Budget cuts have left US President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia without any real teeth and may in the process have increased Taiwan’s vulnerability, a team of US military experts said on Wednesday.
With one exception, Beijing’s warship building program has followed moderate growth, National War College professor Bernard Cole said.
The exception, he said, was that since 2000 China has built almost 40 conventionally powered submarines in addition to a new class of nuclear-powered boat.
“I think this represents what is for Beijing the No. 1 strategic objective — the status of Taiwan,” Cole said.
He told a panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation that if China decides to use force against Taiwan to prevent independence it will rely heavily on submarines.
“If they can sortie two or three dozen submarines, that would slow or prevent effective US naval intervention for quite a period of time,” Cole said. “Hence, they continue to build conventionally powered submarines.”
Cole said that China’s nuclear-powered submarine program was in “something of a hiatus,” but that Beijing still intends to develop nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines.
The panel discussion titled “What Asia Pivot?” also included former US secretary of the navy David Winter, Vanderbilt University military expert James Auer and senior Heritage Foundation fellow Bruce Klingner.
They agreed that the Obama administration’s defense strategy and its “pivot” have been undercut by a lack of resources.
“Even as the number of threats to global peace and stability continues to multiply, there has not been a commensurate increase of US capabilities,” a Heritage Foundation introduction to the discussion read.
“To what degree will massive defense cuts and reductions in the overall US military structure constrain America’s global power projection and force sustainability in the Pacific?” it asked.
The greatest worry for the US right now is the Chinese submarine fleet, Auer said.
“There is no pivot in the Asia pivot, it is a change in focus rather than forces,” he said.
Cole said that in every Taiwan crisis from 1950 to 1996 Beijing miscalculated what the likely US response would be.
“In some of those cases it had to do with statements by political leaders in [the US], but in other cases it had to do with [Beijing’s] observation of where US forces were committed,” Cole said. “I could easily foresee a situation where the aircraft carrier George Washington was undergoing a complex overhaul and where two other carriers were in the Persian Gulf.”
He said in those circumstances a Chinese naval planner might conclude it would take the US weeks to get a carrier in place.
As a result, Cole said, the planner might “paint a certain tactical picture” that could lead the People’s Liberation Army to make “certain strategic recommendations” to the leadership in Beijing.
“I think the Chinese very carefully track where possible opposing naval forces are located,” Cole said.
A reduction in the US fleet as a result of budget cuts could lead the US Navy to cut its presence in Asia.
The discussion took place as Taiwan was receiving the first of 12 P-3C Orion anti-submarine aircraft from the US. The other 11 are due to be delivered by 2015.
The aircraft can detect submarines on and below the surface, and carry powerful anti-ship and anti-submarine attack weapons.