That uproar you’re hearing over the South China Sea?  Is it war klaxons?  Or dinner bells?

US Navy is not in the “peaceful coexistence” business in Asia anymore
US Navy is not in the ‘peaceful coexistence’ business in Asia any more

Over at Foreign Policy, J. Randy Forbes, Representative, Virginia, and Chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, opined on June 17 : “As of now, the military component to the rebalance amounts to shifting 2,500 Marines to the region while increasing America’s naval presence by three ships per year, to a total of 67 ships by the end of the decade. That response is so modest that, even if it is achievable, it is more a sign of weakness than strength.”

As to what an adequately muscular response would be, on June 23 Mark Thompson, Time magazine’s national security correspondent tweeted: “Navy finally decides how many ships it needs.”

And he reproduced testimony from Rear Admiral Paul Fanta before Forbes’ committee: If we had a choice, we would walk across the Pacific on the deck of a destroyer, occasionally stubbing our toes stepping down onto a submarine, and up onto an aircraft carrier.”

US, not PLAN, warships, it’s safe to assume.  Indisputably, the pivot is the Navy’s chance to shine and justify its massive Asian footprint by doing something bigger and better than facing down Kim Jung Il and chasing tsunami and typhoon relief.

As part of the new pivot regime, the new head of PACCOM, Admiral Harry Harris, has ditched the conciliatory stylings of the previous office-holder, Admiral Locklear, in favor of a more pro-active middle-finger posture to emphasize that the US Navy is not in the “peaceful coexistence” business in Asia any more.

The Marines also have a big pivot role thanks to their island-assaulting-and-conquering experience in the Pacific.  Even though the U.S. Marines are compared to the Harlem Globetrotters in terms of their abilities to run rings around their opponents in the amphibious warfare biz, there’s always cause for concern and room for improvement, per Reuters : “With some 80,000 personnel or almost half its strength in Asia, the U.S. Marines are the biggest amphibious force in the region. Most are based on Japan’s Okinawa Island on the edge of the East China Sea. …With around 12,000 marines, China is a formidable potential foe, say military experts.”

How to deal with this “formidable potential foe”?  More funding needed, as their commandant, General Joseph Dunford, stated : “Of particular concern is the disaggregation of forces in the U.S. Pacific Command area of operations. Once the ‘preferred laydown’ in the Pacific is fully implemented, the Marines will have a presence on mainland Japan and the island of Okinawa, South Korea, Guam and Australia – all falling under the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force structure.

“On a day-to-day basis, that kind of distribution will provide us more effective theater security cooperation, working with our partners and so forth. But conversely, providing the lift capability so the Marines aren’t stranded on an island will be a challenge, given the shortfall in amphibious ships.

“My priority right now would be, we’ve got over a thousand Marines in Australia; I would like them to have routine access right now to a platform that they can use to conduct engagement in the area,” he continued. “But it isn’t just about one ship and it’s just not about one location; it’s about dealing with a logistics challenge, a training challenge, a war-fighting challenge in the Pacific with a shortfall of platforms.”

Unsurprisingly, Commandant Dunford was sharing his anxieties with the Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus.

The Air Force would also like a word, per a Reuters article under the heading ‘China aims to challenge U.S. air dominance: Pentagon : “China is mounting a serious effort to challenge U.S. military superiority in air and space, forcing the Pentagon to seek new technologies and systems to stay ahead of its rapidly developing rival, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said on Monday.

“The Pentagon’s chief operating officer, speaking to a group of military and civilian aerospace experts, said China was ‘quickly closing the technological gaps,’ developing radar-evading aircraft, advanced reconnaissance planes, sophisticated missiles and top-notch electronic warfare equipment. Work said the United States has relied on technological superiority for the past 25 years, but now ‘the margin of technological superiority upon which we have become so accustomed … is steadily eroding.’”

If the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is as big a boondoggle as its critics say, and its best use will be as a gravity bomb dropped from a USAF dirigible, maybe our air superiority is really eroding. However, if the PRC stealth fighters are really built on a foundation of stolen F-35 technology, maybe we don’t have that much to worry about.

And the Army, too?

US Army Chief says their #SouthChinaSea presence maintains normalcy amid China’s ‘disruptive’ behaviour.

Actually, General Brooks was talking up mil-mil engagement with the PLA, not another land war in Eurasia, a good thing since the Army’s over-the-top mission-and-budget hogging over the last two decades is apparently a source of some jealousy and resentment in the other uniformed services.

And the chances that the PRC will continue its island-building ways until the South China Sea is paved over so the U.S. Army can drive an armored division across it seem rather remote.
There are, I think, three factors at work here.

First, everybody likes money.  Now that the PRC has been officially designated as the big threat, it’s time to muscle up to the “better-safe-than-sorry” limit in Asia, it’s up to the Pentagon to grow the budget pie, and it’s up to every armed service to fight for the biggest possible slice.

Second, threat and budget-inflation imperatives aside, the PRC is big and it’s getting bigger.  Right now, the US occupies 22 percent or so of global GDP, and the PRC’s down at 14 percent.  Unless the PRC spectacularly and catastrophically falls on its behind, those numbers will flip-flop and the PRC’s economy will account for 20 percent of the world’s GDP in 2050, as opposed to 14 percent for the US.

Keeping up with PRC military expenditures in its own backyard will be expensive for Mr. and Mrs. American taxpayer over the next few decades, so better get used to it.

The third, less obvious factor is that the pivot to Asia is, in my mind, fundamentally flawed because it is built upon the premise of US leadership in Asian security, and ‘US leadership’ looks to be a wasting asset.

It’s not just the PRC.  Everybody’s getting bigger, and the US’s relative share is shrinking.
PricewaterhouseCoopers took the IMF’s 2014 GDP numbers and worked the spreadsheet magic using projected growth rates.

In 2050, here’s how they see the GDP horserace playing out, in trillions: China 61; India 42; USA 41; Indonesia 12; Brazil 9; Mexico 8; Japan 7.9; Russia 7.5; Nigeria 7.3 and Germany 6.3. Poodlicious Euro-allies UK, Italy, and France will be out of the top ten in 2050.  Australia drops from 19th place to 28th.

Put it another way, the US will have 14 percent of the world’s GDP and Asia, the region we’re purporting to lead, will have 50 percent.

Don’t just look at the US vs. PRC numbers, 41 trillion vs. 61. Look at India+Indonesia+Japan+South Korea+Malaysia+Philippines+Thailand+Vietnam, the ‘pivot partners’ actual or aspirational that neighbor the PRC. Their cumulative GDP today: about the same as the US. In 2050: 77 trillion. More than the PRC. Way more than the United States.

And no, you can’t add those numbers to the US ‘anti-PRC’ coalition total for a big, reassuring number. Not even today.

To be unkind about it, the experience of the Middle East has not shown the US to be a particularly reliable and responsible steward of local well being in a volatile region. Countries with sufficient wealth and opportunities are unsurprisingly working to assure their own security futures instead of relying on the U.S.

All of the pivot partners are already feeling their Asian oats and most of them are pursuing hedging strategies between the US and the PRC as a matter of enlightened self-interest.  US says ‘TTP’, most say ‘TTP + RCEP’.  They are happy to take arms and military assistance from the US, but they also buy from Russia and France.

The only country that’s close to all-in on the pivot on the US side is the Philippines.  And it is deepening its engagement with Japan, not just the United States.

In a Guardian article  titled, ‘We have short memories’: Japan unites with former foes to resist China’s empire of sand, a bilateral Japanese-Philippine patrol in the South China Sea is described and it is clear — perhaps worryingly clear to US military planners — that the Philippines is not about to put all its eggs in the American basket:

“The Philippine defence secretary, Voltaire Gazmin, said this week that Japan should become further involved with Manila’s military, arguing for a visiting forces agreement which would allow Japanese troops to be stationed in the Philippines, similar to a deal with Washington, which has naval ships in Filipino ports.

“It would be ironic if we cannot do exercises with Japanese forces when Japan is one of the only two countries – the other one being the United States – which are strategic partners of the Philippines,” Gazmin said on Wednesday.

Japan, the linchpin of the US pivot strategy —  and a source of orgasmic pleasure to US China hawks when it revised its defense guidelines to permit joint military operations in East Asia with the United States — already plays its own hand in Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Myanmar, as well as the Philippines.

Historically inclined readers might note 1) these are all countries that Japan invaded and/or occupied as a matter of national interest in World War II and 2) Japan is run by the spiritual heirs—or in the case of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the direct heirs — of people who ran Japan back then and implemented that policy until the United States defeated them.

People with long memories will also recall that, when the PRC was a small, weak player, the justification for the US presence in Japan was to restrain Japanese militarism for the sake of Asian peace of mind … which is why the PRC kept harping on the Potsdam Declaration, the World War II victor’s justice dispensation, and the implications for the US leadership position in Asia when Shinzo Abe took office for his second term and started nibbling away at the “Peace” Constitution imposed by MacArthur.

Nowadays, US pretensions to act as “honest broker” in Asia as an alternative to Japan have been subordinated to the need to construct a PRC-containment regime. When you anoint Japan as a theater-wide anti-PRC military ally, you’re not getting the same ally you had when Japan’s main job was hosting US bases and poking around in its own territorial waters and airspace.

Nope, America’s Pacific Century (Hillary Clinton’s term) is not going to be pushing around overmatched, grateful, and anxious allies like the UK, Poland, and Germany while trampling on small borderline failed states in the Middle East.  It’s going to be contending with half a dozen rising Asian nations, all with experiences of empire and aspirations to at least local hegemony…and on top of them, there’s China.

So the urgent threat to US leadership in Asia isn’t just rising China; it’s rising Asia.
And I think US planners have also looked at the numbers and decided there’s a limited time window for the United States, during which it can use its military superiority, its wealth, the economic, technological, and cultural vitality of its system, and its domination of international financial and security institutions to occupy a central position in Asia…

…and avoid confronting the possibility that the United States will no longer enjoy recognition as the world’s leading military and economic power, a title it has enjoyed during the living memory of almost every living person on the planet, and a role that is an existential folly for any American politician, pundit, or military officer to question.

But to me, hyping the China threat in order to muscle up the Pacific presence, leverage American strengths, and prolong US predominance is something of a Hail Mary. It may postpone the US decline to “one among equals”, but I don’t think it can prevent it.  And it’s going to make the process very expensive and, perhaps, very messy and painful.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of U.S. policy with Asian and world affairs.

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