When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited China two weeks ago, he was brought up short when Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said: “China cannot be contained.” If that wasn't enough of a sign, last week's orders from President Xi Jinping to the Chinese air force were all too clear. Xi ordered air force leaders to "speed up air and space integration and sharpen their offensive and defensive capabilities." In other words, militarize space.
China is on the move, backed up by a very real military buildup. President Obama is on the move, too, traveling to Asia to breathe life into a strategic "pivot" that is being undermined by his own proposed cuts to the Pentagon budget.
The highlight of Hagel's trip was a two-hour tour of China's first aircraft carrier, theLiaoning. The carrier -- purchased as a stripped hulk from the former Soviet Union and reconstructed -- is approximately 60,000 tons and has a ramp on the deck to assist short-takeoff jets in getting airborne. (A U.S. Nimitz-class carrier weighs in at about 98,000 tons and doesn't need a ramp because its catapults are capable of launching aircraft such as the F-18 Hornet.) The Liaoning is reportedly going to be able to carry about 50 aircraft, including the J-10 (a Chinese design) and J-15 fighters (similar to the Russian Su-33). Both are highly capable.
China's military strategy has several objectives, and the Liaoning fits in well as a means of power projection. China's disputes with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, and with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea over its new “Air Defense Identification Zone” in the East China Sea, are flash points that lend themselves to carrier forces. It may be that China is training for the “short, sharp war" it could fight against Japan, as postulated recently by the U.S. Pacific Fleet's intelligence chief, Capt. James Fanell.
The U.S. military strategy, such that it is, involves "rebalancing" forces in the Pacific and "leveraging" the capacities of allies such as Japan and Australia. But what forces? Obama's budget would shrink the military to the point at which it would no longer be able to fight more than one regional conflict at a time -- meaning that Pacific allies would be on their own as long as the United States remains tied down in the Middle East and South Asia. Or, if events turn the wrong way, in Eastern Europe. Items on Obama's chopping block include the Tomahawk cruise missile and 8,000 Marines. The budget also proposes laying up half the cruiser fleet and the carrier George Washington, which, from its home port in Japan, anchors U.S. power projection in the Pacific, unless money can be found to modernize them and keep them sailing.
Meanwhile, China, steadily rising in power, is building the capacity to use its carrier forces in combination with cyberwar and military-space programs to destabilize American allies in the Pacific and make other nations — such as India — more reluctant to make closer alliances with the United States. Obama's actions at home don't back up the message he wants to send in Asia. A real "pivot" would be backed up with real power.