Recently, the Department of Defense released its annual report to Congress on China’s military capabilities and activities. Providing valuable information to Congress about China’s military, the report comes at an important time for Congress as it grapples with difficult decisions about defense cuts brought about by the sequester.
The DOD report describes China’s military in stark contrast to the situation currently confronting the U.S. military. China’s military capabilities continue to expand, resulting in increased tensions in the Asia Pacific. Meanwhile, the U.S. military is affected by arbitrarily imposed budget cuts that could weaken its ability to safeguard the stability of the region. While the Asia Pacific is far from the United States, the continued peace and prosperity of this dynamic region is vital to the United States. Congress needs to prioritize U.S. military capabilities necessary to maintain stability in the Asia Pacific.
According to the DOD report, China continues its decadeslong effort to comprehensively modernize its military. This year China’s defense budget grew by more than 10 percent, further strengthening Chinese military capabilities. Of note, the report details China’s development of disruptive capabilities that could be used against U.S. forces in the region in the event of a conflict, such as antisatellite, cyber and conventional ballistic missile capabilities.
A stronger military also provides Beijing with the means to pursue narrowly defined interests in the region. China’s growing military capabilities exacerbate its disputed maritime claims in the region, as recent crises with Japan and the Philippines demonstrate. Of note, both of these countries are treaty allies with the United States. As China continues to strengthen its military, the likelihood of a major crisis in the Asia Pacific will increase.
For almost seven decades, the U.S. military has guaranteed the overall peace and stability of the region. U.S. forces have ensured freedom of navigation in regional waters. During times of crises, the U.S. military has dispatched forces to prevent an altercation from escalating into a major war. In a region unfortunately beset by natural disasters, the U.S. military is usually one of the first on the scene to provide humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
The importance of Asia-Pacific stability cannot be overstated. The Asia Pacific is experiencing unprecedented social and economic growth. The region is home to the world’s second- and third-largest economies. Furthermore, the U.S. economy is increasingly intertwined with this dynamic region.
However, the DOD is currently grappling with how to implement $500 billion in defense cuts over the next 10 years. To make matters worse, these cuts are not imposed in a well-thought-out way, but rather across the board. This will increase the uncertainty about U.S. defense priorities and reduce the U.S. military’s readiness. Eventually, these budget cuts will weaken the military’s ability to act as a stabilizing force in the Asia Pacific.
To maintain regional stability, Congress needs to protect certain aspects of DOD funding. First, Congress should ensure funding for U.S. military operations and training in the region to maintain a constant U.S. military presence. Second, Congress should ensure funding for specific capabilities necessary to operate in the Asia-Pacific threat environment, particularly naval capabilities. Third, Congress should ensure funding for developing and maintaining the U.S. military’s intellectual capital to understand the region.
Some argue that the DOD needs to do its part to help get the U.S. fiscal situation in order, but this argument lacks depth. Yes, the DOD should receive its share of budget cuts, but decisions about what to cut should be made based on priorities. At a time when the Asia Pacific is of growing importance to the United States, Congress should not be decreasing the military’s ability to effectively operate in the region.
Others argue that China is not an enemy, and therefore we should not try to contain it. This argument is correct, but only to a point. While the U.S. and China are not enemies, the U.S. military does help to ensure that China’s increasing military capabilities do not disrupt the overall stability of the Asia Pacific.
Reducing the overall U.S. defense budget is a worthy goal, but it must be done wisely. If Congress does not guarantee the resources needed for the military to effectively operate in the Asia Pacific, the U.S. military may no longer be the stabilizing force in the region that it has been for so long. But not to worry, the Chinese military is waiting to fill the vacuum.
Daniel M. Hartnett is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council, trumanproject.org, and a research scientist in the China Studies Division at CNA. The views here are his own.