Will the Eagle’s Loss Be the Dragon’s Gain?

By Harry Kazianis

With the world exhaling a collective sigh of relief, lawmakers in Washington, D.C. have agreed to a budget deal that will cut US government spending and raise the debt ceiling. An outline has been given of where cuts will come from that may pose multiple challenges for current US defence priorities around the world. Cuts would total USD$917 billion dollars over ten years in defence and non-defence spending. A congressional committee will gather to enact larger cuts totaling USD$1,5 trillion dollars over ten years. If this second round of cuts were not enacted, a set of “triggers” would automatically make large cuts.

While savings will surely come from America’s drawdown of forces from Iraq and later this year in Afghanistan, congressional leaders would seemingly be forced to draw cuts from other areas of defence spending. For the first time since the 1990’s, US military spending will decline.

American lawmakers must take note of the growing delicate balance of power that is being crafted in Asia. One nation above all others who will be watching astutely for any change in America’s military posture: China.

China’s military has been developing an advanced and modern force. Citing security issues with the US in 1996 over Taiwan, in 2001 over an aircraft collision near Hainan Island and now brewing tensions in the South China Sea, China is preparing for possible conflict. While much has been made of rekindled direct military dialogue and ever expanding US/Chinese trade totaling hundreds of billions of dollars per year, Chinese actions suggest a hedging of bets. 

China’s military advances have begun to bear fruit. China will soon begin sea trials of its refurbished Soviet-era Aircraft Carrier, the Shi Lang. China has also deployed fourth generation fighter aircraft that were largely copied from Russian sources with improved Chinese technology. With Chinese modifications, the new planes are comparable to an American F-15 fighter. In January, the Internet buzzed with photos of a Chinese fifth generation fighter jet, the J-20. The new aircraft is rumored to be on par with the new American F-35 fighter.

China has also turned her attention to new modes of warfare. This includes the creation of “drone” style aircraft and reconnaissance capabilities. The PlA is also developing integrated command and control technology to share tactical information. These capabilities have allowed for the development of a powerful anti-ship ballistic missile capable of sinking US carriers and surface vessels over 2700 kilometers away. China has seemingly moved beyond buying and copying foreign technology to now creating modern domestic military hardware once only the privy of the US.

As America’s military budget begins its presumed decline, China’s military budget has grown by an estimated twenty percent per year for more than a decade. American allies in Asia; especially those around the area of the South China Sea fear American withdrawal. If America were to quickly slash military spending resulting in a perception of withdrawal, dire consequences could result. Various countries may begin to look to purchase ever-increasing amounts of advanced weapons to defend their interests. Vietnam has recently announced a large purchase of ultra quiet diesel submarines from Russia. The Philippines has looked to increase its defence budget. It is rumored Taiwan is in preliminary talks to acquire Russian military equipment. Quick and large cuts in US defence spending could alter an already tense situation. If American planners are not careful, an arms race with dire consequences for the region could develop. Many would argue it has already started.

America must begin the process of re-assessing its security and foreign policy priorities. With American troops leaving Iraq and Afghanistan, and the death of Osama bin Laden combined with a new “American Austerity”, budget cuts in defence spending are inevitable. America must prioritize its security interests. With fresh tensions in the South China Sea and China’s massive military build up, the US must make Asian security matters its top priority. Anything less may only pull American forces into a wider conflict that will only be more costly later on.

The US must also begin to move vital defence and security resources to the area to deter Chinese intentions and reassure allies that America will be a force in Asia for years to come. While US military budget cuts are all but guaranteed, America does have options to convince its regional partners it will not abandon them. America does have sizeable assets in Europe and in the Middle East that could be redeployed to Asia if tensions were to rise further.

With most points of conflict between the US and China involving seafaring nations or islands, any conflict would more than likely involve naval assets. America must begin to reinvest in her navy. America’s navy is stretched thin with one of the smallest force levels on record. With ever decreasing funds available and a sizeable challenge now being presented from Chinese naval planners, America must make smarter naval investments. This may include partnering with nations like Australia, India and Japan to develop powerful diesel submarines. Such vessels would offer highly capable and cost effective options in littoral operations. If based in Asian waters, US diesel submarines would remove the need of long-range nuclear propulsion. Sharing the costs with regional allies and potential partners will reduce expenditures and boost confidence.

America can certainly make timely cuts in defence spending along with recommitting to Asian security. Savings will be made logically through transitioning from a “War on Terror” as American forces move away from the conflicts of the last decade. American politicians who will be looking at various cuts have a blueprint of how to make defence cuts without endangering American security interests. Lawmakers should be urged to look at how the Clinton Administration cut defence spending while maintaining multiple American security guarantees. The Clinton Administration was able to reduce troop levels and cut redundant and expensive Cold War military equipment such as the “Seawolf” submarine program and still win conflicts in Haiti, Bosnia and contain Iraq.

American lawmakers must use a surgeon’s skill and take a scalpel to America’s defence budget. If an axe is used instead, America may only pay a greater price later with tensions in Asia rising. 


Harry Kazianis is an ALM candidate at Harvard University’s Extension School. He is also Deputy Editor for e-IR, where he maintains the blog Throwing BRICs: Security Reflections in a Changing World.  He recently interned at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. 


5 August 2011


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