The unsavory presidential campaign has distracted attention from ominous developments in East Asia, the world’s modern major power center. On Oct. 20, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte declared his “separation” from the United States and his decision to bandwagon with China. “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself” in China’s “ideological flow.” Duterte announced likewise his intent to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin and tell him that there are now three of them against the world: China, the Philippines, and Russia. “It’s the only way,” he proclaimed.
The defection of the Philippines from the American alliance system comes amid mounting apprehension among our traditional allies in Asia (and a potentially new one, democratic India) that the United States lacks the will, wisdom, and capability to deter an increasingly powerful, ambitious, arrogant, repressive, and aggressive Chinese regime seeking hegemony over this dynamic and opulent region.
Rising fear of China and corresponding doubts about American credibility are evident not only in the Philippines, but throughout the region.
The Obama administration has contributed mightily to this perilous erosion of American power and prestige. As the administration shrinks the American military, China’s military buildup rolls on. Over the past two decades, China’s defense spending has increased by double digits annually. China now has the world’s second largest military power, wielding an increasingly sophisticated and growing array of capabilities that increasingly calls into question American military preeminence in the Western Pacific.
The bipartisan and highly regarded National Defense Panel Review of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review considers the “scale and sophistication of China’s military buildup … of great concern,” concluding that “the balance of power is changing in ways unfavorable to the United States.” The panel warns, too, that “China’s renewed nationalism and increasingly assertive unilateral actions, especially in the cyber and maritime domains constitute a growing threat to the international order … China’s assertive behavior presents the most serious long-term threat to the stability and security of U.S. allies in the region.”
According to Department of Defense consultant Michael Pillsbury, China is pursuing “a marathon strategy” derived from the lessons of the Warring States period of Chinese history, seeking to supplant the United States as the world’s dominant power. This entails inducing complacency to avoid alerting your opponent, manipulating your opponent’s advisers, being patient to achieve victory, stealing your opponent’s ideals and technology for strategic purposes, recognizing that the hegemon will take extreme action to retain its dominant position, and waiting for the maximum opportunity to strike.
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Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, compares what China calls a “peaceful rise” strategy to the Soviet Union’s attempts to “Findlandize” Europe. “If the [military] balance shifted in Moscow’s favor, America’s European allies might conclude that Moscow could not be resisted and would fall under Soviet sway. All of Europe would then share the fate of Finland, which had remained nominally independent after World War II, but abided by foreign policy rules dictated in Moscow.” Krepinevich warns that, should the U.S. military advantage over China continue to erode, American allies and friends in Asia may have no choice but to follow Finland’s Cold War example.
Nor has the Obama administration’s vaunted Asia pivot — relying mainly on soft power, engagement with China, and emphasis on the problem of climate change — tamed China’s swelling arrogance or ambitions. On the contrary, China’s audacious efforts in the South China Sea have catalyzed and crystallized the perception that China seeks dominance incompatible with the legitimate interest of its maritime neighbors and the United States. China has asserted sovereignty over the entire South China Sea on the basis of an untenable nine-dash line invalid under international law. China’s brazen territorial assertions have escalated tension in Northeast Asia as well as Southeast Asia. In November 2013, China declared an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) encompassing most of the East China Sea. The ADIZ requires all non-Chinese military and civilian aircraft to identify themselves and their mission to Chinese authorities before entering the zone.
According to Robert Haddick, a contractor with the U.S. Special Operations Command, China is aggressively employing a salami-slicing strategy in pursuit of hegemony in the Western Pacific, involving “the slow accumulation of small changes, none of which in isolation amounts to a casus belli but which add up over time to a substantial change in the strategic picture.” America’s Asian allies have a grimmer perception of the existing state of affairs in East Asia than President Obama, who “welcomes” China’s peaceful rise. “We have a constructive relationship with China,” the president has often repeated. “So our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China.” According to a Pew Foundation Survey conducted in 2014, however, “large majorities in many Asian countries fear that China’s territorial ambitions could lead to war.”
Rising fear of China and corresponding doubts about American credibility are evident not only in the Philippines, but throughout the region, and underscore the Asian Pivot’s main flaw — the growing deficiency of American hard power to underwrite it. No rhetoric or invocation of American smart power can substitute for that. The administration’s current and long-term defense plans continue to broaden the gap between what the United States will have in air, sea, and space capabilities and what the military needs to maintain American dominance in the Pacific. Even Chuck Hagel, Obama’s dovish former secretary of defense, has conceded that “we are entering into an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.”
The deteriorating military balance in East Asia raises the risks of states bandwagoning with China. Nor can India, Japan, and South Korea collectively thwart China’s bid for hegemony minus a muscular American commitment to their security. As author Robert Kaplan warns, even a multipolar Asia without the United States would be a Chinese-dominated Asia. Unfortunately, President Obama, both presidential candidates, and the media ignore perilously what the defection of the historically pro-American Philippines may portend unless we cease doing what we are doing now.
Robert G. Kaufman is a professor at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy and author of “Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama’s Grand Strategy Weakened America.”