FPI Bulletin: Asia-Pacific Needs Renewed U.S. Commitment

April 22, 2015

In a pair of congressional hearings last week, U.S. military leaders warned that America’s strategic position in the Asia-Pacific is being challenged.  China is waging a campaign of intimidation designed to establish its control over key international waterways in the South China Sea. North Korea has continued to launch missiles and conduct cyber attacks while its people suffer extreme deprivation.  Without a strong military presence in the region and a greater commitment to its alliances, the United States will find it increasingly difficult to preserve the peace that has enabled the growth of both freedom and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific. 

Chinese and North Korean Provocations

Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, warned lawmakers that the Indo-Pacific is “the most militarized region in the world.” He stated that China is pursuing an “aggressive ship building program to produce and field advanced frigates, destroyers, and the first in-class cruiser-sized warship,” and will soon begin construction of its first indigenously-produced aircraft carrier.  By the end of this decade, Beijing will have as many as eight ballistic missile submarines with nuclear missiles that can target the United States—giving China its “first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.”

China has recently focused its military efforts to expand its network of military outposts in the disputed South China Sea.  As explained in this video by the Office of Naval Intelligence, China has “remade the geography of the South China Sea” by dredging sand to create artificial islands.  Most notably, Beijing is building a 10,000 foot-long airstrip in the Spratly Islands to service fighter jets and surveillance aircraft. Admiral Locklear described these moves as “aggressive” and “astonishing.”  In time, Locklear forecasted, China will be able to use these facilities to establish an air-defense zone similar to the one it declared over contested portions of the East China Sea, backed by long-range radar, warships, and airplanes located in these island bases.  This will allow China to take “de facto control...of the world's most important waterways where much of the world's economic energy is created.”

North Korea’s activities represent a second major concern in the region.  Locklear described North Korea as America’s “most dangerous and unpredictable security challenge.”  General Curtis Scaparotti, the head of U.S. Forces-Korea, told lawmakers that this is because “North Korea has opted for an asymmetric strategy capable of little- to no-notice provocations and limited attacks.”  As part of this strategy, Pyongyang, he said, “is willing to use coercion, continue development of nuclear weapons technology and long-range ballistic missile programs, engage in proliferation of arms, missiles and related materiel and technologies, and conduct cyber attacks.”  General Scaparotti told Senators “we must assume” they have “the capability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead,” which could then be launched on a ballistic missile. The general warned that the North could conduct its fourth nuclear test “at any time,” noting that Pyongyang “had more missile events or launches in '14 than they've had in the previous five years together.” Each of these, he reminded the panel, was a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Defense Cuts Undermine Security of the Asia-Pacific

Deep cuts to the defense budget have made it much more difficult to maintain a stabilizing U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific.  Locklear explained, “Budget reductions and uncertainty directly impact operations and combat readiness...[C]ontinuation of sequestration will further delay critical warfighting capabilities, reduce readiness of forces needed for contingency response, forego procurement of new platforms and weapon systems and further downsize weapons capacity, all of which are required for success in the [Asia-Pacific].”

General Scaparotti told the House panel that the budget caps and cuts to the Defense budget could lead to grave consequences should a conflict erupt on the Korean peninsula.  “What I will need on the peninsula is forces that arrive ready to fight in a high-intensity conflict,” the General said, adding “I will need them on a pretty specific timeline because I have a large adversary in close proximity to the capital of South Korea.” Sequestration, however, “reduces the readiness of the force,” and puts plans for a rapid-deployment of response forces into the theater at risk.

Conclusion

The American military plays a vital role in deterring aggressors and maintaining peace in the Pacific.  As General Scaparotti emphasized, “the United States serves as the constant that provides presence, stability, and a framework for conflict avoidance and resolution.” In Asia, as it has worldwide, “The United States has taken a vital role…in promoting international cooperation and the effectiveness of international rules and norms.  This role is supported by America’s enduring military presence, which serves as a foundational and visible element of U.S. leadership and commitment in Asia.” 

When America withdraws, threats proliferate. The rise of ISIS in Iraq, the Taliban’s growing threat in Afghanistan, and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine have all come after the United States made large-scale reductions to its forces in the Mideast, South Asia, and Europe. To preserve peace in the Asia-Pacific, the United States must invest in the military capabilities and forward presence required to deter potential aggressors waiting for an opportunity to strike.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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