The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, foreground, transits the East China Sea with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces on March 9, 2017.

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, foreground, transits the East China Sea with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces on March 9, 2017. (Sean M. Castellano/U.S. Navy photo)

WASHINGTON — Citing China’s steady military and economic rise along with its refusal to exert its influence over North Korea, Sen. John McCain on Tuesday urged President Donald Trump’s administration to create a comprehensive Asia-Pacific initiative that would counter China’s aggressive stance and reassert the U.S. commitment to its allies, South Korea and Japan, and to freedom of the seas.

McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he envisioned a deterrence initiative similar to what has been created in Europe in recent years in answer to Russian aggression, with beefed up U.S. military presence and its training with and equipping European allies.

McCain, R-Ariz., said the United States has looked to China for years to help bring North Korea to the negotiating table, but those expectations withered. Instead, China rapidly modernized its military, provoking in the South and East China Seas and signaling “an assertive pattern of behavior” that has “called into question the credibility of America’s security commitments in the region.”

“China has acted less and less like a responsible stakeholder of a rules-based order in the region and more like a bully,” he said.

“The new administration has an opportunity to try a different and better course,” McCain said. “This initiative will enhance Pacific Command’s credible combat power with targeted funding to realign U.S. military force posture in the region, improve operationally relevant infrastructure, fund additional exercises, preposition equipment and munitions and build capacity with our allies and partners.”

McCain introduced his initiative ahead of appearances this week by the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday and the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

In advance, the Senate committee heard from four experts on the Asia-Pacific region who all testified Tuesday that there was little expectation that North Korea would back down from its quest to develop nuclear weapons and the long-range ballistic missiles on which to fire them at the United States.

Since 2009, North Korea has conducted 71 missile tests, including four nuclear, and seven since Trump was elected – a dramatic rise from the 16 ballistic missiles tests and one nuclear test in the 14 years prior, said Victor Cha, a senior adviser and the Korea chairman at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. Meanwhile, North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un has no interest in dialogue with the United States or anyone else, he said.

“All of this translates into one of the most challenging strategic environments for the U.S. and its allies and a very dark strategic cloud that is starting to dominate the skyline,” Cha said

The situation does open the opportunity for a closer alliance between the United States and South Korea and for closer trilateral cooperation in the region including Japan, Cha said. He recommended Trump not wait until his planned trip to Vietnam and the Philippines in the fall to hold a meeting with South Korea and Japan to flex the alliance muscles and jointly state that “an attack on one is an attack on all.”

A denuclearized Korean Peninsula is unlikely, but the United States “needs a new playbook” to increase pressure on North Korea, said Kelly Magsamen, a former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs.

She said the United States and its allies need to “double down” on their ballistic missile defense and strengthening deterrence in the region. It won’t stop North Korea’s efforts, but it will help reassure U.S. allies – whom they will need -- should diplomacy fail.

The United States also needs to get its house in order, Magsamen added, and resolve internal political and budgetary conflicts so it can assert a credible show of strength in the region.

All the experts said Trump’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement was damaging to U.S. interests by undermining its influence in the region and strengthening China’s. They also agreed that if the United States acts to take out North Korea’s nuclear weapons, it will escalate into an act of war, with the regime firing conventional weapons at Seoul, South Korea’s capital, or Japan. “We will have to prepare for North Korea capability to reach us,” said Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a foreign policy think tank. “We will have to either rely on deterrence or be forced in to military actions.”

The best scenario is if the United States moves closer to acting against North Korea, China, which has an interest in maintaining stability, will act to step up dialogue between the nations, Cha said.

But while North Korea might be the most imminent threat to the United States, China ultimately poses the greatest challenge, said Aaron Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.

Friedberg said decades of U.S. efforts to engage China have failed. The United States now finds itself in a political battle with a more internally oppressive and externally aggressive China that threatens maritime control, allies itself with other authoritarian regimes to create new economic and trade avenues, and creates the perception that U.S. political stability is in question while China’s growing wealth opens opportunities.

Asian states are now uncertain about whether the United Sates can be relied on to back them up and Trump should use his appearance at the Asia Summit in the fall to “reaffirm the U.S. commitment to global leadership” with promises to shift additional combat power, increase training and munitions to the region to confront the long-term China threat, he said.

“I think time has come for a fundamental strategy against China,” Freidberg said. Twitter: @Dianna Cahn

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