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OPINION

Push to build up US military in Indo-Pacific misreads threat posed by China

By DANIEL L. DAVIS | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: May 1, 2020

Even amid the gash to our economy from coronavirus, there has been considerable discussion suggesting the U.S. should fund new initiatives in the Indo-Pacific to “send a powerful strategic message of U.S. commitment to the region.” A careful examination of the fundamentals involved, however, shows that such a plan would deepen the dependencies on the U.S. military by many Asian nations while adding nothing to our security.

Let’s be honest here: This is not about “the region.” This is about preparing for conflict with China, as Defense Secretary Mark Esper plainly implied in recent congressional testimony, darkly warning that the U.S. must invest more militarily in the Indo-Pacific area because China is “expanding its political and economic ties across Asia, Europe, South America and Africa.”

The most critical question that needs to be answered about the utility or necessity of America embarking on such a military-first plan of action: Is there evidence that China has both the intent and the capacity (either in the near or medium term) to attack the United States or our armed forces? The answer is a resounding “no.”

To be sure, China has made substantial improvements in its military. What we must ascertain, however, is the extent to which these military improvements portend a threat to American security. Such analysis reveals that China’s military buildup is designed to defend its territory against the United States, not invade other nations (with the exception of Taiwan; more on that below).

China’s decades-long military buildup has served to modernize its forces and harden its defenses against American attack; A2AD in military-speak (Anti-access to Chinese territory; area denial).

This system develops, employs and synchronizes technology, drones, missiles, command-and-control, ships, anti-air assets, and ground, sea, air and space forces into an integrated ability to repel a theoretical U.S. force as far away from Chinese territory as possible. A2AD is unquestionably a potent and effective deterrent to attack. It’s what is missing from this buildup, however, that is most instructive for American security.

For all China’s development over the past 30 years, it still lacks the equipment necessary to guarantee success in conducting the relatively short and easy cross-strait invasion of what Beijing considers the break-away province of Taiwan.

Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) troops defeated the Chinese Nationalists in their 1949 civil war, the CCP has constantly and unambiguously stated they would use force to reunify Taiwan should the island declare independence. Yet in the 70 years since the end of the Civil War, China still has insufficient military infrastructure to ensure successfully invading and capturing Taiwan. A 2019 Pentagon report concludes that, “An attempt to invade Taiwan would likely strain China’s armed forces and invite international intervention.”

If it would strain China to the breaking point just to invade this one small island, there is no rational case to be made that China has any significant territorial ambitions beyond its own borders. As proven in its decades of development of its A2AD capabilities, defense of its territory, not foreign conquest, is what China values and where it invests. Furthermore, America’s unrivaled and dominant ability to project power around the world makes it a physical impossibility for China to attack and invade any American territory.

There is no utility, therefore, in significantly increasing American military power in the Indo-Pacific region for the primary purpose of “thwarting” an alleged Chinese threat to other nations in the region. In fact, expanding American military power in the Pacific region works against our interests by ensuring other states spend less on their own national security because they know we’ll do it for them.

For those countries in the Indo-Pacific region who feel they face a potential military threat from China, we should be willing to provide them with advanced weaponry necessary for those countries to build their own A2AD defensive system — which they can purchase, not be provided free of charge by the U.S. — to make any attack by China so costly for the attackers that Beijing is deterred from even making the attempt.

Each nation in that region should be responsible for funding its own defense to the level it deems appropriate to the threat. The defense of other wealthy Asian nations should not, under any circumstances, be the primary responsibility of the American taxpayer. The U.S. military should defend our country and ensure the prosperity — first and foremost — of our citizens.

Daniel L. Davis, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities. His 21-year Army career included four combat deployments.

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