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Research Report

Asia in the Balance: Transforming US Military Strategy in Asia

Thomas G. Mahnken
Dan Blumenthal
Thomas Donnelly
Michael Mazza
Gary J. Schmitt
Andrew Shearer
Copyright Date: Jun. 1, 2012
Pages: 32
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 3-4)

    Asia’s global strategic weight is growing. The Obama administration’s announcement of a “Pacific pivot,” codified in the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, is evidence of this development:

    U.S. economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia, creating a mix of evolving challenges and opportunities. Accordingly, while the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region

    However, recognition of the increasing importance of Asia and calls for an expansion of US presence...

  2. (pp. 5-5)

    In examining the need for a new US strategy for the Asia-Pacific region, we have taken two complementary approaches. The first is a regional examination of the military balance in Northeast Asia, the South China Sea, South Asia, and continental Asia. This assessment shows that the military balance has shifted in a direction unfavorable to the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia. It also reveals warning signs in the South China Sea. At the same time, a regional assessment reveals opportunities for the United States in South Asia and perhaps in continental Asia.

    The second approach involves examining...

  3. (pp. 6-6)

    The US government frequently does a poor job of articulating its interests in public statements. Recent national security strategies—as well as the Obama administration’s recent defense guidance white paper—tend to speak in general terms. Rather than outlining a limited and prioritized set of objectives, they often contain undifferentiated lists of desirable ends. Rather than discussing particular countries that threaten US interests, they tend to speak of challenges in only the vaguest of terms.

    One should, therefore, look to the practice of US national security policy for an understanding of enduring US interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Since at...

  4. (pp. 7-8)

    Since the end of World War II, the United States has developed a characteristic approach to protecting its interests in Asia. In peacetime and in war, the US position in Asia has been characterized by a set of alliances, ground and air forces deployed on allied and US territory, nuclear strike forces, and carrierstrike groups operating in the Western Pacific. The United States has deployed ground and air forces on allied territory in Japan and South Korea as well as on US territory (Hawaii, Alaska, and Guam) to reassure allies and to deter adversaries.

    During the Cold War, this included...

  5. (pp. 9-11)

    China has been working systematically to undermine the American approach to assurance, deterrence, and warfighting. Specifically, China’s military modernization lends it the ability to decouple America’s allies from the US extended nuclear deterrent, to destroy US and allied fixed bases in the Asia-Pacific region, and to threaten US power projection forces. This, in turn, could allow China to coerce US allies and friends in the region (regarding territorial disputes, for example), hold US forces at arm’s length, and control the seas along the Asian periphery.

    It is important to understand the scope and pace of Chinese military developments. There is,...

  6. (pp. 12-12)

    What do these trends portend for the military balance in Asia? In Northeast Asia, the military balance has shifted in a direction unfavorable to the United States and its allies. Consequently, the United States increasingly needs to bolster its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, to reassure its allies, and to deter China and North Korea.

    Over the past two years, competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea have received considerable attention. Member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations share a common worry about Chinese naval provocations. During a recent standoff in disputed waters, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert...

  7. (pp. 13-14)

    The United States faces three strategic alternatives (see table 1) as it seeks to align its ends with its means in an increasingly turbulent environment. In evaluating these options, it is crucial to assess the risks and rewards of each one. Moreover, it is useful to differentiate among different types of risk. For example, the United States should, first and foremost, seek to minimize strategic risk—that is, safeguard its political objectives and interests. It should also, however, seek to reduce operational risk—that is, safeguard its military forces. An ideal strategy would seek to minimize both.

    The first strategic...

  8. (pp. 15-16)

    A forward-leaning and forward-looking US strategy for Asia would rest on two pillars: willingness to engage in long-term competition with China in peacetime and measures to convince China that it cannot fight and win a quick regional war. Success in this long-term peacetime competition with China would blunt the momentum of Chinese military modernization and channel Chinese resources away from the country’s most disruptive capabilities.30 To do this, the United States needs to take three steps.

    First, the United States needs to develop new approaches to presence. US military force structure in the Asia-Pacific region should move away from overdependence...

  9. (pp. 17-21)

    For the US military, these tasks may seem daunting. It must prepare for a peacetime competition requiring ongoing on-station presence, deterrence, and reassurance capabilities. It must also plan for major contingencies, most immediately in the Taiwan Strait and on the Korean Peninsula. To deter and, if necessary, defeat China in a contingency, the US military would need to, for example, break a prospective blockade around Taiwan, demine waters near the Taiwan Strait and in the East China Sea, conduct wide-area antisubmarine warfare and offensive mining, neutralize portions of China’s C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), and possibly...

  10. (pp. 22-22)

    The United States faces challenging times ahead in the Asia-Pacific region. The rise of China and Chinese military modernization—combined with constraints on the US defense budget—mean that in coming years, US forces are likely to face increased operational risk and that the strategic risk to US interests will be compounded. It will take greater effort and more defense resources for the United States to protect its historic interests in the region. The failure to adjust the structure and posture of US forces in the region threatens to open up a widening gap between America’s capabilities and commitments.