By Jason Miks
U.S. Congressman J. Randy Forbes (R-Va), chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee and co-chair of the China Caucus, answers GPS readers’ questions on China, the U.S. military and U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific.
America is losing its air power edge, but its naval supremacy is secure, for now at least. Do you agree?
It’s a difficult question, but I appreciate the challenge. I could simply say that both our airpower and seapower capability are in decline, which I believe they are in certain areas, but it is more complicated than that. First, we need to ask what our global national security interests are and what objectives we have for our policies. When it comes to our defense policy, the answer to this question will inform what sort of military power we need to build. For instance, during various periods of the Cold War we invested in irregular military power, long-range strike, mechanized capabilities, and naval power, among others. And during the last decade we invested heavily in our land power, including counterinsurgency training and capabilities. In other words, we do not just build seapower or airpower for its own sake or because our competitors are.
When I look out over the next decade or two I see a number of trends that will create new demands on our military. First, from the Persian Gulf, to the Indian Ocean, to the South China Sea, to the East China Sea, the character of this global environment strikes me as increasingly maritime. Second, while the United States has enjoyed advantages in areas such as precision-guided munitions, satellite communications, stealth technologies, and cyber, our competitors have found ways to match or undermine these advantages with their own asymmetric investments.
These two trends lead me to conclude that the United States will need to invest in new capabilities for conducting sea control, air dominance, and power projection missions if we are to retain our ability to fill certain capability gaps. In terms of our seapower, we need both a quantity of platforms and a balance of capabilities. The demand for Navy presence has only continued to rise while our fleet has continued to shrink. But while we certainly need more ships, we also need to build a Navy with the right ships. We must prioritize growing our attack submarine, destroyer, and amphibious fleets, while also sustaining a fleet of 11 aircraft carriers. These platforms are the core workhorses of the battle force fleet. In addition, we need to invest in new platforms that can enable the Navy’s core missions of sea control and power projection. In term of our airpower capabilities, I believe we will need to build an Air Force that can continue to conduct air dominance and project power into countries that now have advanced fighters and air-defense systems.
How concerned should the U.S. be about competing with China in the soft power, as well as hard power arenas?
The debates over soft power and hard power can be rather academic. When it comes to so-called “soft power,” I think our attention should instead focus on the narrative that defines how events are viewed in the Asia-Pacific. Is the United States perceived as a net-contributor to regional stability and prosperity? Is China viewed as a responsible stakeholder, a reluctant stakeholder, or simply a bully with growing economic power in the region?
While China was able to portray what it called its “peaceful rise” as relatively tranquil during the last three decades, since 2010 that narrative has largely been replaced as a result of its more assertive posture. Countries like Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam have come under pressure to accommodate China’s diplomatic demands. Yang Jiechi, the former Chinese minister of foreign affairs, shocked many in July 2010 when he said that "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact." As a result, other countries have chosen to align themselves more closely with the U.S. or grow their defense budgets in response.
The U.S. is also working to balance its time, energy, and resources to the Asia-Pacific to reassure our Asian allies and partners of our intentions. However, the real determinant of these policies in terms of the regional narrative will be if we can properly resource this effort with a robust diplomatic effort, trade policy, and defense posture. Asian capitals are now closely watching our next steps and those steps will determine the direction many middle powers will chose to take. Will the region have the confidence to continue to align itself with the rules-based order that the United States has upheld, or will a new order emerge shaped by Chinese power and interests?
Should the U.S. be pressing China more on human rights issues?
Of course. I believe liberty is a universal right, not just an American one. The U.S. should speak with clarity on human rights issues, including religious freedom, when it comes to China. This is not only the right thing to do, but I also believe it’s essential if China is to sustain its success. China’s economic miracle will not continue at the same pace without political reform and the rule of law. I think recent history has shown us that countries that have open marks but choose to muzzle freedom of speech often end up only limiting their true economic potential. Some also believe a more democratic Chinese government, that is more connected to the interests and desires of its people, could also be more conducive to managing disputes peacefully. This doesn’t mean the U.S. should derail its complex relationship with Beijing over singular human rights issues, but it should mean we keep human rights issues central to our thinking and our policies.
Is there any danger of a military clash between the U.S. and China? What kind of potential threats from China should the U.S. be preparing for?
If war is an extension of politics, then conflict between the U.S. and China would theoretically result from a crisis over political differences that neither side is willing to compromise on. For the past several decades, as China’s economic growth has fueled its military modernization, Beijing has abided by Deng Xiaoping’s dictum to “bide your time and hide your capabilities.” However, over the past three or four years Beijing has begun to assert itself in a variety of areas that it previously had avoided confrontation, including territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. As China has grown more confident, it appears they are seeking to build a new relationship with the U.S. whereby they expect us to accommodate some of their interests that clash with our own. These include ending arms sales to Taiwan, abandoning efforts to adjust and modernize our military posture in the region, withdrawing from alliances and other security partnerships, ceasing sea and air reconnaissance operations around China’s periphery, and focusing less of our diplomatic attention on human rights issues in China.
I don’t believe the United States should seek to accommodate Beijing’s desires on these items. Therefore, we need a diplomatic effort aimed at continuing to strengthen the rules-based order we have constructed in the region and the military capabilities required to support this strategy. Given my position on the Armed Services Committee, I am focused on the balance of military power and the continuation of regional stability. In this area, I have concerns, many of which have been exacerbated in the last decade by the combination of the PRC's rapid military modernization and our own focus of military resources elsewhere.
Correcting this military shortfall begins with admitting it exists. We have started to do that with the development of new concepts like the Joint Operational Access Concept and setting up the AirSea Battle Office to manage that limited operational concept’s implementation. Now we must take a hard look at the platforms, payloads, training, posture, and alliance questions related to supporting these concepts and our alliance commitments. As I mentioned earlier, there may be areas where we need more capabilities, better capabilities, or different capabilities that we haven't considered before. How can we best shape China’s strategic behavior? What capabilities contribute to deterrence? What capabilities are best suited for crisis management? What is the future of our nuclear posture and nuclear arms negotiations with China?