Sun, Aug 10, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Reassurance and resolve in East Asia: The best US approach

By James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon

As territorial frictions involving China and many of its neighbors persist in the East and South China Seas, the US needs a clearer regional strategy. The US must simultaneously uphold its interests and alliance commitments and avoid counterproductive confrontation, or even conflict.

Doing so will be difficult, especially because it is not clear whose claims to the region’s disputed islands and outcroppings should be recognized, and the US has no intention of trying to impose a solution.

At the same time, the US must modernize its armed forces in response to new challenges — particularly China’s rise. As China develops advanced precision weapons to create a so-called anti-access/area-denial capability, the US must consider how to respond to the growing vulnerability of its bases and naval forces in the region.

There is no easy answer to these challenges. What is needed is a nuanced approach, which is what we develop in our new book Strategic Reassurance and Resolve.

Our approach is an adaptation of the US’ longstanding “engage but hedge” strategy, through which the US and its allies have used economic, diplomatic, and sometimes military instruments to give China incentives to rise peacefully, while maintaining robust military capabilities in case engagement proves unsuccessful.

The problem is that hedging has typically been interpreted to mean sustaining overwhelming US military superiority. However, China’s development and acquisition of advanced weapons, including precision anti-ship missiles, makes it implausible that the US can maintain its forces’ decades-long invulnerability in the region, including the ability to operate with impunity near China’s shores. Given China’s own history of vulnerability to foreign intervention, unilateral US efforts to maintain overwhelming offensive superiority would only trigger an increasingly destabilizing arms race.

Some US strategists advocate a largely technological solution to this dilemma. Their approach, a concept called “Air-Sea Battle,” implies a mix of defensive and offensive tools to address the new challenges posed by the proliferation of precision-strike weaponry.

Officially, the Pentagon does not direct the concept of “Air-Sea Battle” against any particular country. For example, Iran’s possession of precision-strike capabilities — and a much more hostile relationship with the US — would warrant new US initiatives to cope with growing security vulnerabilities.


However, it is clearly China, which has the resources to develop a credible anti-access/area-denial strategy, that most worries US military planners. Some Air-Sea Battle proponents propose tactical preemptive strikes on missile launchers, radars, command centers, and perhaps also air bases and submarine ports. Moreover, many of these attacks would be carried out with long-range weapons based on US territory, rather than at sea or on the territory of regional allies, because these assets would be less vulnerable to preemptive attacks themselves.

Unfortunately, Air-Sea Battle’s underlying logic poses serious risks of miscalculation — beginning with the name. Air-Sea Battle is, obviously, a concept for battle. Though the US clearly needs war plans, it also needs to be wary of sending China and regional partners the message that its hottest new military ideas base deterrence primarily on the ability to win a war quickly and decisively through large-scale escalation early in a conflict.

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