Report

U.S. Seeks to Counter China’s Full-Court Press in Asia

Top U.S. officials on trip to Asia under pressure to push back on Taiwan and maritime disputes.

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin arrives for a bilateral meeting with Japan's Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi at the Defence Ministry in Tokyo on March 16, 2021.
US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin arrives for a bilateral meeting with Japan's Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi at the Defence Ministry in Tokyo on March 16, 2021. Issei Kato/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Top Biden administration officials on their first tour through the Pacific are facing pressure from allies and parts of the U.S. military to respond to China’s increasing provocations, which senior defense officials see as part of an effort by Beijing to reset the American-led order in Asia by challenging territorial claims below the level of armed conflict.

China is pushing on multiple regional pressure points, from the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, to Taiwan, where the People’s Liberation Army Air Force has used near-constant incursions into their airspace to burn out Japanese and Taiwanese pilots and aircraft, officials said. 

“It’s like putting LeBron James on the court seven straight nights,” a senior defense official (speaking on condition of anonymity) said of the incursions into Taiwanese airspace. “The eighth night, it’s like, okay, I’m not so good, I need to put some ice on my knees. That’s what’s happening.”

Taiwan was the first issue the Japanese side brought up during a ministerial between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi in Tokyo, a second senior defense official who attended the meeting said. Taiwan also featured prominently in the so-called 2+2 meeting, according to a statement released afterward. Speaking to the media ahead of the meeting, Kishi described the Indo-Pacific security environment as “increasingly severe.”

The trips to Japan and South Korea will be an important foundation for Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s meeting with Chinese officials in Alaska later this week, as the new administration has sought to reset security guardrails in the region. 

The Biden administration has raised U.S. concerns about Taiwan to China since taking office, the second senior defense official said, and has also communicated to Beijing that the Senkaku Islands are covered under the American defense treaty with Tokyo, issues that were also raised publicly in the 2+2 meeting. Kishi and Japanese defense officials also brought up issues with China’s new coast guard law that allows Chinese vessels to fire on Japanese ships, sparking concerns of a possible shooting match near the islands. 

The meetings are also framed by growing Chinese military spending, despite Japan, South Korea, and other U.S. allies in the region facing downward pressure on defense budgets due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

But China hasn’t missed a beat, announcing last month plans to increase defense spending in 2021 by 6.6 percent and it commissioned 25 major new ships despite the global pandemic, another official said. Senior defense officials said China now has 70 Jiang-2 class missile frigates, which are built to operate in the shallower waters of the Taiwan straits. China now has 360 ships, outnumbering the U.S. Navy by 60 vessels. 

China’s shipbuilding industry, the largest in the world, has led to an erosion of the U.S.’s military edge. “We just don’t have the same kind of capabilities against China as we used to because of numbers,” the first senior defense official said. “If we can’t keep China from threatening its adversaries militarily, if we can’t keep China for claiming sovereign territory in Japan in the Senkaku Islands as their own, and then putting coast guard vessels on them, if we can’t keep deterring that way, this normalization of the new normal with China is going year-to-year-to-year.”

China’s naval buildup and desire to create a new normal in the region is driven by economic considerations, experts said. Since China became a net oil importer in the early 1990s, it has feared a maritime embargo like the one that choked off Japan during the Second World War. 

“China has a very real and justified fear in the case of a major conflict, like over Taiwan, of their economy being cut off from the world—it’s almost all supplied by sea,” said Thomas Shugart, a retired U.S. Navy submarine warfare officer who is now an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “They’re doing what a rational nation would do about that—which is building a navy that really can secure their sea lines of communication.”

China boasts new ways to hit American assets, such as ranged carrier-killer missiles, though its combat proficiency remains an open question. China’s newly modernized military has never faced serious combat, with the country last going to war in 1979, and is leaning on Russia to do cooperative exercises to gain experience, senior defense officials said, even while eschewing a long-term alliance with Moscow.

Top U.S. defense officials have been much more cautious than officials further down the ranks. The chief of Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip Davidson, told Congress last week that China could try to take control of Taiwan within the next six years. But Austin remained tight-lipped when asked about the timeline for a hypothetical Chinese invasion.

Chinese territorial ambitions remain a worrisome trend for the Biden administration in Southeast Asia, where Vietnam and the Philippines dispute Chinese territorial claims in the South China sea, which American officials also view as excessive. 

During Austin’s trip to Hawaii this weekend, Davidson gave him what senior defense officials called a “map briefing” that traced the history of U.S. presence in the region, including more than 30,000 airmen and soldiers in Thailand during the height of the Vietnam War, more than 25,000 in Taiwan, and thousands of troops at Clark Field and Subic Bay in the Philippines.

The U.S. isn’t seeking to recreate the heavy footprint of ground troops in Asia from the Cold War, but officials are looking for ways to flexibly operate U.S. forces far forward in the Western Pacific, where China has the advantage of proximity.

“We’re not asking for a whole lot of bases,” the first senior defense official said. “You’ve got to reposition some of the capabilities in episodic [and] other ways.” U.S. Marines rotate in and out of Darwin, Australia, and the United States has tactical agreements with India to pre-position supplies and refuel aircraft at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and has free entry for military aircraft and ships to the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally. The U.S. rotates littoral combat ships and P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft through Singapore, and officials said they were interested in exploring new logistical opportunities in Papua New Guinea, which Allied forces recaptured after a Japanese invasion during World War II. 

Austin, a former Centcom commander, has leaned on his own experience in public comments on the China threat. “The last two decades we have been focused on the Middle East, and rightly so,” Austin told reporters. “During that time, China has worked to close their capabilities with ours … that competitive edge that we’ve had has eroded.”

But the stakes might not be war, experts said. Instead, China may be using their growing military might to raise the costs for Pentagon planners.

“I don’t think the Chinese want a war. I think they want to be able to put up a threat of sufficient scale that we decide don’t want to fight them, that we’re put in a situation where we decide the cost is not going to be worth it,” said Shugart. “If we lose the crew of one carrier, we’ll lose about as many people in one day as we lost in Iraq over a decade or so.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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