The Japanese government recently issued a diplomatic white paper calling China “assertive” toward its neighbors. Despite the namby-pamby choice of words — China merely “assertive”? — Beijing pitched a fit.
It huffed its “strong opposition,” reminded Tokyo yet again of Japanese aggression in World War II and accused Tokyo of furthering the “China threat theory,” as if no such thing existed — even though China never misses an opportunity to rattle its neighbors’ nerves.
It was a small incident, but a reminder that the security climate in a critical part of the world is becoming more dicey. At the same time, Iran continues its drive to dominate the Persian Gulf, with the goal of controlling one of the most important choke points of the world’s energy supply.
The aggressive behavior of these two powers is especially worrisome given the prospect of severe U.S. defense cuts. In this summer’s debt-ceiling deal, Congress agreed to initial spending trims, then gave a 12-member, bipartisan “super committee” the job of finding $1.5 trillion more.
The panel must finish its work by Nov. 23. If it fails, the cuts will be automatic and half would be carved out of defense.
While the public’s attention has been focused on the threat of Islamic jihadism and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the challenge from Iran and China has grown.
Many point out that U.S. defense spending far outstrips that of any other country.
Our weapons systems and capabilities are unparalleled. As we were reminded repeatedly during the Libyan crisis, the United States possesses “unique capabilities.”
But what matters isn’t the snapshot — the situation as it stands today. What matters is the trend, and the trend is worrisome. Our defense budget is threatened while both China and Iran are investing in weapons that could eventually deny U.S. access to much of the western Pacific and the Persian Gulf. That would degrade America’s value as an ally and force some allies to question the value of a U.S. tie. It is a scenario of U.S. decline.
Comparing defense spending levels is a misleading metric. While U.S. forces must operate at the end of long supply lines, countries like China or Iran can potentially dominate their regions at far less cost merely because of proximity.
As a retired Indian general noted, the “Achilles heel” of the U.S. strategic posture is its dependence on forward bases. Deny access to those bases and you roll back American power. The general’s observation was included in a paper by Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense-oriented think tank.
Both China and Iran are well along in their efforts to achieve “access denial,” Krepinevich wrote.
China is developing anti-satellite weapons, boosting its cyberwarfare capabilities, threatening America’s computerized command-and-control networks.
It is building up its conventional forces, including the recent launch of its first aircraft carrier. China is also investing heavily in medium-range missiles, a weapon category in which the U.S. was disarmed by a Cold War treaty with Moscow.
Iran’s military capabilities are far less imposing, but it enjoys important crucial geographic advantages. The Persian Gulf’s entire eastern shore is Iranian territory, much of it fronted by a high ridge and lined with dozens of ports and harbors capable of hiding patrol boats and other small craft.
Any U.S. force passing the narrow Strait of Hormuz during a confrontation could expect to face a “hornet’s nest of Iranian mines, submarines, torpedoes, anti-ship cruise missiles and suicide swarm boats, supplemented by land-based strike aircraft and Special Forces,” Krepinevich wrote.
Keeping the peace requires deterrence, and deterrence requires strength. Count on Beijing and Teheran to closely follow the work of the supercommittee.