- - Thursday, December 4, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Obama began his administration in 2009 believing that American restraint would encourage great-power comity and cooperation. While he may now realize that such hope was illusory, what he may not grasp is that American strategic weakness resulting from his restraint has only encouraged a gathering Second Sino-Russian alliance.

During the week when Mr. Obama arranged the resignation of his third secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, was in Beijing adding another layer to their developing alliance. Practically ignored by Western media, Mr. Shoigu, after meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan on Nov. 18, noted their “concern” with U.S. military strength and said “the main goal of pooling our effort is to shape a collective regional security system.”

The reality is that Russia and China are quickly building an active military partnership directed against the United States that could evolve into alliancelike cooperation. Mr. Putin’s immediate priority has been to expand his strategic economic relationship with China, securing recent and future petroleum deals that will buffer Russia’s economy from Western sanctions resulting from Russian aggression.

To clinch the deal, Mr. Putin overrode fears from his military sector about illegal copies to give China Russia’s latest military technology. China soon will receive the Sukhoi Su-35 four-plus generation fighter and new S-400 missile interceptors, and future deals could result in technology transfers for new wide-body airliners/aerial refuelers, submarines and space systems.

China also wants benefits such as advanced military training with a Russian “peer.” This year, Russia hosted Chinese fighters for their most complex foreign combat exercise and joined Chinese ships for a sophisticated exercise near China. Russian ground and air forces went to China for late-August “peace mission” exercises. While in Beijing, Mr. Shoigu announced that Russian and Chinese warships would exercise in the Mediterranean Sea next year.

This points to another benefit long sought by Beijing, and maybe now by Moscow: mutual military support. Beijing has long sought Russia’s passive, if not active, military support to aid China’s goal of conquering democratic Taiwan. Might Mr. Putin be ready to give this prize in exchange for China’s pledge to keep his economy solvent? How far could such cooperation extend? Might they consider cooperation in the areas of space warfare or strategic nuclear weapon targeting?

Gen. Victor Esin, retired Russian missile force chief of staff, said in 2012 that China may have up to 1,800 nuclear warheads, far in excess of Western estimates of 200 to 400. In reality, we just don’t know what China has, but if combined with Russia’s 1,500 or so warheads, Beijing and Moscow may soon be able to overwhelm the 1,550 U.S. warheads, raising the real danger of nuclear blackmail.

Further, Mr. Putin has reinstituted Soviet Cold War strategic bomber simulated missile strikes against Guam and Alaska and into the Atlantic. These flights must be intercepted and escorted in order to sustain deterrence.

Into the 2020s, as China and Russia develop more naval, air transport and space power projection capabilities, their military cooperation could extend to other regions. Russia and China are now competing to arm anti-democratic and anti-U.S. regimes in Latin America, and may be cooperating to help Nicaragua build a trans-ocean canal, which may yield port access for Russian and Chinese warships. Both countries actively support U.S. enemies in Syria and Iran.

Doubtless, such developments were unconsidered in 2009 when Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were advancing their “reset” with Russia and trying to encourage China to join a “comprehensive partnership.” This dovetailed with Mr. Obama’s intention to cut military spending and foreign engagements to benefit his domestic agenda. But when both entreaties were rejected, Mr. Obama continued to constrain U.S. strength, thus encouraging deeper Sino-Russian strategic cooperation.

Countering a new Sino-Russian alliance will require a revival of American strength and a willingness to exploit Chinese and Russian weaknesses. It is time to bury the corpse of arms control and focus on modernizing a credible U.S. strategic and tactical nuclear weapons deterrent. Russia already has an estimated 10,000 of the latter while the U.S. may have about 500. Second, it is time for the United States to redeploy credible military forces to Europe and South Korea to deter aggression, starting with increased tactical air power. Third, the United States must quickly develop military space systems to counter a new generation of Chinese and Russian space weapons.

It is also necessary for the United States to end its restraint of the past two decades regarding challenging the political legitimacy of the Chinese and Russian regimes. Both regimes depend on the military to maintain power and coerce their populations. Only by offering hope for a better future will their citizens demand one. In addition, like the first Sino-Soviet alliance of Stalin and Mao, the second one barely conceals deep mutual fears. Russia likely calculates that absent an American “threat,” China will turn its sights on Russia’s vulnerable eastern territories.

That both regimes require increasing foreign aggression to justify their political dictatorships yields another weakness. With a renewed commitment to its own strength, the United States should have less trouble organizing countries targeted by Chinese and Russian aggression. Front-line allies and friends such as Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Poland, the Baltics and Ukraine, deserve either increased U.S. military support or the arms needed to defend themselves.

Having refused to respond to the recent midterm elections with humility, it is unlikely the Obama administration will acknowledge that its foreign and defense policy miscalculations are increasing the likelihood of a new cold war. Nevertheless, this will be a principal challenge for the next secretary of defense and for the new Congress.

Retired Adm. James A Lyons Jr. is a former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and Richard D. Fisher Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

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