New US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is embarking on a week-long visit to Japan, Korea and Hawaii, a visit which he previewed with a speech in Arizona. It's worth extracting some remarks, starting with this, on the US-backed regional trade initiative, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP):
TPP would provide...a more level playing field and more opportunities to succeed. It would do so by requiring these other countries to adopt the standards that we hold ourselves to here in the United States, such as: government transparency, intellectual property laws, a free and open internet, environmental protections, and workers’ rights. TPP would also lower barriers to American goods and services in the Asia-Pacific’s fastest growing markets.
But TPP also makes strong strategic sense, and it is probably one of the most important parts of the rebalance, and that’s why it has won such bipartisan support. In fact, you may not expect to hear this from a Secretary of Defense, but in terms of our rebalance in the broadest sense, passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier. It would deepen our alliances and partnerships abroad and underscore our lasting commitment to the Asia-Pacific. And it would help us promote a global order that reflects both our interests and our values.
Note the terms on which TPP is pitched here: the agreement levels the playing field not because it requires all countries to agree on the highest standards, but because it requires foreign countries to abide by US standards. It's not an argument likely to sway opinion in the region. Nor is the explicit link Carter makes between the TPP and America's military capability, courtesy of the reference to aircraft carriers and alliances, likely to go down well. In fact, it's a sound-bite tailor made for those Beijing sceptics who see the TPP as a device which deliberately excludes them, and which functions as the economic component of a US-led China containment strategy.
Speaking of China, here's Carter on Beijing's place in Obama's 'rebalance' strategy:
Some people would have you believe that China will displace America in the Asia-Pacific or that its economic growth will somehow squeeze out opportunities for young people like you. But I reject the zero-sum thinking that China’s gain is our loss because there is another scenario in which everyone wins…and it is a continuation of the decades of peace and stability anchored by a strong American role, in which all Asia-Pacific countries continue to rise and prosper, including China. This is the scenario we seek in the ongoing rebalance.
So the scenario in which 'everyone wins' is one in which the status quo of US regional leadership continues indefinitely. I'm certain Australia and others friends and allies of Washington would agree because all of us have prospered under that arrangement. But unfortunately, there's an excellent chance that this is not what China wants. Carter says earlier in the speech that 'as countries across the Asia-Pacific grow more powerful...we expect to see changes in how countries define and pursue their interests and ambitions. In other words, the regional status quo will change.' But the rest of the speech indicates that the US will resist that change, which does set the scene for a tense relationship.
Finally, Carter dropped some interesting details on US military capabilities in the Asia Pacific:
...we will continue to invest in future capabilities that will be especially relevant to the Asia-Pacific’s complex and dynamic security environment. These include high-end capabilities, such as a new, long-range stealth bomber and a new, long-range anti-ship cruise missile – just to name two…and areas like rapid runway repair, which may seem mundane, but will help ensure that U.S. forces can survive in a crisis. We’re also working on new weapons like a railgun, which uses electromagnetic forces rather than high explosives to fire rounds at much higher speeds, lower cost, and with greater effectiveness. And we’re developing new space, electronic warfare, and other advanced capabilities, including some surprising ones.
Two things of note: first, what could 'some surprising ones' refer to? Is Carter hinting at some undisclosed 'black' weapons program?
Second, note the reference to runway repair. As Carter says, it's a mundane topic, but it indicates that the Pentagon is taking seriously the threat of Chinese ballistic missile strikes on US air bases in the region. There has long been a lively debate among strategists about the possibility that a regional skirmish — say over the South China Sea or Taiwan — could escalate quickly if China were to attack US bases in the region. It's a scenario that raises some scary questions: how could the US tell whether incoming missiles had conventional or nuclear warheads? Would Washington respond by attacking bases on the Chinese mainland? Would Beijing in turn take this as a provocation that would justify counter-strikes on the continental US? In the event of heightened regional tension, would the US be better off pre-emptively hitting Chinese missile sites in order to protect its bases?
Carter's reference to runway repair suggests a few things. First, it could be an indicator that the US accepts it will be too difficult to protect its air bases from missile strikes with missile-defence systems alone. The numbers just don't stack up, so America needs to supplement its 'active' defences (missiles to take out incoming missiles) with 'passive' measures such as rapid runway repair.
Second, it might indicate that the US wants the flexibility to not respond to Chinese strikes on its bases with counter-strikes on Chinese territory. If the US can instead blunt such strikes by rapidly returning its facilities to working order, it can avoid taking action that might escalate a regional skirmish to a world war.
These seem like lurid military fantasies, and it's true that the chances of US-China relations deteriorating to this point are remote. But it is fair to say that they are less remote than they were a decade ago. Moreover, if China's aim is to erode America's military preeminence in the region, and if America's aim is to resist that erosion, then the two countries have incompatible goals. Carter says he rejects 'zero-sum thinking that China’s gain is our loss', but in this case, zero-sum thinking seems hard to avoid.