There is growing concern in Washington, shared by Democrats and Republicans alike, about the security situation in the Asia-Pacific region. This concern stems from year-after-year increases in China's defense spending, its assertive behavior toward its neighbors in maritime Asia, its anti-satellite testing and its persistent cyber operations against a number of countries.
We all find the idea of war with China almost unimaginable, and it is something we must all work to avoid, as there would be nothing but losers in such conflict. To keep the peace, the U.S. and its allies have adopted a balanced approach that combines elements of engagement and cooperation with the application of competitive strategies and security hedging. China, the U.S. and Japan are partners on some political and economic issues, but we are also security competitors in the region, vying to maintain or establish a favorable distribution of power. While our engagement activities vis-a-vis China are fairly mature, more attention needs to be paid to hedging or security-balancing activities.
Over the last few years, the policies of the U.S. and many countries in maritime Asia have shifted more toward hedging. This is a direct result of concerns about China's growing assertiveness and its incremental, opportunistic approach in expanding its military and paramilitary presence in the East and South China seas. China is gradually and insidiously attempting to unilaterally alter the status quo of the region. If China continues on this course, it can expect further counterbalancing efforts by the U.S., Japan and other countries in the region. The choice rests with China.
It is unclear what China's future trajectory will be. Will Beijing continue antagonizing its neighbors over maritime disputes? Will China be able to sustain its rapid economic growth? How will it manage its demographic and environmental challenges? Will it continue making double-digit annual increases in its military budget? We all have an interest in helping to ensure that China is prosperous and stable. Nevertheless, we must also be prepared for more erratic Chinese behavior. As China faces internal challenges and the delegitimization of communist ideology, it may turn to picking fights with its neighbors to appeal to nationalistic sentiment domestically. This is a very dangerous dynamic.
It remains our hope that we will see an improvement in relations and greater engagement, but again, this is largely China's choice. There are opportunities for China to step back and consider real, substantive improvements in its strategic relationships. Our response to China should be condition based. We should reward China for good behavior, but we need to stand firm and show strong resolve when confronting problematic behavior, including regional bullying and tactics to alter the regional status quo.
Six important areas
To strengthen the hedging element of our strategy, there are six areas in particular where Japan and the U.S. should strive to bolster their alliance.
First, Japan's Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military must get better at operating inside the so-called anti-access/area denial, or A2AD, perimeter of a potential adversary. The question is how to ensure the ability of our military forces to survive and sustain operations so that we can deny a potential adversary any advantage from aggression or coercion inside of that area.
Second, complementing the ability to operate inside an adversary's A2AD perimeter, the U.S. has to improve its capability and capacity to operate from outside the range of a hostile A2AD perimeter and to successfully penetrate sophisticated area-denial networks from the air, from undersea, from space, and through the electromagnetic spectrum, including cyberspace. Some of these capabilities may be expensive, but what really matters is not how much a system costs but what the cost-exchange ratio is. If you spend $1 on a penetrating weapon system such as a new strike aircraft or a new submarine, and your opponent has to spend $4 to counter it with air defenses or anti-submarine warfare capabilities, it may be a wise investment because it imposes disproportionate costs on your rival, or creates a vexing military problem they must solve.
Third, we must consider how we can turn the problems of A2AD against an opponent and how Japan and other countries can develop their own A2AD capabilities, particularly in the air and at sea, to protect their sovereignty. For the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force this means expanding its capacity for air superiority, maritime interdiction and air and missile defense. For the Maritime Self-Defense Force it will require even greater emphasis on undersea warfare and mining operations. And the Ground Self-Defense Force will need to continue its shift toward the southwest region and give greater emphasis to coastal and island defense. All of the SDF will need to make greater surveillance contributions toward maritime domain awareness and radio-electronic operations.
Fourth, what can the U.S. as a global maritime power do beyond the military reach of an opponent? Against an opponent that is a continental power with A2AD but with very limited power-projection options, we may have advantages in other geographic areas and areas of competition that we can use to capitalize on an opponent's vulnerabilities.
Fifth, we have to do a better job addressing creeping aggression, or gray-zone conflict, and paramilitary actions. What sorts of options can we develop for de-escalating crises so that we can manage incidents at sea or other sorts of clashes that could occur without resorting to traditional military forces? Countries like Japan need strong coast guards with their own surveillance capabilities and robust nonlethal capabilities to de-escalate conflicts. The Japan Coast Guard also must have a greater degree of interoperability, and the ability to share information instantaneously, with the SDF.
And sixth, we must improve our ability to compete in the contest between intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance systems and the capabilities to counter such systems. We have to both improve our surveillance capabilities while also improving our ability to hold an opponent's surveillance, navigation, battle management and military communications capabilities at risk, and thereby deny him information dominance. The ability to do so may strengthen deterrence by reducing the opponent's confidence in the critical enablers needed to conduct offensive strikes.
A new framework
We must continue to evolve our operational concepts within the alliance. The debate over the Air-Sea Battle (an approach for addressing A2AD challenges) is healthy. A number of criticisms have been raised over the past several years.
One is that it is too expensive, but I would argue that what really matters are the cost-exchange ratios rather than the absolute costs of specific weapons systems.
Some have argued that ASB is highly escalatory by holding out the possibility of retaliatory attacks on the homeland of an opponent. There is no question that this could be escalatory, but it also depends on how a war starts. It is hard to imagine retaliatory strikes against an aggressor's homeland in response to very limited, creeping aggression because counterattacks would be disproportionate and therefore not a credible deterrent. But such response measures could help to deter massive pre-emptive strikes, in which it would be the adversary that makes the initial, highly escalatory move.
It also seems imprudent to me to rule out certain types of responses beforehand. It worsens deterrence to signal to a potential adversary in advance what you will not do in response to aggression. We want to increase the range of options available to our leaders in a crisis while constraining the options that are available to our opponents. Some alternatives to ASB are seemingly appealing because they appear cheaper and less provocative, holding out the prospect of avoiding total war. Some emphasize naval blockades. But paradoxically, if blockades are effective, they may be highly escalatory, perhaps even more escalatory than striking military targets in a country.
The real question is whether Japan really wants to risk losing some island in the hope that the international community will impose a blockade and that economic suasion alone will succeed over time in compelling an aggressor to relinquish their ill-gotten gains. How well has that worked over Crimea? Indeed, there is little historical evidence that such strategies ever succeed. The threat of a distant blockade could be an important part of an overall deterrence posture, but it is unlikely by itself to be an effective deterrent or to succeed in denying an adversary its objectives.
Air-Sea Battle is a military concept that calls for integrating air and naval forces to project power despite anti-access and area denial challenges.
Jim Thomas is vice president and director of studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C.-based policy research institute. He previously worked for the U.S. Department of Defense and led the 2005-2006 Quadrennial Defense Review as deputy assistant secretary.