China’s build-up of offensive strike capabilities and its unilateral assertion of territorial claims in the East and South China Seas are raising tensions in Asia. These rising tensions, however, create an opportunity for the U.S. With the right steps, the U.S. can take advantage of China’s overreach by strengthening its ties with regional allies and perhaps even making inroads with countries that are currently more closely aligned with China.
China’s offensive military capabilities are increasingly potent. Among other things, the country raised its annual defense spending by 10.7 percent this past year to nearly $115 billion, tested new anti-satellite and anti-aircraft carrier missiles, introduced stealth fighter jets and missile-firing drones, and landed a fighter jet on its first aircraft carrier.
More confident in its military strength, China is aggressively seeking to expand its reach. Consider its actions in the East and South China Seas.
A group of islands administered by Japan in the East China Sea is subject to competing Chinese and Japanese claims. China’s intimidation tactics in the disputed area include running military exercises and locking its weapons-targeting radar on a Japanese helicopter and naval vessel. Most recently, China announced an expanded air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that covers most of the East China Sea, including portions claimed by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Backed by the threat of “defensive emergency measures,” China requires aircraft entering the area to identify themselves and to file a flight plan.
China is using similar tactics to advance its claims in the South China Sea, where the country’s interests are increasingly conflicting with those of Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries. For instance, China utilizes combat-ready patrols and has garrisoned soldiers on islands in the contested waters, and has announced plans to intercept and seize foreign ships that “illegally enter” the area.
Much more is at issue in the disputed areas than control of potentially vast oil and gas reserves and regulation of waterways through which substantial trade flows. China wants to replace the U.S. as the dominant power in its region. China sees the U.S. as a fading power that cannot simultaneously manage a pivot to Asia and endless distractions in the Middle East, especially given America’s weakened economy, war-weary populace, and defense budget cuts. China thus believes that by confronting the U.S. and its Asian allies, it can erode America’s commitment to the region. Once China has sufficiently eclipsed the U.S. in Asia, it can divide and conquer its regional adversaries by intimidating them with threats on the one hand and wooing them with favorable trade and security terms on the other.
But China’s strategy has backfired thus far. Chinese aggression has been largely opposed across Asia and has garnered calls throughout the region for a greater U.S. role in balancing China. For instance, Japan is defying China’s ADIZ rules and considering revising its constitution to permit its armed forces to participate in collective security operations. South Korea expanded its ADIZ to cover areas claimed by China and is building a new naval base. Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand are discussing reopening military installations to the U.S.
Still, China’s strategy could succeed. The threat of China disrupting trade with its neighbors may deter their resistance to Chinese expansion, particularly if those countries doubt that the U.S. will back them if push comes to shove. Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s response to China’s actions has been mixed. For example, just days after China announced the ADIZ, the U.S. sent B-52 bombers through it without informing China. But then the U.S. caved, instructing its commercial airlines to follow China’s identification rules, and failing to demand immediately that China revoke its ADIZ declaration.
To capitalize on China’s missteps, the U.S. should consider taking the following steps.
First, the U.S. should order its commercial airlines to ignore China’s ADIZ rules and urge other countries to do the same, send military planes through the zone daily, and offer fighter jet escorts to aircraft threatened by China.
Second, although Chinese aggression will inherently push Japan and South Korea closer, the U.S. must do what it can to help them reconcile their historical grievances.
Third, the U.S. must maintain a credible military presence in Asia, including by prioritizing missile defense and purchasing more long-range anti-ship missiles, carrier-launched drones, and submarines.
Fourth, the U.S. must finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), which will establish a free trade zone among the U.S., Japan, Vietnam, Australia, and other countries. As I have previously written, the TPPA will “enrich its members and bring additional Asian nations solidly into the U.S. orbit, thereby encircling China with strengthened U.S. allies.”
Fifth, the U.S. should increase weapons sales to its Asian allies and hold additional training exercises with them in the East and South China Seas. The stronger America’s Asian allies are, the more they can contribute to maintaining regional stability.
These prescriptions are meant to stop Chinese aggression, not to provoke an escalated Chinese response. The U.S. and its Asian allies must make a strong showing to prove to China that its aggression will be met by a united response from a group of countries significantly more powerful than it. Anything less will spur China to intensify its efforts to dominate Asia.