America Can’t Surpass China’s Power in Asia

But It Can Still Prevent Chinese Hegemony

By the end of U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term, the United States faced a clear choice regarding its future role in Asia. As China grew more powerful—and assertive in its territorial claims—Washington could double down on costly efforts to try to maintain U.S. military primacy in the region. Or it could acknowledge that China will inevitably play a growing military role there and use its finite resources to balance Chinese power, seeking to prevent Chinese regional hegemony without sustaining its own.

Obama’s successors, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, both opted for the first approach. They have focused on achieving “overmatch” against China, as Mark Milley, then the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it in early 2023—retaining military preeminence as an overarching goal of U.S. Indo-Pacific policy. Biden’s strategy for achieving this goal has differed from that of his predecessors. Recognizing that the price of maintaining U.S. military dominance in the region was fast becoming politically and practically unsustainable, the Biden team sought to build a coalition of allies and partners to defray some of the costs. In the last three years, for example, the administration successfully gained access to additional military bases in the Philippines, established new trilateral intelligence-sharing mechanisms with South Korea and Japan, and forged the AUKUS agreement with Australia and the United Kingdom to provide the Australian navy nuclear-powered submarines.

But despite some successes, Biden’s overall progress toward building the needed coalition has been slow. The United States still lacks military access to critical parts of Asia, a strong U.S.-led security architecture, and enough well-armed allies and partners to sustain U.S. preeminence. Worse, there is no clear way to address these weaknesses. Asia’s maritime geography reduces the threat that countries in the region perceive China poses, fundamentally undermining Biden’s coalition-building project.

The Biden administration’s limited gains reflect an underlying reality that many in Washington would rather not face: U.S. military supremacy in Asia cannot be sustained over the long term. Rather than maintain an ill-fated pursuit of primacy, the United States should adopt a strategy that prioritizes balancing, not exceeding, Chinese power. Washington needs to focus more narrowly on safeguarding access to strategic locations—for example, the industrial centers of Japan and India—and key waterways. Washington must also try to shift some of its security burdens by helping allies and partners strengthen their self-defense capabilities. Finally, Washington needs to learn to better navigate the region’s many multilateral institutions to advance U.S. interests and influence instead of organizing engagement solely around U.S.-centered partnerships.

Critics of balancing may argue that such an approach would embolden China and stoke fears of abandonment among U.S. allies. But they are wrong: if Washington does not change its approach, it risks finding itself overstretched, lacking the military posture to credibly back its extensive commitments and deter China. A balancing approach would be more sustainable and less risky because it works with the region’s unique geography, not against it.

POWER STRUGGLE
To achieve its vision of regional primacy through coalition building, the Biden administration has invested heavily in strengthening the United States’ relationships with countries across Asia. The United States has elevated its relationship with Vietnam to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” for instance, and inked new defense cooperation and co-production agreements with India. But Biden’s coalition-building efforts still fall far short of what would be required to prop up U.S. military dominance.

From the beginning, Biden’s administration made it clear that a coalition would have to accomplish three things: diversify the United States’ access to bases, airfields, and ports across the region so that the U.S. military can rapidly project power in the event of a crisis; create a network of alliances and partnerships that reinforces U.S. interests and values; and boost allied and partner countries’ own military capabilities. A primary challenge the United States faces in the Indo-Pacific is China’s large arsenal of missiles. U.S. forces concentrated at large bases in Guam, Japan, and South Korea are particularly vulnerable to Chinese strikes, and the Pentagon hopes to distribute personnel and assets more widely to numerous small bases and outposts across the region to improve their chances of survival.

U.S. efforts to establish this distributed posture have yielded some achievements. The Biden team secured expanded permissions for U.S. forces to use additional bases in Australia and the Philippines, as well as Papua New Guinea, pending the approval of the latter country’s parliament. But these expanded permissions do not provide much in the way of additional crisis or wartime access. The Philippines and Papua New Guinea have both signaled that they will not permit the United States to use bases on their territories to stockpile weapons or conduct offensive military operations in a war against China, especially over Taiwan. This additional access does not address Washington’s most critical needs or expand U.S. access to the most strategically important countries in Southeast Asia: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. As a result, in the event of a contingency—and with South Korea also likely to restrict U.S. military access—the United States would still have to rely on vulnerable runways in Japan and Guam or operate long-range bombers from Australia.

Biden has sought to bolster U.S. regional dominance by shifting its military strategy from a traditional “hub-and-spoke” approach—in which the United States is the center of military operations—to a ”latticework” model that links allies and partners more comprehensively. The Pentagon has increasingly emphasized trilateral military exercises, including joint air and naval drills with Australia and Japan and coast guard training with Japan and the Philippines. But here, too, Biden’s administration has met with frustrations. Few countries in the region are willing to fully commit to a U.S.-led security architecture that requires them to choose between the United States and China. The United States insists that it does not seek to build a regional security bloc, but many in the region, including U.S. allies, have resisted what they view as Washington’s attempts to do just that.

FRIENDS WITHOUT BENEFITS
Biden’s coalition-building project also still lacks the institutional mechanisms it would need to effectively synchronize actions between its allies and partners during a contingency. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—a security forum comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—is supposed to deepen maritime cooperation, among other initiatives. But it does not afford participating countries the common intelligence picture they would need to coordinate in a crisis, because information-sharing arrangements remain bilateral. Similarly, Washington counts on Tokyo to provide direct military support during a regional war, but no combined U.S.-Japanese command exists to effectively coordinate the two countries’ operations.

The United States’ efforts to build up its allies’ military capabilities have a mixed record. In the last few years, some countries in Asia have begun to spend more on defense. But they remain a long way from being able to share the region’s current defense burden with the United States, much less the higher demands a conflict would impose. The United States would need its Asian allies and partners to spend many times more than what they currently do to achieve anything close to true burden sharing.

The United States continues to carry the bulk of the defense burden in the Indo-Pacific.
Consider Japan and Australia: both countries have announced plans to increase defense spending. Japan intends to raise its defense spending 65 percent over the next five years to better defend itself against China, a project that includes the purchase of 400 U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles. Australia also means to increase its defense spending from about two percent of GDP to 2.3 percent over the next ten years and is prioritizing funding for power projection; it plans to buy U.S.-produced long-range strike missiles and nuclear-powered submarines.

But there is less to these plans than meets the eye. Japan lacks the intelligence and targeting capabilities needed to use Tomahawk missiles effectively, either for self-defense or to contribute to U.S. operations. Even once it acquires these capabilities, it is unclear whether the modest number of missiles it is buying will contribute meaningfully to regional deterrence. And the aging of Japan’s population has driven a shortage of personnel trained to operate its ships and aircraft. Australia’s military is facing a similar lack of trained military personnel, as well as of civilian experts it will need to operate and maintain the submarines it buys.

Few other Asian militaries currently contribute much in the way of capabilities that would enable greater burden sharing with the United States. Some in Washington have high expectations for South Korea, but Seoul has not made the investments in hard infrastructure, air defense, and transport that would allow it to contribute to regional operations. Similarly, despite U.S. pressure, Taiwan has taken only tentative steps toward adding the defensive capabilities it would need to withstand a Chinese attack, such as mobile air defense, sea mines, and cheap drones, among others. In the end, the United States continues to carry the bulk of the defense burden in the Indo-Pacific.

IF YOU CAN’T BEAT THEM, BALANCE THEM
The Biden administration’s limited progress should raise questions about whether the United States can or should even try to sustain primacy in Asia. Some U.S. leaders hope that as China’s military threat grows, the coalition required to defend U.S. preeminence will eventually emerge, organically sustaining the United States’ dominance indefinitely. This optimism is unwarranted. The region’s maritime geography conspires against Biden’s coalition-building aspirations—and, ultimately, its goal to maintain regional primacy.

The vast Pacific and Indian Oceans create powerful defensive barriers that encourage free-riding and complacency among geographically dispersed states. China’s regional neighbors are certainly wary of Beijing’s aggression. But countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia tend not to see Beijing as an existential threat. And the maritime nature of the Indo-Pacific theater itself undermines the credibility of U.S. deterrence. The air and naval forces most relevant to the region are highly mobile—easy to deploy and easy to withdraw. This mobility makes potential allies fear abandonment and reduces the benefits—like U.S. investments in land bases—that they can anticipate from joining a U.S.-led coalition. Many Asian states already harbor understandable skepticism about the durability of U.S. guarantees to the region, given how halfhearted some of Washington’s efforts to “pivot” to Asia have been—and given how extensive the United States’ military commitments are in Europe and the Middle East.

The United States can, however, choose a different approach—and it should. A smarter, more sustainable U.S. strategy would focus on balancing China’s power, not overmatching it. A balancing strategy would still require the United States to build a friendly coalition in Asia, but it would be a different kind of coalition. In a balancing approach, the sheer quantity of U.S. allies and partners and available access locations become less important. More important is the quality and strategic value of the United States’ coalition members and access points.

The United States should focus foremost on keeping the region’s major centers of industrial power—most notably India, Japan, and South Korea—out of Beijing’s grip by helping them develop their self-defense capabilities and better supporting their attempts to reduce their economic dependence on China. Washington must also commit more energy to safeguarding the region’s key waterways, specifically the Strait of Malacca and parts of the East China and South China Seas, enlisting the help of India, Japan, the Philippines, and Singapore. While the United States should maintain its regional treaty commitments and continue to invest in strategically important partners, countries with fewer implications for the balance of power should receive less U.S. attention. The United States need not exceed every move China makes in the Pacific Islands or in continental Southeast Asia.

MENTAL BALANCE
A balancing approach would prioritize shifting much of the United States’ defense burden to allies and partners, requiring that they assume primary responsibility for their security and putting the U.S. military in a supporting role. Washington should encourage all of its allies in the region, but especially Japan and the Philippines, to become harder to conquer by investing heavily in asymmetric and self-defense capabilities. U.S. leaders must more urgently push Taiwan, too, to quickly adopt a similar self-defense posture.

For many Asian countries, meeting the challenge of modernizing their defense will not be easy after decades of underinvestment and given personnel shortages. But Washington can do far more than it currently does to induce them to armor up. It can attach conditions to the extensive U.S. military assistance and arms deals it offers, pushing allies and partners away from buying expensive prestige items like fighter jets and toward acquiring large amounts of relatively cheap and mobile military assets such as uncrewed ships, aerial drones, naval mines, antiship missiles, and air defenses. Washington can also use incentives like co-production arrangements and technology sharing to encourage its allies to invest in their own defense industries. Most of all, Washington will need to make clear to allies and partners that U.S. involvement has limits.

Balancing is the only fiscally sustainable way to protect U.S. interests in Asia for decades to come.
Emphasizing the benefits that defense investments offer to a country’s economy as well as its security can help the United States avoid damaging vital relationships. Washington can also more consciously rely on the barrier afforded by the region’s oceans by deploying fewer forward-based forces to the Asian theater. Instead, the United States should bolster its ability to rapidly deploy reinforcements by pre-positioning more equipment and ammunition (including what the navy calls “afloat forward staging bases”), improving the air and missile defenses at its existing bases, and modernizing its logistics infrastructure to coordinate a surging flow of troops. The United States has an opportunity to let the region’s geography serve as its first line of defense, helping its allies and partners help themselves while freeing up military capacity for other regional security concerns.

Balancing would also put valuable pressure on Washington itself. The United States needs to learn how to better navigate the Indo-Pacific’s flexible regional alignments rather than exclusively relying on the U.S.-led alliances and partnerships such as AUKUS. Washington must work to integrate itself more fully into political, economic, and security networks that already exist, engaging more actively with ASEAN and its many subgroups. The United States should also seek new opportunities to support other regional minilateral organizations. For all their shortcomings, these groups have become foreign policy focal points for countries in Southeast Asia, and the United States will need to be able to operate within and alongside them to achieve its interests in the region.

One of the biggest barriers to the adoption of a balancing approach is Washington’s mindset. The idea that military dominance must be pursued in Asia is deeply ingrained in U.S. foreign and defense policy. This presumption risks becoming even more entrenched as leaders in both political parties fear slipping behind Beijing. But a balancing approach constitutes neither appeasement nor defeatism. It is perhaps the only fiscally sustainable way to protect U.S. interests in the region for decades to come.

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