China’s new president, Xi Xinping, has discarded former leader Deng Xiaoping’s cautious foreign policy of “bide our time, hide our capabilities,” by mounting increasing military challenges to America’s Asian allies and to U.S. leadership.
China’s bullying tactics in the East China Sea and South China Sea will only increase with its expanding military might despite President Obama’s much-heralded pivot to Asia. The pivot is not enough. Washington must elevate regional military cooperation if China is to be deterred.
Coming on the heels of China’s declaration of an air-defense identification zone over the East China Sea, Beijing continued its bullying tactics in its Dec. 5 direct challenge to the USS Cowpens, an Aegis guided-missile cruiser, exercising its freedom of navigation rights in the East China Sea. The Cowpens was forced to take immediate evasive action to avoid a collision with a Chinese naval ship that “stopped” dead ahead of the cruiser. According to reports, the Chinese navy was trying to enforce a 28-mile moving “exclusion zone” around its first operational carrier, the Liaoning. Such action is totally unacceptable. Likewise, China’s attempt to force all aircraft entering into its declared identification zone to provide preflight routing plans even if just transiting the area is also unacceptable.
Our current strategy of not confronting China directly and hoping China will change its aggressive tactics is clearly not working. Therefore, a new strategy is required if we are to retain our leadership position as the key element in maintaining peace and stability in the Western Pacific and to force China to change direction from its path of increasing military belligerence. Such a new strategy will require an evolutionary approach. Currently, while many Asian states prefer to cooperate militarily with the United States on a bilateral basis, long-standing enmities between many of them have prevented the building of formal intra-Asian military arrangements. An “Asian NATO” would be ideal, but it is simply unrealistic today.
However, during the mid-December summit of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nations, Japan and Southeast Asian nations showed some positive signs that they are ready to work more closely together to counter China’s aggressive actions. Yet, though regional security was a major concern of the summit, more formal security arrangements will not come about soon.
Many of the ASEAN nations prefer informal defense cooperation that allows the United States to act as a regional stabilizer. However, this situation is also advantageous for China. For decades, China has waged a low-intensity conflict in disputed maritime zones while politically isolating Taiwan. It has illegally built facilities on contested islands in the South China Sea, harassed the Philippines, and are trying to spark a confrontation with Japan in the East China Sea. With its massive military buildup, China will soon have the conventional military-power projection and nuclear-missile force capability to seize contested areas and potentially deter U.S. intervention.
To better deter such Chinese actions, we need to create informal mechanisms now that will enable future options for an Asian maritime alliance. The United States can take the lead by extending and deepening already existing bilateral mutual-defense treaties. We then need to extend our current informal patterns of cooperation with other nations in the region by leveraging our modern secure digital communications to build virtual cooperation that can prepare for actual expanded military cooperation.
A preliminary step would be to turn the biannual U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval, air and land force exercises into an annual exercise and offer participants the option of joining a continuous, ad hoc multilateral planning staff. This informal staff would deepen cooperative mechanisms and enable faster reactions to Chinese aggression. This organization ideally would meet in Guam, but it could also conduct most business over secure digital linkages. For that matter, many types of multilateral exercises could be performed by digitally linking military simulators in participant states.
Exercises should be conducted at two levels: first, military coordination and cooperation, and a second level for Coast Guard, humanitarian and disaster-relief operations. This should give Asian nations more palatable options for advancing cooperation. For example, it would be easier to qualify actual participation in relief operations by Taiwan, whose geostrategic position is crucial to any future system of stability for free Asian states. It would also give countries such as India, Malaysia and Indonesia opportunities for cooperation without appearing to join an “alliance.”
Secure digital linkages can also be expanded to allow countries on China’s periphery to contribute radar and other sensor data to a “central server,” perhaps located in Guam, allowing access to the collected data by all participating nations. For instance, it would be possible for both India and Taiwan to share sensor data that could provide the other with nearly immediate advance warning of distant Chinese military preparations.
Until China changes its aggressive tactics, it should not be invited to participate in RIMPAC, which it has been for 2014. Including China is clearly inconsistent with the goal of preparing for an increasing Chinese threat. However, realizing such new levels of informal military cooperation will also require the United States to modernize and strengthen its military deterrent, reverse its nuclear disarmament and accelerate investments in new theater missiles and energy weapons. Such preparations would go far to reassure U.S. allies and friends that U.S. leadership is going to be backed by new strength.
Retired Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations. Richard D. Fisher Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.