Magazine article National Defense

U.S. Pacific Shift Aims to Manage, Not Challenge China's Rise

Magazine article National Defense

U.S. Pacific Shift Aims to Manage, Not Challenge China's Rise

Article excerpt

* The U.S. military's worldview is about to change dramatically.

Defense Department leaders are set to trade desert and mountain terrain in the Middle East and South Asia for the watery expanse of the Pacific Ocean, where a rising superpower threatens the vitality of global trade and U.S. interests in the region. It is a strategic "shift" or "pivot" that has been in works for a while, but will accelerate once U.S. troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.

"Here's how we look at the world," Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Thomas Conant, deputy commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said during a recent presentation. "It's not centered on North America, it's not centered on Europe. It's centered on that [China], as it should be."

Most of Conant's presentation to the National Defense Industrial Association's annual Expeditionary Warfare Conference in Panama City, Fla., was given before a series of maps centered on Asia. On one, China was highlighted in white while colored rings representing the ranges of its precision-guided missiles radiated from its borders.

The focus of the US. military's shift to the Pacific is not aimed at provoking China or a knee-jerk reaction to any immediate threat from that nation, Conant was careful to explain. War between the two superpowers is not on anyone's radar, he said. The plan is rather to "manage the rise" of China as it stretches its economic and military sphere of influence in the region, he said. U.S. civilian and military officials recognize that less-powerful countries in the region may view China's economic expansion as a threat to their own sovereignty.

"When you have a rising power ... and a 'great' power--the U.S., China, India, Russia--meet up and come to this collision point ... somebody ends up in a shooting match, whether it's bows and arrows, or whether it's cannons or dropping bombs. We cannot allow that to happen."

The main concern in the Pacific is not that the United States and China may come to blows, but that regional anxieties could disrupt global trade through choke-points like the Strait of Malacca. Tensions are already high, given China's insistence--over claims by Vietnam, Thailand and other nations--that it has sole fishing rights in the South China Sea.

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By partnering with lesser nations in the region, the U.S. military may be able to deter a costly war. But direct hostilities with China is something for which neither country is currently prepared, Conant said.

For the past 10 years, through two wars, the United States has not had to contend with a peer nation that possesses precision-guided missiles, the proliferation of which threatens the primacy of U.S. carriers and their ability to project power. For that reason, the Defense Department loosely adopted the air-sea battle strategy, said Undersecretary of the Navy Robert O. Work.

"The Pacific has always been a maritime theater," Work said at the conference. "Over time this will cause us to emphasize longer-range systems and weapons and longer-range, secure communications."

The air-sea strategy is designed to counter a peer nation's guided missiles that could keep aircraft carriers and landing forces at a distance, and thus render them impotent. The plan relies primarily on long-range bombers and submarines to disable missile systems. Army and Marine Corps officials have repeatedly asserted that they also play a role in the strategy.

The Pacific is vast and operations there will rely on maritime forces, but the Defense Department plans to take a "whole of government" approach to its strategy. To achieve long-term goals of safeguarding commercial activity and avoiding regional conflicts, "it requires land forces, it requires naval forces, it requires Coast Guard capability and unmanned" systems, Conant said.

"There's no one force--you can talk about air-sea battle all you want--but that's not the problem set that is going to solve this issue," he added. …

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