In a recent speech to the Air Force Association, Defense Secretary Robert Gates conceded that the rapid modernization of the Chinese military is casting into doubt the long-term prospects for continued U.S. influence in the Western Pacific. While no surprise to interested observers, what is indeed surprising is how little interest the Obama Administration seems to have in maintaining America’s current position of strength relative to Beijing.
It is no secret that China has been investing heavily in converting its military from a cumbersome, Industrial Age formation into a lean, modern fighting machine. For two generations, all American military planning for any possible conflict with China has assumed that the admitted and unavoidable Chinese numerical superiority would be offset by American and allied technological advancement. American defence doctrine has long favoured firepower over sheer weight of numbers, and that is what has allowed it to project power so successfully across the globe. As the Chinese military rapidly advances, however, the United States may soon find itself in the unenviable position of facing an enemy with weapons of comparably or only slightly less advanced, carried by a far greater number of enemy planes, ships, and troops.
As Gates pointed out in his address, the Chinese would not even have to do battle with the American military to badly erode America’s position of strength. Chinese missiles, conventional and nuclear, will soon be an undeniable threat to America’s chain of air bases stretching across the Pacific Rim, while Chinese naval and air power will soon threaten the Navy’s enormous, and dreadfully vulnerable, aircraft carriers.
It must be recalled, particularly in this the instance, that in the race between firepower and armour, firepower will always win. An AEGIS-equipped vessel must always accompany American aircraft carriers, so as to protect them from attack by guided missile. These defensive ships themselves cost a billion dollars. The economics simply don’t work out for America. Cruise missiles are relatively cheap, and China would gladly trade a few hundred million dollars in mass-manufactured missiles for an American carrier. The more vulnerable the carriers become, the less likely the Pentagon will be to deploy one anywhere near China. Millions of dollars worth of missiles can render useless billions of dollars of warships. Such a scenario seemed to be on Gates’ mind when he commented upon China’s growing ability to, “disrupt our freedom of movement and narrow our strategic options.”
If the Navy gets cold feet about sending its priceless carriers into harm’s way, and if the Air Force’s bases in the Pacific become too vulnerable to remain operationally tenable, than America’s allies in the region — Japan, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines, and most emphatically Taiwan — will begin to feel very far away indeed from the United States. Japan is already drifting in the direction of closer relations with China, having clearly decided that America’s day as the global superpower has ended. This could create a self-reinforcing downward spiral for America’s influence in the region: as bases close, allies will drift away, leaving America with even fewer bases…
The American military, while for the moment technologically superior, has recently lost out on several high-tech military programs that would have helped keep it ahead of China or any other foreign competitor. Production of F-22 fighters will be ended early. The DDGX-1000 stealth destroyer programhas been cancelled. The Virginia-class submarines have potentially serious manufacturing flaws. And China is threatening to soon match, and possibly overtake, the United States in space, conferring upon itself tremendous advantages in the fields of communications and reconnaissance. And there is still no decision on whether or not to replace America’s rapidly aging stockpile of nuclear warheads.
All of this is taking place against the backdrop of ever-greater reliance upon China to keep the economy propped up. Reckless spending by American governments and consumers alike has been financed largely by Chinese investors. Most Americans would be aghast to know just how much of their country has been purchased out from beneath them. And the trend is continuing. China recently made a play to purchase a stake in Canada’s oil supply, vital to the security of both North American allies. China has also shown interest in purchasing distressed American real estate assets. America may find itself in a bleak situation vis a vis China: too weak to fight, and too broke to compete.
Given the narrowing of America’s military lead over China, China’s rapid acquisition of economic clout, and the uncomfortable fact that the United States is heading at breakneck speed towards insolvency, it is no surprise that the Obama Administration would seek friendly accommodation with the Chinese, even going so far as to postpone a meeting with the Dalai Lama so as to avoid ruffling China’s feathers before an upcoming meeting. US military commanders in the region are expressing their hopes that any future conflict with China can be avoided. This is of course quite right – war is always to be avoided whenever possible, especially between two mighty nations. Even so, one must question whether America seeks to avoid conflict with China simply for humanitarian reasons, or out of growing fear that it would lose.
It is not unreasonable to speculate that a debt-ridden America, trapped in two foreign wars and with a sick economy at home, might find it necessary to reach some sort of accommodation with China. Perhaps one wherein China maintains the trading relationship so vitally necessary to keep America afloat while America quietly dismantles its military presence in areas China would rather dominate itself. This is not to say that Chinese military commanders are already scouting prime real estate locations in southern California or on Vancouver Island, the security of North America is not at risk. But what is increasingly possible is that America comes to accept Chinese hegemony over the Western Pacific, with Hawaii and the Pacific Fleet out of Pearl Harbor forming an unofficial border between the two spheres of influence, Western and Eastern. To those who have a hard time imagining the Obama Administration selling out an ally to appease a potential enemy, talk to Poland and the Czech Republic. They’ll have plenty to say.
The tragedy in all of this is that so little will be accomplished. For too long, America has blithely ignored the inevitable consequences of its mounting debt. A day of financial reckoning was inevitable for a country addicted to short-term solutions and easy credit. If the current situation had been brought about by difficult but unavoidable budget cuts from an Administration determined to put the country on a financial diet, it would be hard to swallow, but at least commendable, in its own bitter way. But what will America get for its loss of preeminence in the Western Pacific and Eastern Europe? Hundreds of billions of wasteful stimulus and potentially trillions spent on chasing the false promise of a better world through socialist intervention in the private market.
America is trading power abroad for the illusion of progress at home. By the time the American people realize what they’ve bargained for, the only ones benefiting will be the powerbrokers in Beijing and Moscow. It could be a generation or more before the mistakes of the next three years are rectified, if they can ever be rectified at all.