Note to Ash Carter: Make the Rebalance a Reality
The new secretary of defense needs to make the United States’ “rebalance to the Asia-Pacific” an indisputable fact. Even in the face of global challenges and constrained resources, it is essential to strengthen America’s influence to preserve peace and adapt a prosperous, rule-based regional order.
Locking in deterrence and readiness for sudden change on the Korean Peninsula remains the first order of the day. Leveraging the capabilities of allies and partners can help offset constraints on U.S. armed forces, even as the United States continues to move more of its most advanced platforms to the region. Lowering points of friction with China should be a focus of effort and can be achieved in part through effective engagement and greater transparency.
Locking in Deterrence and Readiness
No actor is more capable of creating a regional conflict than North Korea. Pyongyang’s recent attack on Sony has attracted attention for its novelty, but the country’s nuclear and missile threat is a more lethal danger that continues to grow unconstrained. Although the size and shape of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is unclear, research, development and testing of delivery vehicles suggest it is moving in the direction of eventually establishing a survivable nuclear capability, which poses a strategic problem insofar as a secure deterrent convinces North Korea it can launch provocations or even limited military campaigns without risk of nuclear war. Nothing in U.S. policy today suggests that North Korea’s nuclear progress will be halted or rolled back.
The secretary of defense is uniquely responsible for military contingency plans, and Carter will therefore need to ensure that DOD is preparing for the possibility of limited military campaigns on the Korean Peninsula. The United States and ally South Korea have long prepared for total war with North Korea, and in recent years the prospect of North Korean collapse as well. Limited-war scenarios, however, fall in between these two extremes and demand a distinct set of objectives, resources and planning assumptions, beyond simply planning to parry a single provocation. A diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear program might still be possible, but if that ultimately fails, the alliance must be prepared for the political-military realities that follow.
Leveraging Ally and Partner Militaries
Asian governments are redoubling efforts to modernize their militaries at a pace that exceeds any point since the end of the Cold War. As states build up their military capacities, there is a risk of arms racing in some weapons categories, posing potential interoperability challenges between the United States and its allies and partners, and the possibility of inadvertent escalation due either to misunderstandings or a deliberate attempt by aggressors to exploit the ambiguities that often accompany new technologies.
To harness the military modernization trend in a positive direction of assured access, Carter should pursue a security cooperation strategy that prioritizes building ally and partner local capacity to counter the power projection forces of plausible adversaries. From traditional allies such as Australia, Japan and the Philippines to burgeoning partners such as Indonesia, India, Vietnam and Malaysia, the United States can help steer the region toward a defensive rather than offensive orientation by facilitating ally and partner investment in sea-based mines, submarines, littoral combat ships, land-based anti-ship missiles and maritime surveillance equipment.
After more than half a century of relative passivity in regional security affairs, Japan is poised to play a greater role in the region, even as historical tensions linger in the background with some during this 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The next two years will see Japan’s first forays into limited exercise of collective self-defense, which will require further negotiations, implementation and exercising.
Carter will need to continue working closely with Japan as it carves a constructive and cooperative security role for itself in the region. Given the intimacy of the alliance, the United States can be a leading voice in pre-emptively allaying any concerns that Japan’s neighbors might have by not only explaining the benefits of Japanese security contributions, but by making those contributions part and parcel of the alliance relationship. The United States should also help broker intra-Asian security cooperation, including Japanese engagement with other allies and partners throughout the region.
Lowering Friction Points with China
Even as the United States pursues the benefits of cooperation with China on a range of issues, uncertainty remains about China’s long-term intentions and its recent assertiveness in contested maritime territories The United States should welcome and accommodate a rising China, but not necessarily its more assertive behavior. Imposing costs on coercion can best be accomplished not only by a demonstrable presence and a stronger network of durable partners, but also by expanding regional transparency. Incomplete domain awareness across vast stretches of sea and sky makes it easy for aggressors in high-friction areas to coerce while obscuring the line that separates aggressor and defender.
Two policy tasks relating to China can help remove potential flashpoints. First, continue institutionalizing operational-level military-tomilitary engagement so interaction becomes an unbreakable habit. Military engagement that develops and strengthens rules for preserving operations at sea and in the air — such as the two confidence-building mechanisms agreed to by Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, last November — should not be subordinated to larger swings in the relationship. Habituated interaction can help insulate lower-level cooperation from political caprice.
Second, Carter can help inject transparency into contested maritime areas by constructing a requirements road map for a regional common operating picture among participants. The surveillance and information-sharing activity necessary to achieve this level of transparency can dampen opportunistic coercion and foster limited cooperation. It can facilitate Chinese cooperation and raise the barrier to coercion and tension. The idea of locking in deterrence, leveraging allies and partners and lowering friction points with China should be elaborated in the maritime security and regional strategy documents required by Congress. Carter faces a complex and fast-moving Asia-Pacific region. The next two years provide a critical opportunity to not simply manage shortterm crises, but shape longer-term conditions in favor of enduring peace and stability.