Chinese PLA Navy soldiers on a naval vessel in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

The United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney recently issued a report: “Averting Crisis: American Strategy, Military Spending and Collective Defense in the Indo-Pacific.” Averting Disaster would be a better title. The crisis is already here.

The report correctly describes America’s eroded military edge in the Indo-Pacific – such that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army even outmatches US forces in certain areas. In fact this was apparent 10 or more years ago. Yet anyone sounding the alarm would have been poorly received at most academic institutions – maybe even the University of Sydney.

So while the report’s findings are unsurprising, the fact it was even written is a pleasant surprise.

“China skeptics” are everywhere these days, and that’s a good thing, assuming the newly found skepticism outlasts a change in administration in Washington.

Importantly, the University of Sydney report gets the main things right, provides plenty of evidence and makes for grim reading.

Much of the press coverage focuses on the PLA’s ability to launch a sudden, devastating missile strike against vulnerable US bases in the region. But the problems go beyond China’s formidable missile force. Rather, Chinese advances are across the military spectrum: surface ships, fighters and bombers, submarines and anti-submarine warfare, cyber and outer space warfare. Beijing is figuring out how to put it all together – and operating far from Chinese territory.

Two J-15 fighter jets of the PLA Navy prepare to take off from China's aircraft carrier, The Liaoning, during an exercise. Photo: AFP
Two J-15 fighter jets of the PLA Navy prepare to take off from China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, during an exercise. Photo: AFP

This is a huge challenge for US forces – as noted in a sobering passage from page 58 of the report:

China has made strides in developing new classes of munitions that the United States has abrogated since the end of the Cold War…. American naval vessels do not have the strike power needed to confront [PLA navy] warships in the open sea, while the [US] air force lacks stealthy, long-range missiles for land, air and maritime strike role.

In simple language: The US could have a hard time in a fight – and might not win. A far cry from years of assumed American superiority over the PLA.

The PLA might not even need to fight if the US doesn’t get its act together. If trends continue, China simply builds up such dominance that America’s friends are demoralized and the US can’t move against Chinese aggression at an acceptable cost. If so, the game is over before it even starts.

Fixation on the ‘Sandbox’

So what happened?  The report describes a combination of things, including the distraction and strain of nearly 20 years of continuous combat in the Middle East and South Asia. And there was America’s inability to prioritize its global efforts, along with inadequate and uncertain defense budgets.

 True enough. The Pentagon was indeed fixated on the “sandbox,” as the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones were known, although its enemies were not exactly the Wehrmacht.

And “misplaced priorities” is also fair criticism.  The report details the billions spent on Iraq and Afghanistan, and even on Eastern Europe following Putin’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, while the Indo-Pacific got shortchanged.

This writer recalls Pacific US Marine commanders’ unsuccessful efforts to convince other Marine generals in Washington of Asia’s importance – and running afoul of PACOM  commanders and Department of Defense officials when suggesting China was a threat needing attention.

The report includes numbing detail about troubles with the US defense budget – both the amount and the process. Fair enough. But $700+ billion is a lot of money. Perhaps if less had been spent on littoral combat ships better suited for fighting anybody but the Chinese, or $45 billion a year in Afghanistan, enough money would be available for the Indo-Pacific.

The USS Ronald Reagan enters Guam’s Apra Harbor in 2011. Photo: US Navy / Peter Lewis

Curiously, the report tiptoes around the root cause of the current dilemma. That is: 30 years of policy-makers, foreign policy elites in academia and think-tanks, and military leaders taking too rosy a view of the PRC – while American business interests aided and abetted.

If you wouldn’t even call China an “adversary” why waste money and thought on Asia?

But there is some good news. The US has a strong hand to play – starting with a broad and belated recognition that the PRC is an adversary rather than a “responsible stakeholder.” And as the University of Sydney report indicates, even some allies now agree.

Second, even though the PLA has narrowed the gap or even taken the lead in some areas, the US military is still extremely powerful – and presumably has a few weapons in the works that PRC spies haven’t stolen.

And there is geography, which does not favor China. The islands of the “first island chain” – stretching from Japan to the Philippines, on to Taiwan and down to Malaysia – are a potential barrier to Chinese operations into the Pacific.

The South China Sea. Photo: Google Maps Satellite Imagery
The South China Sea. Photo: Google Maps Satellite Imagery

New operational concepts to deploy anti-ship missiles, anti-submarine weapons and air defense systems along the first island chain would turn the South China Sea into a bathtub from which the PRC could hardly move.

And the US has allies (for now) and friends who want an alternative to PRC domination.  The report properly calls for “capability aggregation” –  or, in plain language, America and regional military partners sharing resources.

But the report also offers a stark – and accurate – warning:

Neither the US-Australia alliance nor the broader regional alliance and partner network have developed the levels of military interoperability, shared understanding of risk and resolve, or coordination required for credible collective deterrence.

But didn’t every bi- and multilateral exercise the US military has conducted in Asia over the last 40 years declare “improving interoperability” as its objective? And all were declared rousing successes.

 A lot of work needs done – and fast. And this won’t be easy, as the report notes.  More defense money will be hard to come by, and the modernization backlog is so great that it will take some time.  Unfortunately, the PRC may not wait.

Fixing the US military cannot be the only line of effort.

PRC vulnerable

Notably, the PRC is vulnerable to economic pressure – being over-dependent on exports and desperately needing to earn convertible currency since nobody much wants Chinese yuan.

And there’s a soft-power card to play.  That is, the sheer attractiveness of the United States and free nations compared with Beijing’s repressive communist dictatorship. Maybe one day Washington will figure out strategic communications and influence operations.

But while the US has a strong hand there’s something missing, and the University of Sydney report overlooks it as well.  That is the human element and how inept leadership – military and civilian – got the US military into the current crisis in the Indo-Pacific.

How else does one explain a PACOM commander declaring climate change his biggest worry – not the People Liberation Army – and a Navy secretary prioritizing “green fuels” over arming US ships with anti-ship missiles that go as far and as fast as the Chinese navy’s missiles?

Make no mistake: Money, hardware, priorities and alliances are important, but without decent leadership – think, Nimitz, Spruance and Marshall – the chances of America averting disaster in the Indo-Pacific are slim.

Where that leadership will come from is anybody’s guess.

US admirals, left to right, Spruance, King and Nimitz on an airfield on an island in the Pacific in 1944 or 1945. King was WWII chief of staff of the US Navy. Nimitz was commander of the American Pacific fleet. Spruance succeeded Nimitz as chief of the Pacific fleet. Photo: AFP

Grant Newsham is a former Marine Corps Reserve Asia/Pacific intelligence chief.

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