China Sea is dictated by the so-called nine dash line, which covers a vast majority of the sea. Most controversially, China’s claims cover waters within 200 miles of other country’s shores, an area which international law decrees as that country’s exclusive economic zone. In recent years, China has leveraged its economic and military might to assert its claims at an unprecedented scale. As of 2017, China created 72 acres of artificial islands housing military bases and equipment, with construction continuing at a rapid rate. Furthermore, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been unafraid to assert itself in any situation, up to and including opening fire on unarmed Filipino fisherman in their own exclusive economic zone

International condemnation to China’s aggressive buildup has been sizable. In 2016, an international tribunal ruled China’s nine-dash line to be illegal and incompatible with international law. Unsurprisingly, China has ignored this ruling and has continued to build up its military presence in disputed waters. The U.S. has pushed back by performing ‘freedom of navigation’ missions in the South China Sea. According to international law, any country has the right to sail their ships through international waters, so by sailing their ships through the nine-dash line claimed area, the U.S. is in essence disregarding Chinese claims and asserting the waterways as international waters. However, due to the artificial and militarized islands, the safety and long-term stability of these missions is in jeopardy as risks to U.S. vessels and personnel mount.

There are three main reasons why the United States has a vested stake in the region: economic, alliances and world order. Due to the South China Sea being such a critical juncture for world trade, allowing the Chinese uncontested dominance over the waterway would only serve to strengthen its geopolitical hand in any potential disputes with the United States, India, or other democratic nations. Furthermore, the U.S. is treaty-bound to defend allies in the region including Taiwan, the Philippines and Japan — all of which have territories claimed by China. The more assertive and confident China gets in the region, the more likely it is that conflict will erupt and the U.S. will be dragged into a war, willing or not. And finally, a powerful country illegally seizing land from weaker nations is a hallmark from the pre-WWII world order. Allowing China to hostility annex land belonging to other countries only serves to undermine the liberal-democratic world order that has allowed the global community to prosper. Therefore, it is imperative that the U.S. stands ready and willing to stand up to China for the sake of the world economy, its allies and the world order at large.

The geopolitical calculus in Asia has changed substantially this century, as twenty five years ago, the Chinese military posed little threat to the U.S. and its allies in the region. In the lead up to the 1996 Taiwanese presidential election, the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) staged extensive missile tests just north of Taiwanese territorial waters. In response to this provocation, President Clinton ordered a second carrier strike group and a U.S. amphibious assault ship (or helicopter carrier) to the region. As each carrier group contains a collection of missile cruisers, destroyers, submarines and at least 60 air wings, American assets in the region surged to over a dozen modern warships and well over a hundred aircraft. To make matters worse for the Chinese, Clinton ordered a carrier strike group to sail through the Taiwan Strait, leaving the PLA feeling “humbled and humiliated” as it lacked the capacity to track or respond to this U.S. show of strength. This convinced the Chinese of the need to rapidly expand and modernize its military in order to kick the U.S. out of the region if it hoped to intimidate its neighbors to bend to its will.

In order to achieve this, the PLA embraced an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy. An article from the Charles Koch Institute sums up this strategy nicely: 

According to international security scholars Stephen Biddle and Ivan Oelrich, China’s A2/AD uses ‘a series of interrelated missile, sensor, guidance, and other technologies designed to deny freedom of movement’ to keep any potential adversaries, including the United States, from intervening in a conflict off of China’s coast or from attacking the Chinese mainland.

In essence, China is trying to make it too costly for the U.S. to defend allies or engage them in hostilities by building a network of cheap missiles designed to overwhelm and sink a multi-billion dollar U.S. aircraft carrier. Therefore, while the well-publicized advancements in Chinese military capabilities such as the introduction of an aircraft carrier and new stealth fighters are certainty impressive, they are more designed to heighten the prestige of the Communist Party rather than threaten the U.S. or its allies. The real threats to American naval power lie in less-publicized advancements in cruise and ballistic missile systems that make up the backbone of China’s anti-U.S. A2/AD strategy.

One key part of the Chinese A2/AD strategy is in the diversity of types, ranges, delivery mechanisms and locations of the missiles. The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) has an extensive supply of armaments ranging from short range and stealthy cruise missiles to intermediate and long ranged ballistic missiles. Further adding to the danger these pose is that they are not confined to fixed silos, naval vessels or air wings. Rather, China has mounted these missiles onto mobile launchers that it can put literally anywhere in its territories, making it nearly impossible for the U.S. to track, neutralize or monitor its missile launchers. This is part of what makes the artificial islands so dangerous. As it creates more military sites in the South China Sea, China is able to place its anti-ship and anti-air missiles further East, enhancing the range and effectiveness of its A2/AD strategy. The further it pushes into the South China Sea, the more difficult and dangerous it becomes to dislodge it as the safe operating zone for American fleets and air-wings decreases.

This all fits into China’s primary goal of stretching a massive A2/AD net around what Chinese military planners dub the First and Second Island Chains. While the Second Island Chain is more of an eventual goal (due to it encompassing the U.S. territory of Guam and the major U.S. military base on Okinawa), China has made tremendous strides in securing the First Island Chain and turning it into an unsafe region for U.S. forces to operate in. 

The missile system that is key to Chinese success in securing the island chains is called: the DF-26. Perhaps the most publicized missile in China’s arsenal, the DF-26 has been dubbed the “carrier killer” by defence analysts because of its ability to negate the most powerful conventional weapon in the U.S.’s arsenal: the aircraft carrier. With a payload enough to obliterate multi-thousand ton concrete blocks and a range of 2000 miles, the DF-26 easily out-ranges the 1200 mile range of the carrier-launched F-35C plane and therefore the U.S. aircraft carries themselves. With American carriers unable to get close enough to establish air superiority without being blown out of the water, the bulk of the U.S. navy is rendered useless as they are vulnerable to the PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force). While the solution to this for the U.S. Navy is fairly simple—they just need to keep their fleet at least 2000 miles away—this still marks a technical victory for the Chinese as they would have successfully denied the U.S. military access to and control over East Asia.

Even worse for the United States is that the 2000 mile range of the DF-26 poses a risk not only U.S. bases in Japan and South Korea, but also the U.S. base in Guam. If timed right, a Chinese first strike could devastate U.S. forces in Asia, whipping a majority of the Japan-based Seventh Fleet (which includes a carrier strike group), any ships in Guam, and hundreds of planes parked on runways throughout Asia in a matter of minutes. In essence, America could face a far more devastating Pearl Harbor style attack from a far more capable foe should tensions escalate. And to make it worse, the U.S. would be unable to retaliate for months or even years as the A2/AD shell around East Asia would prevent any strike groups from moving anywhere close to China. It would take a logistically difficult, costly, and time-consuming effort to crack the A2/AD shell enough to allow carriers to operate anywhere close to China with a reasonable degree of safety.

China knows that head to head, ship to ship, or plane to plane the U.S. would beat it. America has by far the largest and most capable military in the world, and that is still the case. The problem is that China has three main advantages. 1.) They have the home court advantage. American forces will be operating thousands of miles from their shores, while China will be operating in its own waters. 2.) The U.S. has military commitments and foces all over the world, from Europe to Africa to the Middle East. Therefore, it will be unable to ever bring all its forces to bear as it will need to maintain a presence in other regions of the world to deter secondary foes such as Russia and Iran. 3.) China would be facing an American military fatigued by decades of constant war and unprepared for great power competition.

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. military doctrine has focused primarily on anti-terrorism and so called two-war doctrines against lesser foes such as Iran and North Korea. This only changed in the 2018 national defense review under the Trump-Mattis DOD administration that shifted U.S. focus away from the two-war doctrine and back to a great power competition one. However, this has left the U.S. far behind China in critical weapons including hypersonic and anti-ship missiles, leaving the U.S. Navy vulnerable. For instance, the current U.S. ASM (anti-ship missile) has a range of only 150 miles, paling in comparison to the 2000 mile range of the DF-26. Furthermore, China is preparing to deploy the DF-100 missile, an upgraded hypersonic version of the DF-26, while the U.S. hypersonic missiles are still in testing phases. Another major issue for the U.S. is that newer ship classes such as the littoral combat ship (LCS) are designed to combat mines and speedboats, not advanced missiles, ships, and submarines like the Chinese have. These planning mistakes have left the U.S. unprepared to confront a technologically advanced foe like China. Further contributing to the U.S.’s woes is that their post WWII strategy has revolved around power projection from aircraft carriers. However, it is exactly this strategy that A2/AD is designed to counter because if American carriers are unable to operate in a region, then the capacity for the U.S. to wage war is heavily blunted.

That being said, the U.S. is not without advantages over China. The entire scope of the war would be fought on China’s footsteps and far from the American homeland. This proves just how much greater the U.S.’s war fighting capability is because the farther a country is from its own shores, the harder it becomes to fight a war, and East Asia is thousands of miles from California while directly adjacent to China. Much of the U.S.’s war fighting capability in Asia stems from three main advantages over China: power projection stemming from aircraft carriers, the U.S. territory of Guam, and allies housing troops and equipment such as Japan and South Korea. Aircraft carriers have several shortcomings when faced with great power competitors as outlined above. However, so-called unsinkable aircraft carriers (islands housing airports and military bases) are far less vulnerable to Chinese attacks as they can be quickly and efficiently repaired. Granted, cruise and ballistic missiles are fully capable of decimating forces at bases if caught unaware, however after initial stockpiles of such weapons are exhausted at the opening of hostilities, the bases can be quickly repaired. It takes years to build a new aircraft carrier but only days to repair a runway. And the U.S. has dozens of bases scattered throughout Asia on Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Thailand, and others that would allow it to quickly and easily move troops to the region to counter China. And any first strike by China only these foreign bases would not only be an act of war against America, but against the host nation as well. Even if the Chinese only attacked the U.S. territory of Guam, mutual defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. While these militaries alone may pale in comparison to China, the South Korean, Japanese, and Australian armed forces are among the most capable in the world and would provide a decisive advantage to the United States in such a conflict.

This is both China’s greatest weakness and fear: being surrounded by hostile forces allied with the United States. It knows that in order to beat the U.S. and secure its A2/AD defense, it needs to be able to strike American forces based in Guam and neighboring countries. However, if it does so, it would drag its neighbors into the war and double the forces it is fighting against. It is for this reason that China is trying to poach allies from the United States. The Philippines has recently been drifting further away from cooperation with the U.S. in exchange for economic assistance packages from China. Furthermore, the recent rift between Japan and South Korea threatens to fragment the unity of democracies in East Asia, making it less likely they could hold a united front against China.

Because it is these alliances that provide the U.S. with its crucial advantage against China in the region, it is vital that it quickly acts to strengthen its alliances in the region and ensure that a united front is held against Chinese aggression. To its credit, the Trump Administration has recognized the need for the U.S. to do just this. Over the last few years, it has acted to restart the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), “…an informal group in which Australia, India, Japan, and the United States discuss how to protect the Indo-Pacific region in the face of Chinese ascendancy.” While these three powers in no way represents a comprehensive list of those in the region willing to push back China, it is an important start and consists of the most influential players in the region. It will be vital to continue to foster this informal alliance and to work towards formalizing it in the future in order to send a clear message that Chinese aggression and annexations will not be tolerated and that the U.S. and its allies stand ready and willing to defend the free world. It was thanks to NATO, not the U.S. alone, that the Soviet advance into Europe was halted. The United States cannot do it all alone; it needs allies. While the QSD is a good start, it should be expanded to include other countries threatened by China including, but not limited to, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, and perhaps even Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. While many of these countries have long histories and long-held grudges, so did Western European countries in the beginning half of the 20th century. However, a common foe is a powerful motivator, and if the U.K. and France could cooperate with Germany and Italy to stand united against the red menace, South Korea and Japan can move past their present spats to stand against China. A so-called Asian NATO (or SEATO) would undoubtedly serve as a major check on Chinese power and ensure that it can’t continue to bully smaller countries to get its way.

In order for this to happen, it is imperative that the U.S. takes the lead and begins to foster the cooperation and trust needed to make that happen. A good start would be to boost economic ties by joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or TPP) abandoned by the Trump Administration that would help decouple Asian economies from China and align them closer to the U.S. Furthermore, a more extensive foreign aid program to offer an alternative to Chinese loans for developing nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines would be vital in checking Chinese influence in the region. And finally, it is long past time that the United States mediates a solution to the current economic and diplomatic disputes between Japan and South Korea that threaten to fracture any united front against China. While these concrete steps are in no way sufficient to establish SEATO, it would be a good first start. 

Over the past couple decades, the military prowess of the PLA has evolved from a corruption-riddled and technologically inferior force to a powerful and advanced military capable of taking on even the United States. For now, the U.S. could probably penetrate China’s A2/AD wall in the west pacific, though the process would be extremely costly and time consuming. It is for this reason that the U.S. can no longer project primacy in the region like it did in 1995 as China is now fully capable of contesting U.S. forces in the region, and their capabilities grow each year. Therefore, in order to safeguard the security of the region and defend democracies from Chinese aggression, multilateral alliances are needed to ensure a united front in Asia. The U.S. can no longer go at it alone in defending East Asian democracies.

Featured Image Source: USA Rice