U.S. Policy Opportunities in Maritime Asia in 2015

By Mira Rapp-Hooper
Friday, January 9, 2015, 7:00 AM

The latest installation of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative covers several new security developments in the region, including Taiwan’s decision to design indigenous submarines, a long-sought intelligence sharing pact between the United States, South Korea, and Japan, and the fact that China appears to be changing its rhetoric on the enforcement of its East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). With a new Republican Congress in session and the Obama presidency officially in its final two years, however, our latest expert analyses focus on connections between US domestic policy and politics and maritime security issues in Asia.

Murray Hiebert and Gregory Poling explain how the United States can advance its security agenda in South East Asia. In Myanmar, Washington can expand its support of efforts to build political parties, strengthen the parliament, and put in place monitoring bodies in advance of the country’s 2015 elections. Obama should have the new president of Indonesia visit the United States, and should work to flesh out their “comprehensive partnership,” particularly where infrastructure development is concerned, they argue. Obama should also plan to visit Vietnam, and should continue to pursue arms cooperation with Hanoi following the partial lifting of the ban on lethal weapons sales. Washington should continue to monitor developments in Thailand in the wake of the 2014 coup, and attempt to make private contacts with Thais who may prove to be partners on democracy, rule of law, and human rights. In the South China Sea, Washington has already taken important steps to support actively international arbitration by authoring its recent "Limits in the Seas" study, but it should continue to rally international support for the tribunal and insist that China abide by its decision. It should also work to help South East Asian nations improve their maritime domain awareness capabilities, through funding, training, and transfers to partners in the region.

Bonnie Glaser and Christopher Johnson explain how the United States and China can try to improve upon the traditional strengths in their relationship while also confronting head-on some of their most intractable bilateral issues. Washington cannot take for granted that US-China economic interdependence will persist, and should reassure jittery Chinese investors that the US will remain open to Chinese investment so long as no major national security concerns abound. Washington should also take a holistic approach to Chinese cyber espionage, they argue, as opposed to treating it as a series of discrete acts. The administration and Congress should also attempt to establish ties with President Xi Jinping’s newest “leading groups” on security, economic, and cyber issues. In the maritime sphere specifically, the United States should actively seek to implement recently-established military-to-military confidence building measures with China. The United States should include China in more military exercises and expand its role in those as a reward for sustained cooperative behavior. But it should restrict its participation, ramp up US military activities in China’s near seas, and continue to build partnerships that exclude China if and when Beijing fails to implement these agreements.

Michael Green, Zack Cooper, and I argue that the Obama administration and Congress must work together both to explain and to fund the Rebalance to the Pacific. First, the administration must systematically develop and articulate a clear, comprehensive strategy to guide the many parallel efforts that U.S. government agencies are already making to augment U.S. presence in the region. Congress should fund the modernization of U.S. military facilities in Guam, but the larger task to tackle is to surmount the defense budget obstacles that have been put in place in the last several years. Congress should pass a nonbinding resolution to set defense spending above sequestration caps, lay the groundwork for increased spending through the reconciliation process, and prepare a deal that President Obama can sign this fall. Budgets should be dictated by strategy---not the other way around---and by surmounting sequestration, the administration and the Hill can ensure that Washington sustains its current capabilities in the Pacific while also readying its forces for future challenges in Asia.

Admiral Gary Roughead echoes the call to end blunt, inflexible cuts to the defense budget, and suggests several more measures that the administration and Congress can take to improve U.S. military standing in Asia. First, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees should make good on their pledges to reform the military procurement process, and they should start by formally integrating the heads of each service into the acquisitions process and holding them accountable for outcomes. Congress should also make it easier to facilitate technology transfers to allies in the region. Second, the President and the Hill should work together to reform military compensation so that the defense budget does not continue to be eroded from within by way of soaring medical and retirement costs and more. Third, as the world’s leading maritime nation, the U.S. should make the Arctic a policy priority. If Washington can help to ensure a safe, secure, and prosperous Arctic, those benefits will redound in other regions.

Finally, my colleague Zack Cooper identifies a dilemma that Washington is currently facing in its defense spending---one between the visibility and vulnerability of its forces. In peacetime, U.S. forces are most useful when they are visible and can employed to deter potential adversaries and reassure allies. In wartime, leaders generally seek to minimize vulnerability, which may also lead them to put less emphasis on visibility, because visible forces may be escalatory or vulnerable to attack. The capabilities that are useful for peacetime signaling are very different than those that are most useful in short or protracted wars.

Generally, the United States has relied heavily on highly visible forces to demonstrate resolve. More recently in Asia, however, China’s growing anti-access and area denial capabilities have exacerbated the vulnerability of visible forces and led Washington to use submarines and stealth to minimize this risk. Beijing, for its part, has traditionally sought to minimize the vulnerability of its forces, and has only recently begun to acquire more visible power projection capabilities. This leaves China newly able to coerce its neighbors, while the U.S. wonders what it can bring to bear in opposition. In the current budgetary climate, U.S. military services must increasingly choose between more visible forces that have peacetime signaling value, and less vulnerable ones that may have more warfighting value. With bipartisan cooperation, the administration and Congress can work together to ensure that the U.S. maintains the visible forces that allies want to see, while preparing for potential future conflict scenarios with minimally vulnerable forces.

All of these pieces suggest concrete, actionable U.S. policy prescriptions that may promote Washington’s interests in Asia, including security and stability in the maritime realm. But they also underscore a central theme, and that is the difficulty of coordinating vital but disparate efforts to address China’s rapid rise. Maritime flashpoints in the Pacific of course have not formed in a vacuum, but have become particularly salient in recent years as Beijing’s military capabilities and interests have expanded. And whether our authors are contemplating how Congress and the President can work together to make the most of U.S. resources, or how Washington should define and implement its agendas with states in the region, including China itself, these challenges all call for the coherent integration of ways, means, and ends in U.S. policy. Strategy, as Lawrence Freedman has observed, is a very “hard thing to get right.” Given the stakes involved in this epochal power transition, however, 2015 is surely a good time to try.