As U.S. President Barack Obama completes his four-nation Asian tour to promote the diplomatic, economic and security aspects of the U.S. “rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific, the region continues to grapple with strategic uncertainties.
While reactions to China’s cumulative rise on the global stage have varied, but virtually none of the regional actors are comfortable with its increasing military capabilities and more assertive policies, particularly in the deepening territorial disputes over selected islands in the South China and East China seas.
At the same time, none of the regional actors currently have the capability to unilaterally oppose Chinese strategic ambitions without the support of the U.S.
China, Japan, South Korea and to a lesser degree Taiwan are acquiring new and more extensive power projection capabilities and demonstrating the political willingness to use them for different strategic reasons.
China’s military challenge poses significant dilemmas particularly for Japan, which has been constrained by the historical, political and legal predicaments of the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Tokyo aims to overcome the limitations posed by its pacifist postwar constitution and the Yoshida Doctrine. Its more robust security policy (“Dynamic Defense”) seeks greater strategic and operational flexibility in responding to regional contingencies.
Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are shifting from a traditionally static defense posture toward power projection and deterrent capabilities ― with the procurement of MV-22 Ospreys, F-35 fighters, Global Hawk drones and amphibious troop carriers.
Similarly, South Korea’s ongoing defense reforms have aimed not only to strengthen capabilities vis-a-vis North Korean asymmetric nuclear threats, but also to develop joint air and naval capabilities that would complement a long-term U.S. strategic presence in East Asia.
Seoul aims to offset any potential future crises stemming from great power rivalries.
To this end, South Korea’s force modernization programs include the procurement of F-35 stealth fighters, multirole helicopters, submarines, destroyer experimental vessels, surface-to-air missiles, early warning systems, independent precision-strike assets and the next generation of C4ISR.
Meanwhile, China is pursuing a comprehensive force modernization to regain and reassert its historical geopolitical role in the region.
Despite the ongoing debate on its capabilities, intent, strategic aims and technological deficiencies, China’s PLA is making rapid and relatively significant progress in transforming not only its assets, but also its strategic priorities, force structures and operational concepts.
The PLA’s evolving operational concepts of “integrated attack and defense” ― joint counter-air strike campaigns in conjunction with the Second Artillery’s anti-ship ballistic missile capabilities ― are seen as vital in defending China’s territorial and sovereignty claims, as well as in limiting strikes by potential adversaries (like the U.S.), access options and maneuver capabilities.
China’s defense aviation industry has also accelerated its research, development and testing programs ― from the carrier-based multirole fighter (J-15), the fifth-generation J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters, and heavy transport aircraft (Y-20), to future-oriented unmanned aerial vehicles and hypersonic vehicle systems.
In just over a decade, the PLA Air Force has retired most of its obsolete 1950s-era Soviet-designed combat aircraft (J-6 and J-7s), and replaced them with more than 400 fourth-generation fighters (J-10, J-11 variants), armed with advanced air-to-air missiles and precision guided munitions, and capable of flying in all weather conditions.
While important technological hurdles still exist, notably in the development of indigenous advanced, high-thrust turbofan engines, these have not precluded the PLAAF from conceptualizing long-term visions of airpower.
By 2030, China’s air power doctrine envisions conducting independent air campaigns within a 3000 km radius of China’s periphery ― shifting its primary missions from traditional land-based air defense, interdiction and close air support operations toward deterrence and strategic strikes at sea.
For the first time since Japan’s attempt to assert its regional strategic presence in the first half of the 20th century, East Asian states now have the ability to pursue national security strategies based on advanced power projection capabilities.
East Asian militaries are procuring advanced aerospace and naval assets in combination with standoff attack precision weapons, ballistic and cruise missiles, and space-based C4ISR systems.
These systems are becoming the “platforms of choice” as they enable key regional powers to overcome the “tyranny of geography” ― or the traditional geopolitical entrapment of shared historical path dependence.
The changing strategic realities in East Asia coupled with the diffusion and regional integration of next-generation airpower, maritime and space-based weapons technologies will increasingly constrain the U.S. ability to shape the regional security environment based on its terms and interests.
For the U.S. and its allies in the region, managing future crises will become even more complex as Beijing seeks to regain its “rightful” strategic presence in East Asia.
By Michael Raska
Michael Raska is a research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. ― Ed.