America's 'Pivot' To Asia: Evolutionary not Reactionary

The USS George Washington is underway in the South China Sea in this picture from October 15, 2012. Image: U.S Navy

In a recent article for Foreign Affairs, Robert Ross argues that America’s so-called “pivot” to Asia—America’s strategic refocusing on the Asia-Pacific—is bad news. Ross lays out various examples such as China’s resistance to a compromise solution on climate change to tensions in the East China and Yellow Seas  asserting that “…Beijing seemed to change tack, behaving in a way that alienated its neighbors and aroused suspicion abroad.” Such moves were not based on the nation’s “growing confidence” but instead on “a deep sense of insecurity born of several nerve-racking years of financial crisis and social unrest” in what he later describes as “China’s nationalist diplomacy.” America’s pivot, Ross argues, “compounds Beijing’s insecurities and will only feed China’s aggressiveness, undermine regional stability, and decrease the possibility of cooperation between Beijing and Washington.”

While Chinese actions certainly may have pushed American diplomats and security officials to conclude a pivot to Asia was needed, such a shift in terms of military power—which Ross focuses on—was well underway well before any assertive Chinese action. In fact, Ross oddly notes that the pivot is a “doubling down on the efforts of previous administrations.” He then goes on to conclude that “a policy of restraint, rather than alarmism, will best serve U.S. national security.”

America’s pivot to Asia—essentially a refocusing of global and strategic priorities after concluding wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and a wider “global war on terror”—is much more evolutionary than reactionary to any specific Chinese move in the Asia-Pacific. While the pivot to Asia is certainly more complex than just a military or strategic adjustment, at its core it is an attempt to keep pace with the rapid modernization of China’s military and shift in strategic doctrine.

To understand the rationale behind the military aspect of America’s pivot, one must have a clear understanding of the change in Beijing’s strategic outlook. China since the mid-1980s has shifted its military planning away from a land war with the now former Soviet Union to prepare for a possible conflict with the United States—albeit one with a very remote possibility—through asymmetric means.

China’s military and strategic calculus is born from a careful study of history and recent example. Beijing cautiously watched military campaigns unfold during the 1991 Gulf War and found its armed forces generations behind. China then faced the prospect of having to confront American military power in the 1995-1996 Taiwan crisis and again in 2001 during the Hainan Island crisis.  Beijing quickly came to the understanding that if conflict had not been avoided in those crises, their military defeat would have been virtually guaranteed.

The various branches of China’s armed forces have since developed world-class asymmetric military capabilities that target the very weaknesses’ of American power. Many scholars have dubbed Beijing’s strategy as anti-access/area-denial or A2/AD. Such an approach combines the capabilities of diesel and nuclear submarines, mines, cyberwarfare, anti-satellite weapons and swarm attacks by ballistic and cruise missiles—taking the classic concept of layered defense to a new level. China is not attempting to develop capabilities that would match America ship for ship or plane for plane but instead target specific vulnerabilities. Such a strategy is now being copied by nations like Iran and others in an attempt to blunt American military power.

Regarding one of the key weapons components of China’s A2/AD strategy– anti-ship ballistic missiles– Ross also asserts incorrectly that “China…is developing missiles that could target U.S. aircraft carriers, but has not yet mastered the technology to deploy these weapons.” This can only be a veiled reference to the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. Such a weapon should not be taken so lightly as it has the capacity to be a “game changer.” The weapon is fired from a mobile truck-mounted launcher into the atmosphere, with over-the-horizon radar, satellite tracking and possibly unmanned aerial vehicles each providing missile guidance. It also incorporates a maneuverable warhead to help find its target and defeat possible missile defense systems. One prominent member faculty at the U.S. Naval War College feels such a weapon would place U.S. military planners “on the wrong side of physics.” If the weapon could be deployed in large enough numbers, it could potentially overwhelm U.S. sea-based Aegis missile defense platforms—Aegis systems would have to intercept a missile that descends on its target at speeds of up to Mach 8 – 10. In the event of a conflict, American forces would have to make a horrific choice: take on shocking losses or withdraw to a safe distance. As most estimates of the DF-21D presume a range of exceeding 1500 kilometers, U.S. carriers would need to be placed far from any area of utility—and rendered obsolete.  One of the central points in Ross’ essay is that “the U.S. Navy will continue to dominate Asia’s seas.” Such a weapon could end such dominance.

To be fair, there is no evidence of a full test of the system being fired against a cooperative or uncooperative target on the open ocean. It is known, however, that the U.S. Navy feels the weapon has reached “initial operational capacity” and that “(t)he anti-ship ballistic missile system in China has undergone extensive testing.” Taiwan’s 2011 National Defense Report also concluded that the DF-21D “have been produced and deployed in small numbers in 2010.” It also must be noted the DF-21D is just one part of a larger family of anti-access weapons.  Beijing has developed hefty numbers of shore-based fighters, bombers, and cruise missile units that can fire large salvos of anti-ship weapons—all of which can amplify China’s A2/AD strategy and overwhelm America’s missile defenses.

Overall, the military aspect of America’s pivot to Asia attempts to negate the growing challenge of China’s A2/AD capabilities. Both nations’ strategic adjustments on balance fall in line with reality—that the United States and China are now strategic competitors. Such a competition though need not be considered destabilizing. Both nations must now open up about the challenges that increasing competition will bring about. Wishing away the reality that the U.S. – China relationship will be more about competition than “cooperation” seems more dangerous than any strategic pivot either side could employ.

Harry Kazianis is a WSD-Handa Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: PACNET. He is also Editor-In-Chief of The Diplomat.

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