A clear mantra for US defence strategy

Asia Politics World

Author: Patrick M Cronin, Hudson Institute

The defence challenge in Asia is enormous. The Joe Biden administration wants to discipline China’s grey-zone coercion while deterring Beijing from escalating to the outright use of conventional force, to persuade North Korea to relinquish strategic weapons, and to build a free, open, inclusive, secure and rules-based Indo-Pacific. That requires fortifying Washington’s distributed presence throughout the region, working closely with allies and innovating the future force of the United States.

An MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter launches during flight operations aboard the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the South China Sea , 17 July 2020 (Photo: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Codie L Soule/Handout via Reuters).

An MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter launches during flight operations aboard the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the South China Sea , 17 July 2020 (Photo: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Codie L Soule/Handout via Reuters).

While reviewing Washington’s global force posture, North Korea policy, and a strategy for dealing with the ‘pacing threat’ of China, the Pentagon is aware that regional challenges will continue to mount.

North Korea’s test of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in November 2017 demonstrated its ability to strike the US homeland. While North Korean leader Kim Jong-un remains capable of disturbing the peace, fear and insecurity limit the level of risk he is willing to take. Deterrence will hold so long as the paramount goal of the US–ROK alliance is ‘formidable deterrence against North Korea’.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is Washington’s most daunting military problem. While China poses complex challenges and opportunities, the immediate concern is its repression at home and grey-zone coercion around its periphery. These are concerns National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and US Secretary Blinken raised in a one-off, high-level discussion with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Counselor Yang Jiechi on 18 March.

In the short run, the Biden administration wants to curb Beijing’s grey-zone coercion while bolstering conventional deterrence to prevent it from direct aggression against Taiwan, Japan or a neighbour in Southeast Asia. In the long-run, the US officials want to ‘out-compete’ China. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s priority is China’s economic and technological leadership, which, if achieved, could yield military advantage and, if halted, could trigger military action.

Amid this bracing security environment and the imperative of slowing climate change, Biden’s primary defence goal may shift from confrontation towards cooperative security. For the President and his national security team, ‘alliances are America’s greatest asset’ and networked security in which allies and partners enhance cooperation among themselves is seen as a critical force multiplier.

Kurt Campbell’s appointment as Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific positions him to follow through with the United States’ rebalance to Asia in a way he never could in the Barack Obama administration. The heightened level of US engagement during the early weeks of the Biden administration is not unrelated to an unprecedented level of coordinated government policy.

Biden’s Asia team would like to use persuasion when it can and power when it must. The first-ever Quad leaders’ summit demonstrated this principle. The latent power of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India is unmistakable, but their main action was to promise one billion doses of vaccine to help all of Southeast Asia ward off COVID-19. An in-person Quad leaders’ meeting is promised for November.

Campbell and an experienced interagency team of regional specialists are working to build a web of allies and partners. The goal is not an Asian NATO but a diplomatic–economic bulwark that advances cooperative security through the rule of law, standards and norms to deal with trade in an age of new technologies and secure supply chains for national security. But that is not how it will be viewed, especially in Beijing. Because cooperative security aims to be inclusive, the United States will have to endeavour to be more pro-rule of law than sharply anti-China.

The United Nations and international organisations will be fully engaged. But the region may also expect a summit for democracy and the pursuit of technology governance. The administration has already moved swiftly to operationalise the Quad coalition towards addressing functional issues, and is moving ahead with working groups on fighting COVID-19, governing technology flows and combatting climate change.

Cooperative security is no substitute for basic defence. As the Pentagon conducts both global force posture and China policy reviews, the job of deterring aggression without triggering conflict remains a looming challenge. After Biden’s inauguration, PLA bombers and fighters flew through Taiwan’s air defence identification zone and simulated an attack on a US carrier.

Holding the line on deterrence requires clear red lines, supported by ready and credible forces. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin may wish to adopt the prior administration’s guidance of denying China dominance inside the ‘first island chain’ in a conflict, defending the first-island-chain nations, including Taiwan, and dominating all domains outside the first island-chain. Admiral Phil Davidson, Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, called for spending more than $US27 billion over the next several years as part of a Pacific Deterrence Initiative to enhance defense, resilisence and readiness for defending the first two island chains.

But there is an obvious tension between a US ability to protect regional actors and China’s desire to prevent interference in its neighborhood. Secretary Austin’s team will seek to offset US military capabilities with bilateral dialogue, including the frank discussions in Achorage, Alaska. There will also be a need for risk-reduction and confidence-building measures with Beijing, the aim now is to build positions of strength while getting Washginton’s house in order. Xi is similarly focussed on his domestic agenda with this year’s centenary of the CCP, hosting the Winter Olympics and the 2020 party congress.

Over time the Biden administration will seek to leverage its strength at home and strong alliances for more stable relations with China. Before being tapped as Deputy Secretary of Defense, Kathleen Hicks wrote that the way to compete with China’s military–civil fusion strategy was not through disruption, but instead through boosting US efforts in tandem with allies and partners. Similarly, as the Biden administration’s defence strategy seeks to turn the page on the past four years, its mantra is clear — less confrontation, more cooperation.

Patrick M Cronin is Asia-Pacific Security Chair and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Washington, DC.

An extended version of this article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly,‘Asia after Biden’s election’, Vol. 13, No 1.