By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.
On September 30 the U.S. Department of Defense released its long-awaited Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), a document that been used by successive administrations to convey its strategic military intentions. Early expectations that this QDR would be Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s blueprint for transforming the U.S. military to fight wars in a new era have been put overtaken by numerous Pentagon and political pressures, and a renewed emphasis on homeland defense following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
This QDR, however, makes several statements of intent that, if fulfilled, will affect U.S.-China relations. But it is important to note at the outset that the QDR does not once mention the word “China.” This can be understood in the context of current antiterrorist coalition politics. But the QDR does address the need for America to be better prepared to address contingencies in the “East Asian Littoral,” which is the “region stretching from the South of Japan through Australia and into to the Bay of Bengal.” The QDR also calls for an increase in U.S. forces in the “Western Pacific.” This QDR emphasis, an unnamed Defense Department official told the Washington Times, “implements President Bush’s campaign rhetoric about viewing China as a competitor and not a partner.”
The QDR directs the U.S. Navy to “increase aircraft carrier battlegroup presence,” but not necessarily increase the number of forward-deployed aircraft carriers beyond the one 7th Fleet carrier stationed in Japan. However, new naval force to be deployed to the Western Pacific will include “an additional three to four surface combatants, and guided cruise missile submarines (SSGNs).” The U.S. Air Force is directed to “ensure sufficient en route infrastructure for refueling and logistics,” which may mean an increase in forward deployed refueling and transport aircraft. And in “in consultation with U.S. allies and friends,” the navy “will explore the feasibility of conducting training for littoral warfare in the Western Pacific for the Marine Corps.”
QDR DECISIONS IMPLY NEW BASES
This latter intention points to a possible requirement to increase the number of U.S. “bases,” in the Western Pacific. The Clinton administration had already decided to send submarines to Guam, which could accommodate more forces if needed. But to maximize the benefits of forward-deployed support aircraft, and to find new training areas for the Marines, Washington may have to look to the Philippines. Though U.S. forces left the Philippines in 1992, this country is a U.S. treaty ally, and offers the ideal geostrategic “pivot” location for supporting U.S. military operations in the East Asian or Persian Gulf. And since taking power this past January, the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has been sending consistent signals that is its willing to rebuild military cooperation with Washington.
Should the United States move to increase its regional presence and increase cooperation with the Philippines, Beijing is sure to complain, having long made clear its opposition to the U.S. military presence in East Asia. Behind the scenes Beijing has worked to undermine U.S. influence in Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines in the hopes of weakening their military ties to the United States. And Beijing has led a loud public campaign against American-Japanese missile defense cooperation, as it has applauded South Korea’s reluctance to engage in the same. Beijing has even in recent months received delegations of Okinawans who have long sought to remove critical U.S. Air Force and Marine bases there.
Beijing’s near-term goal is to ensure that U.S. allies in East Asia do not assist U.S. military forces in the event the PRC decides to attack Taiwan. The exit of U.S. forces from the Philippines was a victory for Beijing, as it reduced the possibility that U.S. forces could open a Southern front in time to assist Taiwan. So the reestablishment of a U.S. presence in the Philippines would serve to diminish PRC confidence in the success of a Taiwan War, and contribute to deterrence. Likewise, an increase in aircraft carriers presence and an increase forward-deployed surface and subsurface warships will also help to deter the PRC.
But for how long? It is increasingly apparent that the PRC understands that the “tyranny of distance” is a key U.S. weakness in a Taiwan conflict. The PRC’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is assembling capabilities to disrupt U.S. deployments to the Western Pacific, such as through cyber warfare and antisatellite weapons to attack U.S. intelligence and communication satellites. In addition the PLA is increasing the number of missiles, cruise missiles, submarines, aircraft and commando forces that could attack U.S. naval and air forces–even in their forward-deployed bases in Japan and Okinawa. And finally, the PLA is massing the missile, air and ground forces necessary to ensure the Taiwan War is concluded before the United States has the time to respond.
QDR DECISIONS DELAYED
It is indeed laudable that the Bush administration recognizes the requirement to increase the U.S. military presence in the Western Pacific, but its ability to do so may come into conflict with other elements of the QDR. First, the QDR foregoes the traditional requirement that the United States be able to fight two major regional conflicts. As a consequence, the QDR does not envision any real increase in U.S. air or naval forces. So increasing aircraft carrier presence in the Western Pacific, already a difficult prospect given that the twelve existing carriers are overtasked, will be even more problematic given the requirements of the War on Terrorism. The same would hold true for overstressed U.S. transport and refueling aircraft units, and for critical antiradar aircraft and intelligence aircraft, already too small in number.
In addition, the QDR defers decisions regarding the “transformation” of the U.S. military, or the building of a high-technology force which can attain new heights of superiority over potential foes like the PRC, and thus better sustain deterrence for a longer period. The inability of the Clinton administration to pursue fundamental reforms generated an early desire by some in the Bush administration to reduce existing U.S. conventional forces in order to afford new advanced technologies. However, fighting a war on terror while deterring more conventional wars may mean that that the United States cannot afford the luxury of implementing far-reaching reforms. Instead, the QDR reaffirms existing trends to build more unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, new space-based radar satellites, and to convent ballistic missile submarines to carry cruise missiles.
NEED FOR GREATER INVESTMENT
To be sure, quickly building these systems can contribute to deterrence on the Taiwan Strait, but it is also well known that the PLA is investing heavily in high-tech forces. The PLA’s known interest in building laser weapons, anti-satellite weapons, cyber warfare, and a Joint Warfare capability will only place greater pressure on U.S. forces. To stay ahead America will have to be able to conduct defensive and offensive space warfare such as with space-based lasers. And it must be able to bring massive nonnuclear force to bear on the Taiwan Strait within hours. This will require more submarines outfitted with nonnuclear missiles on patrol in the Western Pacific, and greater forward-deployed air, naval and ground forces, such as in the Philippines.
By recognizing the need to increase U.S. forces in Asia, the QDR makes a positive contribution to U.S. security and to deterrence in Asia. China will not like this message. However, by failing to increase U.S. force levels and by delaying much needed “transformation” modernization issues, China could also conclude that a pre-occupied America is less able to sustain a level of conventional military superiority necessary to thwart an attack on Taiwan. Winning the current war on terrorism and deterring future wars may require a far greater U.S. military investment than envisioned by the QDR.
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is the managing editor of China Brief.