The U.S. Is Losing Its Military Edge in Asia, and China Knows It

A Chinese fighter jet veered in front of an Australian military surveillance aircraft over international waters in the South China Sea last month and released metallic debris that was sucked into the Australian plane’s engines.

No one was reported hurt in the encounter, which Australia’s defense minister called “very dangerous,” but it added to a string of recent incidents that demonstrate China’s growing willingness to test the United States and its partners in Asia militarily.

China has systematically tracked U.S. warships in the region, its air force has staged intensifying incursions into Taiwanese and Japanese airspace, and its coast guard routinely harasses Philippine, Malaysian and Indonesian vessels. In recent weeks, Chinese fighter pilots have repeatedly buzzed Canadian military aircraft on a U.N.-sanctioned operation — sometimes raising their middle fingers at the Canadians.

As China’s armed forces grow in strength, sophistication and confidence, U.S.-led military deterrence in the Indo-Pacific is losing its bite.

Take the United States’ military presence in the region. It has about 55,000 military personnel in Japan and 28,000 in South Korea. Several thousand more are deployed across Australia, the Philippines, Thailand and Guam. This posture has barely changed since the 1950s. But plans to reinvigorate the U.S. presence have been stymied by inadequate budgets, competing priorities and a lack of consensus in Washington on how to deal with China.

The Pentagon has increased investments in cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence, and cyber- and space-based systems to prepare for a possible high-tech conflict with China in the 2030s. But the balance of power is likely to shift decidedly in China’s favor by the time they are deployed unless the United States brings new resources to the table soon.

President Biden this year submitted the largest defense budget ever in dollar terms, but much of the increase will be swallowed up by skyrocketing inflation. Mr. Biden, like former President Donald Trump, is thus falling short of a target of 3 percent to 5 percent real annual budget growth, a bipartisan goal set even before the Ukraine war and often cited as the minimum the Pentagon needs in today’s era of great-power competition.

While the U.S. military is globally dispersed, China can concentrate its forces on winning a future conflict in its own neighborhood. It now has the capability. China has the world’s largest navy and Asia’s biggest air force and an imposing arsenal of missiles designed to deter the United States from projecting military power into the Western Pacific in a crisis. China’s third and most advanced aircraft carrier is nearing completion, and other new hardware is being developed or is already in service.

Beijing is also raising alarm with its readiness to project that strength.

While much attention is focused on its behavior toward Taiwan, China is building and militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea. It also broke ground on an expanded naval port in Cambodia last week, which may one day provide its first military foothold in another Asian country. A security agreement with the Solomon Islands could lead to something similar, and Beijing is aggressively courting other Pacific nations.

America’s military position in Asia, by contrast, has been hampered by decades of preoccupation with Middle East conflicts. The war in Ukraine has morphed into a long-term $54 billion commitment and forced Mr. Biden to delay and redraft his administration’s National Defense Strategy and National Security Strategy — critical documents that lay out global priorities and resource needs — as officials grapple with how to manage China and Russia at the same time.

Mr. Biden’s team ended the lengthy and costly U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, but that has not freed up many resources for the Indo-Pacific. Washington must not lose sight of the fact that China is a far greater security threat than Russia, now and in the long term.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said “the Indo-Pacific is at the heart of American grand strategy” during a speech last week at the Shangri-La Dialogue defense summit in Singapore, but he offered little in the way of new resources or commitments.

To turn things around, the United States must prioritize the threat from China, reinforce its military strength in Asia and provide Australia, Japan and India more sophisticated military and technological capabilities to bolster a strategy of collective defense.

It should urgently expand the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which would direct additional spending toward strengthening the U.S. military presence west of Hawaii by distributing forces more widely through the region, improving logistics and air defenses, and other measures. These are necessary to reduce exposure of U.S. forces to China’s long-range missiles and increase the locations from which they could operate in a crisis. But this initiative has suffered from insufficient funding and criticism that its top priorities were not being met.

The United States could also strengthen its military posture in the region by increasing from five to six the number of attack submarines home-ported in Guam, expanding maritime operations in the Pacific and deploying more advanced fighters, warships, drones and long-range missiles to the region.

But all of that may still not be enough. The challenge posed by China is becoming so great that the United States can no longer maintain a balance of military power in Asia by itself.

Washington took a bold first step toward sharing more of the burden through the AUKUS agreement announced last year, under which it will work with Britain to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines and codevelop other advanced military technologies in the interim. But the submarines won’t enter service until the late 2030s, and AUKUS’s other collaborative efforts will require difficult reforms to longstanding U.S. restrictions on sharing sensitive national security technology.

Washington should support Australian and Japanese aims to build long-range missiles on home soil by sharing intellectual property, provide more U.S. weaponry to India and beef up foreign military financing in the region, starting with a dedicated fund to boost Taiwan’s deterrence capabilities.

America has long neglected its defense strategy in Asia, viewing China’s challenge as important but not urgent. The scenes now playing out in Europe are a stark reminder of what can happen when deterrence fails.

Ashley Townshend (@ashleytownshend) is a senior fellow for Indo-Pacific security at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. James Crabtree (@jamescrabtree) is executive director of the Asia office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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