Andrew Krepinevich is president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
After more than a decade of steady increases, the Pentagon has been directed to reduce its projected funding by nearly $500 billion over the next decade as part of a larger effort to restore the country's economic foundation. Additional cuts — in the hundreds of billions of dollars — may be imposed pending the recommendations of the congressional "super committee" tasked with identifying more than $1 trillion in federal spending cuts.
As Lord Rutherford famously observed when his laboratory faced bankruptcy: "Gentlemen, we are out of money. We'll have to think." So too the Pentagon. The Obama administration has declared that allocating cuts of this magnitude must be informed by thinking — that is, they must be "strategy driven," to ensure that resources are allocated efficiently and effectively. Toward this end the Pentagon has established a group to identify the major strategic choices confronting the United States over the next decade.
Arguably the greatest strategic choice concerns how best to respond to China's rapid rise as a major power. Boasting the world's second-largest economy, Beijing has undertaken a decade-long military buildup of its People's Liberation Army, or PLA. Its focus is on the Western Pacific, declared a vital interest by every U.S. administration for more than 60 years, with security commitments to such allies as Australia, Japan and South Korea, and states like Taiwan. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates observed, China's "investments in cyber and anti-satellite warfare, anti-air and anti-ship weaponry, and ballistic missiles could threaten America's primary way to project power and help allies in the Pacific — in particular our forward air bases and carrier strike groups."
The rise of China has triggered a debate among policy experts. On one side sits those who advocate greater engagement. They focus on improving our economic and political relations as the path most likely to maintain stability and peace.
They are challenged by those who believe the U.S. and its allies should take steps to offset China's growing military power with the goal of retaining the stable military balance that has benefited all in the region, none more so than China.
Those who argue for shoring up the military balance, or hedging, point to a string of Chinese military provocations over the last decade — including Chinese fighter jets intercepting and striking a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft in international waters, a Chinese anti-satellite test that created huge quantities of space debris, incidents between Chinese and Japanese aircraft and ships in the East China Sea, and Chinese provocations against Vietnamese oceanographic survey ships in the South China Sea — as indicative of Beijing's growing aggressive tendencies, its lack of control over the PLA, or both. Absent some form of U.S. response, they argue, this kind of behavior will continue and risk triggering a war no one wants.
A careful examination of Chinese military articles and strategic culture suggests both sides may have a point. Although writings in its military journals strongly indicate the PLA sees the U.S. as its principal rival, Chinese strategy draws heavily from military theorist Sun Tzu, who declared "the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting." The objective of China's buildup may not be to wage war. Rather, Beijing may seek to steadily shift the military balance in its favor to the point where Washington can no longer credibly defend either its interests or its allies. In that case, war would not be necessary to ensure China's regional hegemony.
What is needed is a policy that combines elements of continued economic and political engagement with a military hedge. The latter would maintain the credibility of U.S. alliance commitments and preserve the military balance that has fostered unprecedented peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. Toward this end, the Pentagon has been working for more than a year to develop a new military concept — AirSea Battle — whose principal purpose is to preserve regional stability. It focuses on removing the temptation for Beijing to pursue its security objectives through aggression or coercion by maintaining a credible U.S. and allied capability to successfully resist such actions.
The AirSea Battle concept is now completed and awaits Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's decision.
If Panetta approves AirSea Battle, the question is how will it be implemented in an environment of fiscal austerity? The litmus test will be found in the Pentagon's willingness to shift the focus of its investments and in the response of America's allies and partners in the Western Pacific. In particular, capabilities that can perform effectively in the high-threat environment being created by China, such as the Pentagon's family of long-range strike systems, attack submarines and robust battle networks, must be protected from budget cuts. Equally important, allies and partners — Australia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, in particular — will have to contribute substantially more than they have in the recent past to preserve regional security.
If together they can demonstrate their determination to preserve stability in the Western Pacific by hedging against China's military buildup, the U.S. and its allies stand the best chance of convincing Beijing that the path toward achieving long-term security and prosperity lies in cooperating and collaborating with its neighbors.