Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan took office on January 2 with the mantra “China, China, China.” Shanahan’s statement, his first as Pentagon head and coming as it did one day after the 40th anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-China diplomatic relations, was another indication that the Trump administration’s strategic shift in U.S. security policy is no passing fancy. If the administration is often derided for its distraction, haphazard policy making, and lack of focus, it has nonetheless taken a consistent line towards China, identifying it as the premier threat to U.S. interests. In so displacing terrorism, Iran, and Russia, the administration is accepting the risk of a much broader-based confrontation with China. It is also overturning four decades of U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific region.
To be sure, the U.S. position towards China was hardening before Trump took office. The Obama administration’s initial outreach to Beijing resulted in massive cyber-espionage, the militarization of Chinese-held islands in the South China Sea, and continued support for North Korea, among other things. Obama’s so-called rebalance to Asia was a response to China’s growing power, but the lack of follow through on Obama’s rhetoric resulted in further disruptive behavior by Beijing. Indeed, since the opening of relations with the United States in 1979, Chinese leaders have become used to American leaders talking tough and doing little to actually respond to Chinese provocations.
Some would pinpoint the original sin in Jimmy Carter’s rush to normalize relations before leaving office, during which America’s long-standing alliance with Taiwan was jettisoned and the Carter administration diluted the ambiguity of the 1972 Shanghai Communique regarding Taiwan’s status. Ignoring the difficulties posed by Washington’s stance, U.S. officials instead chose to assume that steadily integrating China into the global system would result in a correspondingly steady adoption by Beijing of Western norms (at least in foreign relations). In reality, decades of American policy incentivized opportunistic and aggressive behavior by China.
The list of Chinese provocations is well-known by now, but until the Trump administration placed the concept of great power competition at the center of its national-security strategy, Beijing had every reason to believe the pattern of bark and no bite would reassert itself. The Obama administration’s rebalance was initially welcomed by the nations of Asia, but then largely dismissed as it did nothing to curb Chinese behavior, and indeed was ineffective in preventing Beijing from its South China Sea island-building campaign and cyber aggression, to name just two threats.
It is thus surprising and disconcerting to Chinese officials that Washington appears to mean what it says, and is pushing back against some of Beijing’s interests, as in the arrest of a senior Chinese intelligence officer and the American-influenced detention of the CFO of telecommunications behemoth Huawei in Canada. Government and private academic of China’s continuing violation of intellectual property as well as its pervasive influence campaigns have raised awareness of Chinese activities in the United States (and around the world). Chinese President Xi Jinping’s response has been to tell Chinese military leaders to prepare for war, to confront U.S. Navy ships conducting freedom of navigation operations, and to reiterate that China will use force to prevent Taiwan from becoming independent.
Acting Secretary Shanahan’s challenge is the same one that bedeviled his predecessors: how to counter China’s military rise without either sparking an armed confrontation or being seen as a paper tiger, unwilling to do anything materially to change China’s calculus of the likely results of its actions. Shanahan has continued former Secretary Mattis’s increased use of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, something that the Obama administration was noticeably loath to do. He also may have more tools to bolster the U.S. presence in Asia, thanks to the “Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018,” (ARIA) introduced by Colorado Senator Cory Gardner (R) and signed into law by Trump on December 31, 2018. The act authorizes $1.5 billion annually for five years for enhancing U.S. relations with allies, continuing arms sales to Taiwan, deepening relations with India, strengthening cybersecurity, and continuing freedom of navigation and overflight in the region, among other priorities. ARIA is in some ways putting meat on the bones of the Obama-era rebalance, but with a broader set of policy goals and explicit acknowledgement of “China’s illegal construction and militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea and coercive economic practices.”
Legislation and rhetoric are one thing; having the ability to credibly defend U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific region is another. Shanahan would do well to listen to naval experts who are having a vigorous debate amongst themselves on how long the U.S. Navy could hold out in a conflict in Asian waters, given China’s overwhelming number of anti-ship missiles. Similarly, the U.S. military does not yet have a comprehensive strategy to defeat cyberattacks against U.S. GPS systems and computer networks, nor does it have plans to fight and prevail in a cyber-denied environment, where our communications are interrupted and our precision targeting capabilities may or may not be available. America’s aging legacy fighter aircraft face modern Chinese rivals, and the F-35 is not yet ready in sufficient numbers to form the backbone of U.S. airpower. Without ensuring that U.S. forces can operate against China’s modern military platforms and demonstrated asymmetric capabilities, the American security position in Asia, and its ability to assist allies and partners, will continue to be called into question.
Beijing may be facing a slowing economy, increased scrutiny of its propaganda and influence operations abroad, and pushback against its debt-trap diplomacy, but it has steadily built up its military power and concentrated on strategic regions such as the South China Sea. In facing a China with greater capabilities and an antagonistic attitude towards the United States, the U.S. cannot try to turn back the clock. Rather, it should hew to its consistent post-1945 policy of maintaining a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region so as to prevent an aggressive hegemon from threatening its underlying stability.
Maintaining a balance does not mean trying to counter China at every turn, but rather holding sufficient U.S. military power to undertake the defense of allies and strategic waterways, ensuring that our allies are prepared to defend their own vital national interests, and intervening early on when Beijing attempts to shift the balance of power in its favor. Chinese leaders should have no doubt that they would face defeat in any direct confrontation with the United States. Until the U.S. political and military leadership ensures that U.S. weaknesses are erased and gaps in our security strategy are plugged, American ARIAs won’t change China’s tune.