China: The Challenge Facing America and the Pacific

by Stephen Bryen

Prepared for delivery at the Baron Lecture Series, Rutgers University, Camden New Jersey, April 18, 2018

It is an honor to speak to you today about China and the challenge facing America in the Pacific.

I do not believe you can speak about the United States in the Pacific without an overall description of American Power as it looks in 2018.

The United States is a superpower, meaning that in raw terms it is the most powerful nation state in the world. But raw power does not always translate into political power. In fact, when we look from the perspective of political power, the United States has lost a lot of ground in the past decade, even though it has been at war for 17 years in Afghanistan and on and off for nearly two decades in Iraq. Most recently we have troops in Syria and we are helping Saudi Arabia and the UAE in their fight in Yemen against the Houthi insurgency which is backed by Iran. But the overall results for the United States are mixed at best. Afghanistan grinds on and no one wants to leave because they don’t want to face the repercussions at home. Iraq is all but lost, because it is now dominated by the Shi’a religious faction and supported by Iran. Lebanon is now firmly in the hands of Hezbollah and is a client of Iran. And the Syrian regime, which at one time we wanted to liquidate, is now in control of more of its territory since the civil war started and has the support of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah (with Iran also bringing in many thousands of foreign mercenaries). And the Saudis are losing, not winning in Yemen.

I think we can be very proud of our hero warfighters which, incidentally also includes my own daughter who served two tours in Iraq. But our soldiers, sailors, marines, National Guard, Reserves and airmen are worn out from too many deployments, and to a degree they are starting to realize that the results of their efforts are far from positive. Worse still, one of the consequences of modern war, no matter how pure intentions may be, is to alienate the local populations who suffer heavy casualties and deprivation. One of the reasons America is not popular in places as far flung as Korea and Iraq is because the American way of war, which features maximum force against the enemy, is a definite negative when it comes to the hearts and minds of local people who become victims.

If our warfighters are worn down, so is our equipment which has fallen into disrepair, aided and abetted by an unwillingness in both the administration and Congress to appropriate the funds needed to provide repairs, spare parts and necessary upgrades. While some effort now is being made to fix up broken down war material, and money is becoming available, many items cannot be salvaged or it isn’t cost effective to do so. Thus while we will spend some 1.5 trillion dollars on the F-35 so-called joint strike fighter, the overall readiness of America’s military forces is still lagging.

In Europe we have tried to persuade our NATO allies to do more to contribute to the common defense, especially as Russia has shown more aggressiveness both in the Baltics and in the Black Sea region. But in respect to our allies, trying to wring water from a stone is about all that can be said of the effort. Germany, for example that used to have almost 3,000 tanks that could defend German and NATO territory, now has only a few hundred and most of them are in disrepair. For example the Bundeswehr ninth tank brigade in Münster only has nine operational Leopard 2 tanks — even though it promised to have 44 ready for NATO deployment. And even those tanks lack spare parts.

The German Air Force is also in pretty bad shape, and again the lack of spare parts and even pilots is manifest. The Luftwaffe’s main forces, the Eurofighter and Tornado fighter jets and its CH-53 transport helicopters, are only available for use an average of four months a year — the rest of the time the aircraft are grounded for repairs and rearmament.

Britain, our closest ally is also sinking fast in military terms: the British Army is now smaller than when it tried to stop the American Revolution in 1776; in fact smaller still since in those days British forces were augmented by Hessian mercenaries. A former British Armed Services Minister, Sir Mike Penning says many of Britain’s military operations, especially NATO-related, are in trouble because of over deployment and lack of funds. Troops sent to cold Eastern Europe to shore up NATO defenses go there with light desert vehicles because they don’t have useable tanks ready; Royal Navy Frigates tracking Russian submarines can only stay at sea for a maximum of six days because they are so short staffed. The former Minister adds that “The Army is too small. An army of 82,000 does not give us enough ready troops to deploy.”

So when we look overall, the United States is facing serious challenges in the Middle East, with no clear path to recovery and in Europe where NATO is very weak –one is reminded of the Paul Simon song, Slip Slip Sliding Away.

But America because of its geography and its interests looks across two oceans –the Atlantic and the Pacific. And to that we can add that the US Navy also protects the sea lines of communications or SLOCS that assure the transport of vital energy supplies all the way from the Persian Gulf, through the Indian Ocean and on up to Japan and Korea. The protection of the SLOCS is a major activity that assures that our allies understand that it is the U.S. that assures their security, their economies and their trade.

If we look at the flow of Middle Eastern oil to Asia, there are three significant choke points: the Straits of Hormuz, the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea. And guess what? In two very sensitive ones, Hormuz and the South China Sea the United States may have lost its ability to keep them open.

The Strait of Hormuz is a vital waterway that bridges the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. On the one side is Dubai, and on the other is Iran. Dubai is part of the United Arab Emirates. There are around 50,000 Americans there and there are also around 3,500 American military personnel stationed at the Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi. The base, which is operated jointly, is one of the key US military bases in the region. Should the situation deteriorate with Iran, Iran can disrupt commercial traffic that would flow through the Hormuz straits.

The South China Sea has dramatically changed in the past few years, with China asserting control over a number of island that control all sea traffic through the South China Sea. To show they mean business, China recently sent out a patrol there in a 40 ship military task force –the show of force included China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailing in formation with at least 40 submarines, destroyers, frigates and other ships. “The South China Sea and East China Sea will be primary battlegrounds,” Chinese military expert Song Zhongping told the government-controlled Global Times newspaper on March 25. “The [People’s Liberation Army] is committed to be battle-ready through simulated combat training.”

Since the end of World War II, security through these passages has been assured by the United States for areas that include the Taiwan straits and the Ryukyu Islands where the Miyako Strait (宮古海峡 Miyako Kaikyo), also known as the Kerama Gap, lies between Miyako Island and Okinawa Island. The US has an important Marine base on Okinawa that houses the Third Marine Expeditionary Force and the Kadena Air base that features the USAF 18th Wing, the 353d Special Operations Group, reconnaissance units, 1st Battalion, 1st Air Defense Artillery, and a variety of associated units. Over 20,000 American servicemembers, family members, and Japanese employees live or work at Kadena.

While the US deployment especially to Japan is strong and getting stronger with the addition of the F-35 stealth jet to the arsenal, the US is short on ships and especially aircraft carriers. At any one time typically the US can field four or five carriers to cover the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and the Pacific. While during President Trump’s visit to Asia, the US was able to field seven, this was most extraordinary. The US also was able to get three carriers on duty as part of the power play aimed at North Korea. But regular and sustained deployments are a major problem for the Navy.

But despite recent American shows of strength which includes a Freedom of Navigation exercise in the South China Sea and the visit of the carrier Carl Vinson to DaNang, Vietnam, sending a message to China, these steps while welcome haven’t yet changed the algebra in the region.

Meanwhile China also is featuring stealth aircraft, deploying its newest one, the Chengdu J-20 in the South China Sea. It should not surprise anyone that the J-20 looks very like the US F-22 Raptor.

China has had an almost free hand in the South China Sea. 

China installed new missile shelters, radar/communications facilities, aircraft runways and other infrastructure on the islands of Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs in the South China Sea. China also denounced an ICJ ruling in 2016 that found China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea invalid.

Bowing to heavy pressure from China and not trusting the United States, the Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte denounced Washington even after he received some praise from President Trump and has signed more than 14 deals with China, including an agreement to start buying Chinese arms. It isn’t clear that the highly idiosyncratic leader of the Philippines is simply acting on his own impulses or whether his appeasement of China is a pattern of behavior that will repeat itself across the region.

It is China’s objective to control all the islands in the First Island Chain because, by doing so China would be in a strong position to push the Americans out of the area and thereby control the destinies of all the countries linked to the First Chain, including Vietnam, the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia, Borneo, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. Even Russia is likely to be affected as China strengthens its control over disputed territories and is probably behind agitation in many of the countries near the First Island Chain.

For example China is attempting to open a new front in its territorial dispute with Japan by questioning Tokyo’s sovereignty over the island of Okinawa, home to 25,000 US troops and to the Ryukyu islands.

In late March, 2018 the Japanese emperor Akihito and his wife, the empress Michiko paid a surprise visit to Japan’s southernmost island in the Ryukyu chain that lies some 67 miles from the east coast of Taiwan. Akihito who has sat on the Chrysanthemum Throne since 1989 is due to retire next year. His purpose in visiting Yonaguni Island was to send a message, a positive one to Taiwan, that Taiwan is in the emperor’s thoughts. While the world press paid no attention, certainly China’s military establishment took careful note.

If Japan is wise it will have to seriously strengthen its defenses and build more effective alliances to counter the military and political moves by China.

To defend Okinawa and the Ryukyu islands, Japan is planning to move anti-ship missiles to Okinawa, especially since China sent a flotilla of military ships and fishing boats to demonstrate power to the Japanese.

One needs to keep in mind that Japan’s Self Defense Forces are, on the whole very weak. Japan has spent very little on defense, has dragged its feet on missile defense, and is only now starting to integrate its army, setting up a new central command post and unifying its five regional commands. Japan’s strength is in air power, which is modern and will be augmented by the F-35, and in excellent diesel-electric AIP submarines.

Today no one knows to what extent China can influence internal Japanese politics. There is little love lost between Japan and China, given Japan’s record in China that resulted in some 13 million dead between 1931 and 1945. But Japanese business interests lean more and more in the direction of China and trade and economy may trump military and defense efforts.

Everyone in the region is well aware of China’s One Belt One Road infrastructure initiative or BRI. The BRI is one of the largest infrastructure and investment mega-projects in history, covering more than 68 countries, equivalent to 65% of the world’s population and 40% of the global GDP as of 2017.

The BRI covers six corridors:

New Eurasian Land Bridge, running from Western China to Western Russia through Kazakhstan.

China–Mongolia–Russia Corridor, running from Northern China to Eastern Russia

China–Central Asia–West Asia Corridor, running from Western China to Turkey

China–Indochina Peninsula Corridor, running from Southern China to Singapore

China–Myanmar–Bangladesh–India Corridor, running from Southern China to Myanmar

China–Pakistan Corridor, running from South-Western China to Pakistan

Maritime Silk Road, running from the Chinese Coast through Singapore to the Mediterranean

Anticipated cumulative investment for these projects over an indefinite timescale is variously put at US$4 trillion to US$8 trillion.

If China is successful and the economics of this massive venture pan out, there are some important consequences that include that China will become the world’s economic superpower, far surpassing the United States; and if China can secure its perimeter and control the Sea Lanes of Communication, it will also soon become the most powerful country in the world. There are already plenty of signs that China has passed the tipping point in its long term plan.

But for China to be successful, China’s leaders probably believe that they must push the United States back and increasingly lure Japan and Taiwan into shifting their alliance from the United States to China.

In regard to Taiwan, which sits in the middle of the First Island Chain and thus is the most strategic location of any, the process of reintegration was fairly far along before the DPP captured the Presidency of the ROC and took control of the Legislative Yuan on the island. In the years before the second DPP Presidency, the Kuomintang Ma government was well along on shifting industrial partnerships into China and working toward a political solution they could sell to the people of Taiwan.

For a period after the recent election election, China reacted in highly negative ways to the DPP, which is a pro-Taiwan independence party. But we can already see signs of a change in China’s strategy, setting aside some of the rhetoric one hears. China has created a set of 13 incentives for Taiwanese citizens to work in China in attractive and well paying jobs, especially in IT and engineering. And China is soliciting Taiwan’s artistic community, especially TV and film to operate in China, obviously under Chinese communist guidance. In fact, China is carrying out a brain drain of Taiwan not only to get talented people but also to influence the families of the upper middle classes on the island demonstrating, they hope that working with, rather than against, China is a good idea. 

In addition, even factions in the DPP especially those with old family connections to the mainland are trying to propose a new approach, turning Taiwan into a neutral country as a step in setting a political framework that they think the Chinese might find a way to accept. Whether this armed neutrality approach, spearheaded by former Vice President Annette Liu will be accepted isn’t clear; but it will –even if her proposed plebiscite on the subject fails– set the stage for a two step arrangement: detaching Taiwan from the United States and making it clear Taiwan does not want to be seen as any enemy of China. One can, for example expect corollary steps in line with a neutral Taiwan such as important reductions in Taiwan’s defense programs and a speed up in dialog with China if China’s leadership decides to exploit this opportunity.

Indeed the loss of Taiwan, whether peacefully or by invasion and war would be a major blow to the United States and Japan. Clearly the Japanese are starting to figure this out, since the southern Japanese islands and Okinawa are, for starters, at risk if Taiwan decides it is a Chinese province after all. Some smart young Japanese politicians such as Keisuke Suzuki, a vice-minister and member of Japan’s House of Representatives, grasps this danger and is speaking out about it, even visiting Taiwan to share the message.

Another wild card is found toward the topmost of the First Island Chain, namely Korea. The US is heavily engaged in Korea, has a mutual defense treaty and is involved with South Korea is trying to convince North Korea to get rid of its nuclear weapons and ICBMs. Many in Washington are wondering if this is a trap for the United States.

As we know, China has inserted itself heavily into the Korean equation requiring Kim Jong-un to hustle off to Beijing for “informal” meetings where he was surely given guidance by China and allegedly proposing 6 Power Talks which the Chinese leader Xi suggested reducing to four, removing Japan from the list.

But the real risk, even for China too, is that South Korea and North Korea will cut their own deal which could well be a deal that is below the minimums the US wants out of any agreement, especially on controlling nuclear weapons.

We need to keep in mind that the main North Korean nuclear threat is focused on the US and Japan. It is not a major issue in South Korea.

The South Korean government is decidedly leftist and not enthusiastic about the US presence in the country. Recently South Korea sent the K-Pop touring group to Pyongyang to entertain Kim and his cohorts.

“The performers sang of the ardent desire of the fellow countrymen for national reunification hands in hands,” reported the North’s official KCNA agency.

Part of North Korea’s objectives, and certain China’s is to see the US pull out of South Korea, or at minimum the removal of the THAAD missile defense system from South Korea. Behind the scenes the Chinese are also pressuring Japan not to adopt THAAD or anything like it. Keep in mind that the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in also wants Thaad out.

In sum we have a vastly changed situation in East Asia and North Asia, all of which points to a major challenge for the United States which risks seeing its allies essentially shift alliances in the near term. It has already happened in the Philippines. It is a risk in Taiwan. Japan is in mild confusion, and Korea is hard to predict. 

Missing is any clear American strategy. Will the United States concede the inevitable and will the Asia “pivot” turn out to be the Asian failure? Will America go on the path of appeasing China or confronting growing Chinese power? Will Congress ask, Who Lost Asia? These are questions that as yet have no clear answers.