Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, now conducting what promises to be the most sweeping review of U.S. defense policy in a decade, recently presented President George W. Bush with his initial findings. According to press reports, the defense secretary believes that the United States is more likely to fight China in the future than to fight Russia. According to this view, the Pentagon should shift its thinking to the Asia-Pacific region and begin to emphasize highly survivable, long-range weapons in its force planning.
Rumsfeld’s inclinations to do so may be strengthened by the latest confrontation between Chinese and American forces in the South China Sea. Many Pentagon officials are encouraging such a shift in American military strategy. Such ideas have some merit. However, Rumsfeld should be careful about swallowing them hook, line and sinker. The U.S. military has already shifted its primary focus to the Persian Gulf and Korea over the last decade. Both are parts of Asia, not Europe. The Pentagon’s two-war framework envisions conflicts in those two regions. More than two-thirds of U.S. Navy and Marine deployments take place in waters along Asia’s coasts as well. Even if one accepts an Asia-first approach to defense planning, the need for radical change is thus less pressing than it might appear. Moreover, China is hardly the only looming threat to American interests. Acting as if China were could make for a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It could also lead to a downplaying of other possible threats that are at least as plausible and just as worrisome for the United States. To be sure, China could well use military force against Taiwan in the years ahead, quite probably leading to American military intervention. But Taiwan is the exception, not the rule; other possible causes of U.S.-China conflict are much less worrisome. In addition, China is much better placed to intimidate or punish Taiwan with missile strikes or a naval blockade than to seize it through an invasion.
Although China does require a greater place in American defense planning than it has received in recent years, we need not prepare for a looming World War III with the globe’s most populous state. In addition, other military scenarios in Asia could prove every bit as important to the United States as a future contest with China.
One prominent possibility is a collapsing Pakistan. If that coup-prone country were to dissolve into civil war, possibly between two or more factions of the Pakistani military, urgent questions would be raised about the whereabouts and security of the country’s nuclear arsenal. Given the prevalence of Islamic fundamentalist groups in that region, American planners would have to worry that some of the country’s nuclear weapons could even fall into the hands of Osama bin Laden or a similar figure. Such a scenario would present an even more pressing threat to core U.S. security than a North Korean attack on South Korea or an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It is highly doubtful that the United States could stand aside. More likely, it would intervene militarily to help the moderate faction in any such civil war restore order and reestablish the security of the country’s nuclear weapons.
Other military operations are possible, too. A deployment to Kashmir might result, for example, if India and Pakistan again went to war and found themselves on the brink of using nuclear weapons. Perhaps they would even use a nuke or two before recognizing the danger of a far worse result and appealing to the international community to monitor and enforce a cease-fire agreement. Under such circumstances, a large multilateral force might, for example, deploy to Kashmir to run the province for an extended period prior to convening a political process to resolve the region’s long-term future.
Relatedly, if less dramatically, a collapsing Indonesia might call on the international community for help in restoring order. Even an administration like George Bush’s that opposes peacekeeping missions in small, faraway lands might have to consider participating in such an operation, lest the world’s fourth most populous nation astride the world’s most important shipping straits descend into anarchy. It is important for Rumsfeld to consider these types of scenarios rather than to dwell on the possibility of hegemonic competition with China. At the military level, these scenarios would place a considerable premium on old-fashioned ground forces rather than long-range strike platforms. And at the political level, avoiding specificity about the likely identity of our future foes would avoid poisoning the already delicate U.S.-China relationship-which will already be hurt by the recent aircraft collision, even if the current situation is quickly resolved.