Beijing’s view of American power as less of a constraint in Asia is boosting its willingness to pursue more aggressive risk-taking, putting a damper on Washington’s rebalance to the region, a major independent U.S. report has warned.
The report, conducted for the U.S. Defense Department by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and released last week, claims that — despite the U.S. rebalance — Beijing’s tolerance for risk has exceeded most expectations.
This has been most evident in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where Beijing has constructed military airfields and facilities on reclaimed islands in the Spratly archipelago despite rival claims by neighbors.
“This risk tolerance requires the United States to reassess its China policy and may lead allies and partners to do the same,” the study warns.
China’s more bellicose approach to foreign policy has also been seen in its management of ties with Japan, according to the report.
Beijing, the researchers say, believes that behaving like a traditional great power means that it must seek “Japanese acquiescence to a subordinate position” in both the bilateral relationship and overall regional power dynamic.
“Much of Beijing’s approach is designed to belittle Japan by creating a persistent sense of pressure while simultaneously increasing Tokyo’s sense of isolation,” the study’s section on Chinese foreign policy states.
Although ties between the two Asian rivals have improved in recent months, there is little evidence of change in Beijing’s approach as it attempts to carve out its new position in the region.
Chinese coast guard patrols continue to enter waters in the East China Sea near the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which Beijing also claims and calls the Diaoyus.
Late last month, Beijing even sent its first armed coast guard vessel into Japanese territorial waters around the islands. The ship, experts said, was likely a converted former naval frigate.
“I think that Chinese risk-taking is intended in part to consolidate gains before a different (and potentially more forceful) U.S. administration comes to power next year,” Zack Cooper, a fellow with the Japan chair at CSIS and a team leader on the report, said in an email.
According to Cooper, China’s risk-taking could peak over the next year as Beijing takes advantage of that window of opportunity. But if Beijing’s activities are driven by China’s perception of its growing power, then such risk-taking could increase in the years ahead, he said.
“Either way, Japan, the United States, and other regional players will need to develop policies that can ensure continued security by protecting core elements of the status quo,” Cooper said.
These attempts to change existing circumstances in both the South and East China seas have come in the wake of a U.S. rebalance hampered by the lack of a clear policy goals, budget cuts and other challenges faced by Washington, including a recalcitrant North Korea, the report says.
It lays out four recommendations for creating a more robust recalibration of U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific region.
First, after observing widespread confusion over the goals of the Asia shift throughout the government, it urges the U.S. to develop a single, coherent strategy for the rebalance.
According to Cooper, U.S. leaders have at times stated different priorities in discussing the rebalance, making the need for a clearer strategy more urgent. Such clarity would also make it possible to better assess progress, he said.
“CSIS polling has found concern about whether the implementation of the rebalance is sufficient, which may be due in part to uncertainty about the ‘ends’ the U.S. seeks, which calls into question whether the ‘ways’ and ‘means’ are sufficient,” Cooper said. “A consolidated strategy document would help alleviate this problem.”
Such a unifying document would also help reassure allies and partners — including Japan — which “often feel left out of U.S. decision-making,” the report says.
“A more coherent strategy would signal to Japan that the United States is fully committed to remaining in the region,” said James Kraska, research director at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law at the U.S. Naval War College. Kraska was not involved in the study.
Second, the report recommends Washington focus its efforts on bolstering allies and partners in the region, especially in the area of maritime security.
The study’s authors found growing concerns that security challenges are outpacing the capabilities of regional states, with many allies and partners struggling to mitigate risks, particularly those concerning disputes in the South and East China seas.
“Strengthening regional security capability, capacity, resilience and interoperability, requires a differentiated strategy that works with highly capable militaries like Japan, Australia, India, South Korea and Singapore while also assisting states in Southeast Asia struggling to meet basic defense needs,” the report recommends.
It also lauds whole-of-government efforts outside of the military’s traditional areas of expertise. However, it notes that more must be done in the region, citing the Japan Bank for International Cooperation as a potential financing arm for development efforts in the security realm.
The report also says that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s stated desire for Japan to play a more proactive role in international affairs has created an opportunity to strengthen the alliance by creating a joint operational command necessary for responding quickly to developing crises.
Third, the study says the U.S. should sustain and expand its military presence in the region, calling the planned move of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture a “critical” part of the realignment of U.S. forces.
With China’s increasingly assertive and capable air, naval and missile forces, the study said, there is also a need for a bigger U.S. presence in the region, especially that of aircraft carrier strike groups.
Currently, the USS Ronald Reagan, based in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, is the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed carrier.
But according to CSIS’s Cooper, 2019 presents a unique political opportunity to move a second carrier forward since the U.S. fleet is scheduled to add the USS Gerald R. Ford to the force, increasing the number of such vessels, and allowing the navy to put an older ship forward without removing a home-based carrier.
One possible location, the report said, is Yokosuka.
“The report makes a strong case to add an additional carrier to the fleet and defer retirement of an existing asset … which could join the forward-deployed naval force to Japan,” the U.S. Naval War College’s Kraska said in an email.
“Although Yokosuka has great infrastructure, it may not be operationally smart to put both (carrier) eggs in one basket,” he said.
Regardless of location, such a dispatch would send a strong message.
“Carrier strike groups provide substantial combat power as well as a strong reassuring and deterring force,” said Cooper. “Stationing another carrier forward would provide more time on station and a strong signal of the U.S. commitment to regional security.
“So if the United States is serious about rebalancing to Asia, this is certainly an option that should be considered,” he added.
Without this deterrent force, the report said, the South China Sea is likely to become a virtual “Chinese lake,” as Beijing is expected to possess multiple carrier strike groups by 2030.
“Whether they have seized territory or negotiated a resource-sharing scheme with some or all of the other claimants, the South China Sea will be virtually a Chinese lake, as the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico is for the United States today,” the report says.
Finally, the study’s fourth recommendation urges the acceleration and development of innovative capabilities and concepts, including technologies that can defend American forces and allies from emerging risks, such as ballistic missiles and asymmetric warfare threats, including anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) measures that China has worked to develop.
According to Cooper, Tokyo can play a central role in response to these challenges by Beijing.
“First, Japan can help to build systems (such as surface-to-ship missile batteries) to construct a countervailing A2/AD posture in the Ryukyus, which would constrain Chinese power projection during a conflict,” Cooper said. “Second, Japan’s asymmetric advantages, such as its outstanding Soryu submarine, can help the allies to leverage their expertise in certain capability areas that China cannot match in the near term.”
According to Cooper, the allies should also work together to develop new systems to offset the cost of defending against China’s air and missile threats, including advanced missile defenses using lasers, rail guns, and other technologies.
Overall, the report says, Japan’s “current strategic trajectory suggests it will remain a critical partner in supporting the U.S. rebalance as an anchor for regional stability and prosperity.”