If one requires any evidence that the United States is a fading power, the recent events in the South China Sea offer ample evidence. Two Chinese fighter jets intercepted U.S. military reconnaissance aircraft and, to add to the humiliation rebuked the Obama administration for any surveillance near China. The incident took place in international airspace on what has been described as a “routine U.S. patrol.” This latest encounter comes on the heels of another interception in which Chinese jets mimicked an all-out attack on a U.S. naval vessel that sailed close to a disputed reef. These are merely two recent war like actions by the Chinese in a series of interception since 2014.
China now claims most of the South China Sea through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei all have claims of one kind or another in the Chinese created perimeter and all of these nations depend on the U.S. to enforce those claims. Washington has accused Beijing of militarizing the region, but China responds with a shrug suggesting that there are diplomatic channels available for the resolution of disputes.
The weakness of U.S. naval forces in the Pacific and the China Sea is apparent. New naval vessels – desperately needed to relieve the demands on the existing force – are not in production and with sequestration, are not likely to be in production. There are an insufficient number of Aegis equipped ships to provide an acceptable level of sea-based protection. And after several incidents in which there hasn’t been a military response, Chinese officials believe the U.S. has acquiesced in their regional domination.
Moreover, and quite tellingly, the nations that have claims on islands in the South China Sea, have either dropped their protests or softened their language. There is the growing realization the U.S. is not prepared to protect island claims or even protect freedom of the seas.
The president elect of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, explained, “America would never die for us. If America cared, if would have sent its aircraft carriers and missile frigates the moment China started reclaiming land in contested territory, but no such thing happened… America is afraid to go to war. We’re better off making friends with China.” This is a sentiment resonating throughout the continent.
Chinese sorties against the U.S. are not a casus belli, even as they have increased regional tension and have exposed the U.S. as an ill-prepared protector of Asian allies. Having eviscerated national naval strength, there isn’t much the U.S. can do except express our dismay at the U.N. and in bilateral talks.
The Chinese installation of DF-21 “carrier killer” surface to ship missile, and its current iteration, has a range of 2500 miles. Of significant concern is the Russian air defense, the S-500 anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems that are likely to neutralize the effectiveness of the F-35 stealth fighter before it becomes operational, which the Chinese claim to have acquired. These technical breakthroughs give the U.S. Navy pause; while not dispositive they are factors that militate against activism.
Chinese long term plans for the 21st century version of the Silk Road are on the way to fruition. As Chinese leaders see it, a supine U.S. is an unwitting ally on the pathway to commercial domination. Xi sees China as the “central kingdom” a land of incomparable influence consistent with its historic past. In most respects, notwithstanding neglect of our defenses, the U.S. is still more powerful than China. But the Chinese advantage lies with a discernible plan and a military buildup commensurate with its goals. As Clauswitz noted, the will to act can be as significant as one’s capabilities – particularly when an adversary will do almost anything to avoid confrontation.
Is a restoration of U.S. naval supremacy in the Pacific possible? The answer lies in money and time. The F-35 aircraft has sapped funds from every aspect of military preparation. It also takes years to build another carrier force and other naval vessels for a show of maritime muscle. Most significantly the commander and chief of our military must grow a spine, i.e. the backbone to assert our interests and protect our allies. Ultimately, this matter is more important than all others. If the president is not up to the challenge, American interests in Asia will continue to fade. That may be the real legacy of this president and the one best remembered by our “former” allies.