Ash Carter’s Asian Folly


“We will remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.”

–Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter

Ash Carter is on a mission: to convince Asia’s democracies that Asian security is synonymous with American leadership.

Unfortunately for him, the two concepts are not theoretically or even empirically identical, as is revealed by a major clanger Secretary Carter dropped at the Council for Foreign Relations on April 8, 2016.

During the Q&A, Carter stated that the PRC was screwing things up in the South China Sea, thereby promoting militarization and insecurity in “a region that has had it good for 70 years”…

[insert sound of needle scratching across vinyl]

This is a “region” that “had it good” by experiencing the Vietnam War, the devastation of Laos, and the horror of Pol Pot in Cambodia as a result of the doomed US escapade in Indo-China.  We can also throw in as a lagniappe the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, which was greenlit by President Carter in order to cut the Soviet-friendly Communist victors of Vietnam down to size.

For that matter, the golden period of Asian prosperity also pretty much covers the years 1991-2015, i.e. the period that the Philippines kicked the US military out of Clark/Subic etc.

It’s not a bad argument to say that Asia was at its worst when the US was deeply involved, and did way better when the US retreated militarily and focused on buying umbrellas, underwear and whatnot from a series of Asian tiger economies.

However, Carter is determined to assert the opposite, even if it means getting history on the phone for a rewrite.  That’s because the United States has committed to a strategy—and committed hundreds of billions of dollars in current and future spending—to a narrative that the United States has always been and still is the indispensable security hegemon in Asia.

This narrative, however, is under attack by reality—the growing economic punch of all the Asian powers, not just China, as they muscle up and the US weight compared to the regional economy dwindles.

The United States has, I believe, made a conscious decision to compensate for its declining economic clout by pre-emptively claiming the dominance in the Asian military/security sphere through massive investments in equipment, technologies, and installations focused on the region.

Carter provided a lengthy list of the good stuff the US was bringing to Asia:

To do so, we continue to bring the best people and platforms forward to the Asia-Pacific, not only increasing the number of U.S. military personnel in the region, part of some 365,000 assigned to the Asia-Pacific today, but also sending and stationing some of our most advanced capabilities there.

That includes F-22 and F-35 stealth fighter jets, P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft, continuous deployments of B-2 and B-52 strategic bombers, and also our newest surface warfare ships like the amphibious assault ship USS America and all three of our newest class of stealth destroyers, the DDG-1000, which will be all home-ported with the Pacific Fleet. And all the while we’re bringing America’s regional force posture into the 21st century by rotating American personnel into new and more places like northern Australia and new sites in the Philippines and modernizing our existing footprint in Japan and the Republic of Korea.

And in our 2017 defense budget, which I’ve presented to Congress over the past few weeks, we’re making investments critical to the rebalance. One is our surface fleet, which under our budget grows both the number of ships and, importantly, above all, their capabilities to deter and, if deterrence fails, defeat even the most advanced potential naval adversaries and protect the maritime security we all depend on.

Just one new example of how we’re making our ships’ capabilities increasingly lethal is by maximizing production of the SM-6 missile, one of our most modern and capable munitions, which now has a brand new anti-ship capability. And I could go on. We’re also investing to ensure our continued air superiority and global reach, including with over $12 billion for the new B-21 long-range strike bomber.

Another investment is in undersea capabilities, where we continue to dominate and where we’re investing over $8 billion just next year to ensure ours is the most lethal and most advanced undersea and anti-submarine force in the world. That includes new undersea drones in multiple sizes and diverse payloads that can importantly operate in shallow waters, where manned submarines can’t.

We’re also making large new investments in cyber, in electronic warfare, space capabilities, a total of $34 billion just next year. Among other things, this will help us build our cyber-mission force, develop next-generation electronic jammers, and prepare for the possibility of a conflict that extends into space.

And more is coming, including some surprises. (Scattered laughter.)

In this context, it’s instructive (and amusing) to parse Carter’s statement that TPP ratification is equivalent to another aircraft carrier, a zinger he repeated at CFR while urging Senate ratification.

When one considers the Pentagon’s plans for Asia—and the fact that the US now effectively operates two aircraft carrier groups in the west Pacific–the forward-deployed John C. Stennis in addition to the Ronald Reagan at Fukuoka—Carter’s actually saying, yeah TPP is nice, but I’ve already got two aircraft carriers, and economics & trade really isn’t the game we’re playing here.

Good thing, too, because over time the economic numbers in Asia don’t quite favor the United States.

Currently, the US and Asia each account for about a quarter of the world’s GDP.  By 2050, the US share will still be about 25%–and Asia’s share will be about twice as much.  Since defense spending tracks GDP, the long term trendlines for the US exercising military leadership based on its economic importance is not good.

In order for the United States to fulfill the role Carter has ordained for it—“We will remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come”–the United States is committed to overperforming militarily in order to call the security tune in East Asia.

In the service of this narrative, the DoD and its constellation of think tanks have constructed a doctrine centered around the concept that the PRC is a threat that the Asian democracies (plus plucky Vietnam!) are too weak and divided to confront individually, therefore it’s up to the US to organize, arm, and lead them to form a bulwark against PRC aggression.

Carter visualizes the United States as the grand maestro of this ad hoc alliance, filling the security vacuum created by the lack of a NATO-style formal alliance with a kaleidoscope of bilateral, trilateral, and even quadrilateral alliances orchestrated by the US and underpinned by US bases and military personnel in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, Thailand, Singapore and, hopefully Indonesia and Malaysia.

That’s the plan.  And for the United States, it’s attractive: a trillion dollar bet on the US continuing to call the shots in Asia.

Unfortunately, the US track record in global security leadership is awful.  Under Ash Carter, whom national security tonguebathers credibly report was “genetically engineered to be Secretary of Defense ” i.e. one of the most capable SecDefs in US history, the US has not only continued its bloody botch of the Muslim world, it expanded it to Syria and Libya.  Closer to Asia, the US insistence that unenthusiastic assets pretend to be eager allies pre-ordained failure in Afghanistan as the US pretended that there was a national will and interest in Pakistan in resisting the Afghan Taliban that simply wasn’t there.

In North America, we have the luxury of living on a whole continent populated by us and weak neo-colonial clients and facing our enemies across oceans.  The consequences of our numerous crimes of omission and commission are borne by anonymous citizens of lesser nations far, far away.  Failure is an occasion for greater thinktank ingenuity, not an existential national crisis.

In Asia, nations live cheek and jowl with their enemies, fear them, trade with them and, if they’re smart, try to avoid colossal wars with them.  They even cohabit with them.

With the exception of Japan, every major nation in East Asia has a significant ethnic Chinese population.  Gigantic anti-Chinese pogroms are a fact of recent Malaysian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese history.  Resentment against the prosperous ethnic Chinese class permeates society in Thailand and the Philippines.  Nobody in their right mind wants to light that fuse.  Keeping the focus on economic integration and dodging security-driven polarization is close to an existential issue.

But it’s an aspect the US seems determined to disregard, just as it downplayed the Sunni v. Shia factor in the Middle East.

That is the fatal contradiction of the pivot.  We want to lead, without possessing the local strength, will, understanding, and interest to lead unilaterally.  Instead, we need a constellation of allies, and we need them to suppress their individual interest and shoehorn them into a template that suits US preconceptions and priorities but not necessarily the facts on the ground or, perhaps, even the interests of our partners.  And the most reliable way for a weak leader to achieve leadership is by fomenting polarization, division, and crisis.

The security-heavy US pivot is, in my opinion, a flawed policy that will survive in any case because of a massive commitment of US money and prestige, and because of the support of powerful and entitled interest groups, both in the United States and in the East Asia states. But I predict it will not flourish.  It will serve as a multi-generational drag on the United States (think tanks, defense contractors, and the milsec quadrant aside of course) and it will shave a few points off the regional growth of East Asia.

And if it prevents a war, it won’t be because of the United States.  It will because the nations of East Asia are too smart to let it happen.

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Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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