The outgoing and incoming US Indo-Pacific commanders, Admiral Philip Davidson and Admiral John Aquilino respectively, recently testified on Capitol Hill that China is their most serious threat.
This is a far cry from eight years ago when their predecessor Admiral Samuel Locklear declared that climate change was what kept him up at night. That admiral didn’t even mention the People’s Republic on his list of concerns.
Times have changed.
And, while it is a good sign that the real threat can now be named, there are still at least three impediments – two practical and one nearly existential – to get close to being able to fight back.
The two practical issues are linked to Davidson and Aquilino’s thumbnail proposal for taking on China in the Indo-Pacific region. The admirals suggest:
First, emplace a network of rockets, long-range missiles and missile defenses with radars and sensors throughout the region. This will allow the US to do to the Chinese what they can currently do to the Americans.
Second, along with dispersed weapons systems, deploy US forces in more places than at present. In military-speak: operating in a “decentralized and geographically dispersed” fashion.
The USINDOPACOM bosses also emphasized working with allies and partners – and building “partner capacity.”
Where’s the money?
Aquilino is asking for an extra US$27 billion over five years for the so-called Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI). The admiral says this will allow him to get weapons and forces in place with the needed capabilities to take on China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA).
However, Congress is reluctant to write the check for Aquilino.
That’s despite the fact the amount sought is a pittance in the grand scheme of the US national budget.
Consider the hundreds of billions in aid that Washington forked out over the last 20 years in hopes of creating what has turned out to be an elusive liberal democracy in Afghanistan. If that amount had been properly invested, the dividends and capital gains alone could have funded Aquilino’s Pacific Deterrence Initiative for a century – with a tidy amount left over.
Whether the Pacific Deterrence Initiative will deter China is an open question. At a bargain price of $27 billion, it can’t hurt to try.
However, even if Aquilino does get the money, he faces a further practical dilemma: It is unclear where he is going to place his long-range weapons and supporting systems – or his forces.
The welcome mat isn’t out for US missiles and troops in many places in the Indo-Pacific.
Guam is an oft-mentioned possibility since it is US territory. But it is a small island with a large military presence already, and it’s a couple thousand miles from Guam to the Chinese mainland.
The Republic of Palau is another candidate – having offered to host US forces last fall. Palau is closer to the action and shows promise.
But after Guam and Palau comes a very short list of candidates, close to none at all.
Even America’s main regional ally, Japan – where thousands of US troops are based – is sensitive about hosting missiles targeting China. So sensitive, in fact, that one doubts the US State Department has even mentioned the possibility to Japanese counterparts.
South Korea is even less likely to respond favorably. The deployment of a single THAAD anti-missile battery to the peninsula in 2016 raised a firestorm – and intense Chinese economic pressure on South Korea.
The Philippines? Not as long as Roderigo Duterte is president. And even without him the Filipinos will require considerable convincing, given local politics and memories of how the US left Manila high and dry when China seized the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
Australia said no to missiles a couple years ago. Perhaps it can be convinced otherwise, but that won’t be easy. And Australia’s location is, like Guam, farther away from the action than would be ideal.
This bleak assessment might come as a surprise to many people who thought that decades of US military engagement and exercising with Indo-Pacific nations had created some real friends who would allow access. That was the idea at least.
USINDOPACOM apparently wasn’t keeping score. And US State Department diplomats didn’t exactly do their part to grease things, either.
Remember that the Chinese threat has been obvious for at least 15 years.
But suppose a genie gave Admiral Aquilino everything he wanted – money for weapons and places to put them. It still might not be enough.
There is a third problem that can undermine it all.
Big business not on board
While the US military is going about cobbling together a defense against the Chinese in the Indo-Pacific, Wall Street and US businesses are pouring tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars into China each year.
This provides the hard currency that keeps the Chinese regime afloat and able to carry out its global objectives – objectives that require payment in real money. It also allows Beijing to acquire the talent, technology and resources that keep its defense build-up improving and expanding at an alarming rate.
If current trends continue, in Asia the PLA will be able to deploy far more ships, aircraft, and missiles and in more places and more often than the US (and its allies) can match. Indeed, the PLA is already more than a match for the US military in some scenarios.
Unfortunately, there is no sign American bankers and businesses will voluntarily let up.
The other day the president of Boeing – a flagship American company and a major defense contractor – complained that he wished America could separate human rights and other disputes from trade relations with the PRC.
His point: Boeing just has to be in the China market. If it’s not, rival Airbus gets the business. Concentration camps? Genocide? Organ harvesting? Taking other nations’ territory? No problem.
Boeing jets sold to China potentially being used as military transports for the PLA? No problem. In fact: More, please.
One feels sorry for Aquilino. While the admiral is doing his best to build America’s defenses, his own unpatriotic compatriots are hard at work opening ever more pathways to build up our enemies.
There may be some good news. The US Senate is currently moving on the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, a bill to take on China’s aggressive and assertive foreign policy worldwide. The comprehensive bill also includes increased spending and other efforts to bolster US forces and American allies in the Indo-Pacific.
Senator Bob Menendez, co-sponsor, declared: “I am incredibly proud to announce this unprecedented bipartisan effort to mobilize all US strategic, economic and diplomatic tools for an Indo-Pacific strategy that will allow our nation to truly confront the challenges China poses to our national and economic security.”
But one is skeptical, even though the bill is brimming with feel-good language.
You see, in recent years the US Congress has been talking a good game when it comes to China. And it routinely declares its solid support for Taiwan – the one thing, it is said, for which there is overwhelming bipartisan support in Washington.
But all the while Wall Street and the business crowd whisper in a lot ears and slip a lot of cash into a lot of pockets on Capitol Hill, and the defense-corroding flows of money to and from Beijing continue.
If Congress and the Biden administration will not rein in Wall Street and America’s business class, they are not serious about taking on China. It can happen if they try. We saw a glimmer of what it could look like less than a year ago when the billions destined for China via a federal pension fund were blocked. But that was a rare win.
If it’s not repeated and expanded, Admiral Aquilino is on a fool’s errand trying to defend US interests in Asia as ever more serious damage surfs in on the money flows at home.
Message to Congress: You can either defend America or you can take the cash from Wall Street and big business in exchange for letting them continue strengthening America’s avowed enemy.
You can’t do both.
Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with more than 20 years of experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as a US diplomat, business executive and US Marine Corps officer.