- By Tom Mahnken
The past two months have witnessed a series of revelations regarding China’s growing military power. In December 2010, Admiral Robert Willard, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, declared that the aircraft carrier-killing DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile had achieved initial operating capability. Last month, photographs and video of the J-20 fifth-generation stealth aircraft, a plane considerably more advanced than observers expected of China, appeared on the internet.
On Monday, Ross Babbage, the founder of Australia’s respected think tank, the Kokoda Foundation, issued a monograph, Australia’s Strategic Edge in 2030 that examined the changing military balance in the Western Pacific and its implications for Australia. It is a report that demands the attention of policy makers in Washington.
Babbage argued that China’s aggressive military modernization is rapidly undermining the pillars that have supported American presence in the Western Pacific for more than half a century. As he puts it, "China is for the first time close to achieving a military capability to deny United States and allied forces access to much of the Western Pacific rim." He catalogues China’s anti-access efforts, which include cruise and ballistic missiles that can attack ships and fixed targets; a massive investment in cyber-warfare capabilities, with reports of tens of thousands of Chinese cyber intrusions daily; new classes of both nuclear and conventionally powered submarines; a substantial increase in the Chinese nuclear stockpile; a huge investment in space warfare; and a massive increase in fighter bomber and other airborne strike capabilities.
Babbage argued that Australia will need to take drastic action in order to protect its interests in a region increasingly dominated by China. These include acquiring a fleet of 12 nuclear-powered attack submarines (the report hinted at leasing or purchasing Virginia-class SSNs from the United States), developing conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles, increasing Australia’s investment in cyber warfare, and hosting American forces on Australian soil.
Australia is one of America’s closest allies. When Canberra expresses such concerns, Washington should listen and take action. Specifically, the United States should seek ways to shape Chinese military modernization in ways that reduce the threat Beijing can pose to the United States and its allies. It should also look for ways to strengthen its key alliances in Asia, including that with Australia. Babbage’s paper offers useful ideas on both counts.
First, the United States should offer to lease or sell Australia Virginia-class SSNs. These submarines have the speed and endurance that Australia needs to protect its maritime interests. Moreover, such a move would offer a way to broaden and deepen the U.S.-Australia alliance. It’s a bold, even radical, idea, and there are plenty of barriers to it, but it is one that is well worth pursuing.
Second, the United States should consider developing a coalition intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance network in the Western Pacific to reassure our allies and friends and generate collective responses to crisis and aggression. By networking together U.S. and allied airborne sensors, participants would build a common picture of activity in the region. Such an approach could also represent a significant deterrent to hostile action. It would be harder for an aggressor to act without being caught, and an attack on the network would amount to an attack on all its members.
Third, the United States should harden and diversify its network of bases in the Pacific. The United States should protect and defend its bases to deter an attack upon them. Moreover, the Defense Department should examine a much broader and diverse set of bases in the region, to include stationing U.S. forces on Australian territory, if the Australian government so desires.
Finally, as I have previously argued, there is more that the U.S. armed services need to do to posture themselves to compete with China over the long term. That includes bolstering U.S. long-range strike and undersea warfare capabilities.
As Babbage’s report made clear, Chinese military modernization is reshaping the strategic environment. Safeguarding American and allied interests in the region will require concerted action, but we are fortunate to have allies who recognize the challenge.