The New Military Reality in East Asia
© 2014 FrontLine Defence (Vol 11, No 5)

With the absence of large-scale war for decades, the region of East Asia has been able to focus on economic development and prosperity. Such conditions have, in part, been predicated on the primacy of American military power and the acceptance of such a reality by regional states – ensuring that disputes and tensions do not escalate to conflict.

April 2014 – U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (left) and Chinese Lt. Gen. Song Puxuan, commandant of the National Defense University, shake hands after speaking to a military audience at the Chinese National Defense University in Beijing, China. (DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

In recent years, military dynamics are changing in the East Asia region as more states acquire capabilities that challenge (intentionality or not) the ability of the U.S. to maintain undisputed military supremacy.

In particular, China is increasingly viewing U.S. military power as more of an inhibitor than enabler to its continued emergence as a regional power. Beijing’s concerns do not constitute a comprehensive revisionist challenge but rather a dissatisfaction with the current strategic state of affairs. Through its military modernization program (evident in both development priorities and official defence discourse), China is authorizing the construction of capabilities (particularly naval) that are explicitly designed to counter and neutralize American military power in the region. These developments are part of (and a main contributor towards) a larger emphasis on military modernization of the maritime domain.

As a result, the region is entering a new reality where no one state will be able to achieve military supremacy of the sort Washington has enjoyed since the 1970s. This militarily multi-polar landscape raises concerns of the ability of the region to remain peaceful and stable. Acknowledging that multiple disputes and outstanding tensions have complex and interlinked causes, it is necessary to ensure military developments do not become self-deterministic and self-justified policies. Political strategies must recognize the need to avoid conflict while confronting non-traditional security challenges. Such endeavours will not necessarily arrest geopolitical competition, particularly within Sino-American relations, but may restrain the emergence of an arms races and zero-sum rivalry from becoming the dominant, overarching paradigm of the region’s politics.

China’s Short Term Focus in Naval Modernization
Unlike its continental periphery, which has seen significant improvements since the end of the Cold War (the resolution of a number of land border disputes, most importantly with India; and many positive military and strategic ties, such as with the Central Asian Republics), the coastal areas surrounding China are heavily influenced by U.S. military power. China’s poor military relations with neighbouring states results, in part, from a number of increasingly confrontational, maritime and island claims disputes.

For decades, China was content with U.S. military dominance as a means of constraining threatening actions by neighbouring states, such as the potential acquiring of nuclear weapons by Japan and South Korea and inhibiting Taiwan from declaring de jure independence. Over the last decade, however, there is a growing perception among Chinese officials and academics that U.S. military power, while previously seen as a guarantor of regional stability allowing China to focus on economic and social development, is now an inhibitor to continued emergence as a regional power. Clearly, the American ‘Pivot’ is seen as a strategy that is explicitly designed to constrain China’s power and influence.

Classified as a training ship, Liaoning is the first aircraft carrier commissioned into China's Navy.

Since the deployment of two American aircraft carrier battle groups during the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-1996, Beijing has become keenly aware of its strategic and military inadequacy in the maritime domain of East Asia. This has led to a comprehensive transformation of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) – historically a littoral and supportive military service to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – and China is now building a blue-water force capable of a variety of warfare and non-warfare operations in waters close to home and further abroad. This is evident by the diversity and extensiveness of China’s ongoing shipbuilding projects, with no less than seven major classes of naval platforms currently being built. These include: nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines, guided missile destroyers and frigates, amphibious vessels, oil replenishment ships as well as a nascent aircraft carrier program. Such developments are motivated by a number of interests including: bureaucratic competition within the military itself over funding priorities; a public sense of ‘naval nationalism’ (that acquiring such capabilities is both expected and a precondition for great power); and a desire to contribute to global security operations. Closer inspection, however, reveals that China’s naval modernization is largely (not exclusively) focused in the short term on developing capabilities which will neutralize American (and its allies) sea and air control over their adjacent seas.

Emphasized in repeated defence white papers, China’s doctrine is guided by the concept of ‘Offshore Defense’, a posture mandating the PLA to build capabilities and strategies necessary to fight and win ‘local wars of informationization’. Such measures are designed to inhibit interference in what are considered Chinese affairs including the eventual reunification of Taiwan, securing trade routes, building a robust sea-based nuclear deterrent, exclusively patrolling ‘maritime territory’ (ie maritime exclusion zone claims) and protecting overseas interests.

In response to the threat of ‘neointerventionism’, China is developing what American strategists have dubbed Anti-Access (A2) and Area Denial (AD) capabilities. A2 refers to restricting or controlling the entrance into a theatre of operations, while AD is focused on limiting the movement and actions by opposition forces within the theatre of operations. Such a guiding logic has driven Chinese investments in asymmetric capabilities such as ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines and cyber warfare, specifically challenging the US ability to maintain sea control via its aircraft carrier battle groups.

China is reportedly favouring the creation of an ‘anti-navy’ designed to provide A2/AD within East Asia against US naval forces and its allies. Furthermore, China’s sea denial strategies focus on increasing the ability to project force further at sea, specifically threatening American assets. China’s aim of eroding America’s ability to project power in East Asia, however, does not imply it is developing a sea control capacity. In fact, the expansion and effectiveness of sea-denial, does not necessarily translate into effective sea control.

China has no experience operating in battle groups centred on aircraft carriers, and would be vulnerable – not just from American attacks but other sea denial capabilities by regional neighbours such as Japan, South Korea and even Vietnam – in trying to exclusively control waterways in any meaningful sense. It remains uncertain whether China will invest the significant resources and time into sea-control capacities. The use of naval power for regional disputes and tensions is also unclear.

The PLAN could be employed in order to bring about a military centred resolution to these disputes, however, it is more likely that there may be a desire to establish a sphere of influence backed by military dominance to neutralize Washington’s influence – specifically, security guarantees to regional states that would allow China’s economic and political leverage to ultimately strong-arm its smaller neighbours towards a favourable solution for Beijing.

Caution is needed when interpreting these developments. Rather than the simple implementation of a well designed strategy, there is the real possibility that final decisions have not been set in stone and China is still in a period of construction within which outside influences can affect its future trajectory, from specific developments to its ultimate strategic aims.
The U.S. Pivot and Regional Unease
After years of intense involvement in the Middle East, combined with a wider appreciation of the geopolitical importance of the region, the U.S. officially stated (2011) a foreign and defence ‘Pivot’ (now renamed ‘Rebalance’) towards East Asia. The Rebalance, which includes diplomatic and economic aspects, militarily is centred on a redistribution of naval forces to favour the Pacific, reaffirming bilateral defence agreements with allies, and establishing new defence relations with other Asian states such as Vietnam. The U.S. considers the Rebalance as necessary to ensure stability during the emerging power realignments that are redefining the region. Rebalance does not take sides in territorial and maritime disputes but promotes resolution through regional and international institutional frameworks. Most important of all, American military power and leadership is seen as essential in maintaining regional peace and prosperity.

Air-Sea Battle
Despite the conciliatory and constructive tone emphasized in various U.S. pronouncements, Washington is concerned that Chinese military developments regionally could change diplomatic and strategic realities which have been conducive and supportive of their military dominance in the past. Counteracting A2/AD capabilities is specifically mentioned as a key military objective and has, in part, motivated the development of the Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept. Washington is quick to argue that the ASB concept is not a specific, detailed strategy, nor is it being developed against a particular foe, but is in response to growing military advancements in asymmetrical capabilities globally.

The purpose of the ASB concept is to neutralize sea-denial capabilities before they can erode allied sea control through disrupting command and control functions, destroying A2/AD platforms, and defeating an opponent’s theatre weapons. Given the depth, range and placement of certain weapons within China (such as land-based cruise and ballistic missiles), such a concept, if it ever were to be employed operationally, implies conducting longer range attacks beyond the immediate sea environment onto Chinese soil. This raises concerns that the ASB concept, while operationally sound, has grave strategic consequences because it immediately escalates to very high levels of intensity – presenting an all-or-nothing option in terms of responding to any sort of Chinese military action. Although the ASB is a military concept of operations in an evolving and sophisticated battle space, it offers no solutions to the strategic implications of China’s growing military capabilities, which stem from Beijing’s increasing economic and political power and influence.

Global Security
America’s renewed security involvement in East Asia also involves reaffirming and building new regional defence relations, including with Beijing. The U.S. has employed a ‘hub and spoke’ alliance strategy, developing bilateral security agreements with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Australia to ensure access to the region, support these states against foreign threats (including North Korea), and influence / constrain them from taking actions which unnecessarily escalate tensions with Beijing.

The U.S. welcomes China’s military developments but wants them employed towards global security issues of common interest (anti-terror, anti-piracy, humanitarian assistance) instead of inhibiting U.S. reach into East Asia. To its credit, China is increasingly becoming an interested and significant contributor to international security operations in the Gulf of Aden (and given special attention and emphasis in its defence white papers since 2004).

Another key aspect of the changing military reality in East Asia is the emerging intra-regional defence architecture established by states such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia. These can be defined by increasing exchanges, military exercises, and arms sales between them. For the U.S., ideally these would supplement their traditional hub and spoke bilateral alliance networks, easing defence burdens for Washington under tight fiscal restraints and deflect tensions with Beijing in order to create space to facilitate greater Sino-American strategic dialogue. At the same time, these relations may be beyond the degree of control and influence the U.S. has enjoyed in traditional bilateral arrangements. This phenomenon may reflect a certain amount of doubt regarding future U.S. security commitments to the region, thereby supplanting and not supplementing the bilateral defence network. Some countries, in particular Japan, are taking steps to develop more robust defence capabilities in case U.S. security guarantees erode. Japan’s purchase of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands (and plan to establish a military base on them), is the clearest example of a U.S. ally whose actions, regardless of their rational, may bring Washington directly in confrontation with Beijing due to security alliance – severely challenging neutrality on these matters.

East Asian states do not view the current strategic landscape as an either/or choice between the United States and China. Instead, balancing relations with both to facilitate stability and trade is the ultimate objective of many. However, the more assertive and obstructionist tone in Chinese foreign policy since 2008, has led many nations to seek out greater American involvement and co-operation. Washington’s acceptance of the growing power, influence, and indispensability of China in regional and global politics, therefore, is massaged by current strategic realities (largely regional unease regarding China’s rise) which are favourable to a renewed American re-engagement with East Asia.

The New Military Reality
Historically, maintaining stability and the status quo were mutually supportive. The newly emerging regional military reality, however, is altering that dynamic. This is in large measure the result of China’s military modernization efforts, which are aimed at marginalizing American military primacy in the region. Other regional states, meanwhile, are enhancing their military capabilities, which seek to restrict freedom of action and movement in the maritime domain. Although aimed largely at China, they also impact the United States. Neither will achieve their ultimate military objectives – for the U.S., a return to absolute military dominance; for China, the exclusion of American military power in the region. This reality must be acknowledged, but not succumbed to, as an inevitable security competition.

In this respect, China and the U.S. have managed their strategic relationship relatively well among these power changes – realizing an integrationist approach is the only real avenue forward. The region is not at a flash point; the desire for economic growth, prosperity, and the presence of nuclear weapons by China and the U.S. has massaged a rush towards militarization. While military spending is increasing in the region, is largely focused on qualitative improvements not quantitative growth, with most states dedicating only 1-3% of their Gross Domestic Product to defence.

While the largest, both in absolute size and yearly increases, China’s defence spending has largely followed pace with its economic growth over the past two decades, regardless of changes to foreign policy priorities and perceptions. If China’s defence expenditures are removed from the equation, East Asian defence spending increased by 4% in 2013 (behind that of South America, where no obvious military struggle dominates). With these figures in mind, therefore, it is a mischaracterization to state that East Asia is in the midst of, or at the brink of an impending arms race. A number of regional tensions could readily become flash points of conflict, and these matters inform, to a large extent, the trajectory of military spending and priorities (largely in the maritime domain), however, military power has not yet dislodged other economic and diplomatic options to resolve tensions. The threat remains, though, that military developments become ends in and of themselves, perceiving other states’ military developments through antagonistic lenses. Military presence in local disputes could take on a life of their own, risks placing the region on a more confrontational footing.

Equal or Divided?
Changes are needed in order to manage and adjust tensions while simultaneously building trust and cooperation. Specifically, China and the U.S. need robust and mutually invested channels of high communication for risk management, ensuring military developments and reactions to them are dealt with at the highest levels of government and not left in the hands of operational commanders. The Air Defence Identification Zone imposed by China in the East China Sea last year, while not illegal, raised such concerns. Specifically, the way it was abruptly announced – with no prior consultations or informing of neighbours beforehand – created uncertainty regarding the procedures for how Beijing would respond to violations by military aircraft of other nations. Was such a decision the responsibility of military commanders; or are political leaders involved?

Protocols and regimes designed to prevent and deal with collisions at sea involving naval vessels, particularly in regionally contested waters, are another desperately needed area of development after the near collision of USS Cowneps and a Chinese warship in late 2013. There must also be a continuation, despite ongoing disputes, to strengthen regional cooperation to combat non-traditional threats such as terrorism, piracy, proliferation, and in general ensure the open and free flow of maritime commercial traffic. This is already under­way, as evidenced by the increasing number of military exercises involving both the U.S. and China. For example: the regularly held Security and Economic Dialogue; cooperative anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden (2012-2013); and China’s participation for the first time in the RIMPAC exercise in 2014.

East Asia does not need a dramatic recreation of institutional networks to maintain stability and peace, but rather an infusion of strategic investment and reassurance from major regional players, specifically the U.S. and China. This will most likely require a transition away from a system dominated by American primacy to that of a few equal great powers; equal not in the sense of power and wealth but by the acceptance of others to be viewed as such due to their indispensability in maintaining regional stability by avoiding unnecessary geopolitical competition.

Increasingly, however, Beijing and Washington appear to be ‘divided by a common language’, disagreeing over notions of legitimacy, order, and governance. Both appear focused on the creation of parallel institutions meant to exclude the other, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, and the recent announcement of the BRICS Development Bank. It remains uncertain at this point whether East Asia’s institutional landscape can adjust to these new realities of power, which will become increasingly apparent in the latter half of this century.

Military forces are a crucial national asset and important in the maintenance of regional governance. Most likely, military spending will continue to increase but not rise drastically, despite the numerous tensions characterizing the region. Part of this is expected, and will be the product of growing national revenues due to increasing economic prosperity as well as the effectiveness of domestic lobbies and industries promoting military spending. The other part will be driven by strategic perceptions, specifically speculation on the future actions and intentions of China and the role the U.S. will play in the security architecture.

It is not the aggregate growth of military spending which is the most important indicator of stability or instability in the region, but specific military programs and their employment in regional matters. Current military development must be guided by political decisions within regional institutions focused on the maintenance of political stability fostering continued economic growth and interdependence among changing power realignments regionally and globally. Furthermore, military development must be carefully monitored to ensure it does not become self-justified or perpetuate ends that drive regional conflict and threaten the future.

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic based in Halifax, Canada. His work focuses on Canadian foreign policy in Asia, Chinese naval developments and the ongoing political transition in Myanmar. He has been published in numerous Canadian and international journals and is a regular contributor to the East Asia Forum. He can be reached at:
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