Is the United States Still the Predominant Power in the Pacific?

A ChinaFile Conversation

In late August, a U.S. destroyer collided with an oil tanker—the fourth such accident for the U.S. Navy in Asia since January. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has increased troop commitments in Afghanistan, threatened to strike North Korea with “fire and fury,” and faced unprecedented turnover and dissent within his administration. The United States has become a “distracted power,” a Singaporean intellectual wrote recently, as turmoil in Washington has “disrupted the administration’s ability to think strategically about global affairs.” Does the U.S. Navy still dominate the Pacific? Or will China—where the highest-grossing film of all time, Wolf Warriors 2, this month unleashed a wave of propaganda about the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s rising global influence—soon supplant the United States as the region’s maritime power? —The Editors


My experience is in the U.S. Army, having served in infantry units in Germany, Italy, and South Korea a quarter century ago; I have no direct experience in naval operations. But. . .

There is no argument that the People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) Navy has been blessed with dozens of new and much more advanced combat and support ships than were in the fleet 15 years ago. Many of these surface ships and submarines have new capabilities the older fleet lacked, like long-range area air defense and modern anti-submarine systems. Moreover, P.L.A. Navy personnel policies assign more experienced non-commissioned officers (N.C.O.s) to man the new ships than two-year conscripts who basically serve as apprentices to prove if they have the stuff to be selected to extend their service as N.C.O.s or officers (after receiving more formal education and training).

While the main mission of the P.L.A. Navy is to patrol and protect China’s three near seas, and it does this with an increasingly sophisticated mix of small, fast patrol boats and corvettes, it also (in its own words) seeks to “gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defense’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ with ‘open seas protection’.” The operative words in that sentence are gradually and combination, as this shift will take time and the defense of the mainland will always be the P.L.A.’s first priority.

The P.L.A. Navy now, in conjunction with the other services, can mount a formidable defense of its coast and islands out to several hundred miles, within the range of land-based aircraft and ballistic and cruise anti-ship missiles, augmented by electronic and cyber warfare capabilities and even some Army assets, like helicopters and long-range multiple launch rockets.

Additionally, the P.L.A. Navy has almost a decade of experience in continuous anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and conducts training frequently in the Western Pacific and beyond, often with navies of other countries. It is the new normal for P.L.A. Navy task forces to operate in the Indian Ocean and Bering, Mediterranean, and Baltic Seas—and likely new areas in the future. But it has not yet proven itself in actual integrated surface, subsurface, and air combat operations against capable hostile forces.

Likewise, with only one carrier, used primarily for training its small air contingent, the P.L.A. Navy lacks an essential offensive and defensive combat component for “open seas” operations. It is also learning how to incorporate its expanding nuclear and conventional submarine force into operations and extended patrols. While individual ships and crews may be proficient in their own operations, coordinating these new capabilities into an effective team is the job of senior-level staffs, who are also learning their jobs as they apply to distant operations.

In the end, the P.L.A. Navy’s new ships and capabilities ultimately are dependent on the training of their crews and the experience and judgment of their officers. Capable crews and officers do not appear overnight by magic, but rather through years of hard work on land and at sea.

Much like the Soviet Navy, the P.L.A. Navy is a beneficiary of American and Western openness. We beat ourselves up in public over our faults while closed societies like the Soviet Union and China conceal them. That lets them project the image that their navies are smoothly functioning machines while the U.S. Navy is bumbling around running ships aground and colliding with merchantmen. We Westerners, however, believe that beating ourselves up in public makes us better. We hold our navy accountable for its failings, and compel it to be introspective about its practices and hardware.

I welcome the spate of accidents in a sense, because it has cast attention on problems some of us have been warning about for quite some time. Better to find out about our troubles in peacetime than under the duress of combat, when really bad things—like defeat in action—might result. As long ago as 2008, I was warning that shutting down accession training and education for junior officers was going to produce malign effects. You can’t simply hand an officer a stack of CD-ROMs and tell him or her to learn the ins and outs of gas-turbine engines—in effect jet engines connected to a ship’s drive train—or gunnery, or phased-array radar, or anti-ship missiles. These are intensely technical subjects. That was madness, and yet that’s what our navy did in the early 2000s. (I used to teach engineering, firefighting, and damage control to newly commissioned officers at the Surface Warfare Officers School in Newport, so I took that decision personally, and perhaps got a more acute view of the repercussions of a training shutdown.)

Now we must, must, must get our act together. The U.S. Navy can deter or coerce opponents and reassure allies and friends precisely to the degree that they believe we will win should things ever come to a fight. If audiences of U.S. naval diplomacy come to doubt that we can keep our commitments to allies, our diplomatic influence will diminish—degrading the alliance systems in Asia and Europe, and thus calling into question our superpower standing. There are larger issues at work here than observing the rules of the road at sea or accounting for weather conditions when anchoring. If our navy loses its good name, America stands to lose a lot more—to the benefit of China and other contestants for maritime supremacy.

China’s ongoing military reforms have resulted in a People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) that is organizationally better prepared to conduct short-duration, high-intensity joint operations in the South and East China seas, across the Taiwan Strait, on the Korean Peninsula, or over the Sino-Indian border. The reforms accomplished this by streamlining the command and control structure, shifting resources to the navy, air force, and rocket force, downsizing the bloated ground forces, and placing a stronger emphasis on real-combat training. Combined with updates to military doctrine and hardware advances in areas ranging from strike aviation to anti-surface warfare to space and cyber capabilities, the P.L.A. has rapidly emerged as a significant potential adversary to all of its neighbors.

Yet a lingering challenge for the P.L.A. concerns the quality of its personnel. Although the P.L.A. is a much better educated and more technologically literate force than it was a generation ago, it continues to face endemic problems. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the officer corps. Anti-corruption investigations over the last five years have uncovered systemic malfeasance, including allegations of buying and selling promotions by senior leaders. Continuing questions have also been raised about the ability of mid- and senior-level officers to plan and carry out complex joint operations, such as amphibious landings. Updates to the P.L.A.’s structure, doctrine, and equipment will be of limited use if the P.L.A. lacks mission-oriented and competent leaders.

Although the military gap between China and the United States has diminished in many ways, the gap in human capital remains wide. Despite periodic mishaps, as have recently occurred with several ships in the Seventh Fleet area of operations, the U.S. military remains the gold standard in the selection, cultivation, and retention of high-quality officers (and enlisted personnel). This is especially evident in training command and staff personnel for joint operations. Most senior U.S. officers have held positions in joint organizations, such as combatant commands, throughout their careers. This is reinforced by Congressionally-mandated joint education that begins early and continues all the way through the general officer level. Moreover, unlike their Chinese counterparts, most U.S. personnel have experience supporting or directly participating in combat.

The P.L.A. recognizes this shortcoming and has embarked on several notable changes during the Xi Jinping era. The anti-corruption campaign continues and has been accompanied by the empowerment of several supervisory organizations, such as the auditing bureau, to monitor and correct abuse. A new independent training department is developing and enforcing uniform training standards. The newly-established theater commands have initiated new programs for giving officers practical training in joint operations, such as in the area of multi-service command, control, and communications. China’s professional military education system is also undergoing reforms, including the creation of a new Joint Operations College within the P.L.A. National Defense University.

How effective those changes will be will depend both on the depth of corruption and incompetence in the P.L.A., and on the commitment of China’s leadership to correct those problems. Potential obstacles could include bureaucratic inertia and the unwillingness of officers to sacrifice their individual “iron rice bowls” for the greater good. Yet U.S. observers should closely follow developments, since a stronger P.L.A. officer corps could erode one of the key U.S. competitive advantages in the region: its people.

The short answer is yes—the U.S. is still the predominant power in the Pacific, at least militarily. I agree with my colleagues that the United States should not be complacent, and needs to work hard to maintain its technological edge. Also, Chinese improvements in quality and quantity of ships shifts the balance a bit—but uncertainties about the morale and competency of Chinese military personnel help U.S. planners sleep better at night. Maybe Wolf Warrior 2 will help with recruitment, but once young Chinese people realize they are signing up for a life of mundane tasks with little likelihood of professional development or travel, coupled with great limitations on their lifestyles from no cell phone policies to extreme limitations on family time and mediocre pay, the P.L.A. will still be unable to retain them.

But in the end, I worry that this is the wrong question. China does not need, and isn’t attempting—yet—to dominate the Pacific to achieve its goals in the South and East China Sea or forceful reunification with Taiwan. In case of conflict, China would only need to control the sea and airspace in select areas, for limited periods of time. Depending on the specifics of the contingency, China can likely already do this. Moreover, the United States faces logistical and geographical disadvantages to projecting power in the South and East China Seas that China does not. For example, China doesn’t need allies for basing because its forces are garrisoned adjacent to any likely conflict areas; it may not need aircraft carriers if it has airstrips on islands in the South China Sea. So the degree and types of U.S. predominance takes on great importance—it has to be enough to impose caution on China, to create uncertainty in Beijing over whether it can obtain its goals directly through military force alone.

An increasingly tense rivalry with the United States and its regional allies and partners would likely motivate China to focus even more sharply on countering or undermining U.S. advantages in the Pacific. To prevent this, the U.S. needs to think harder about leveraging its human advantage—specifically, the U.S. should be prioritizing innovation in operational concepts, how to best use what we’ve got. Also, the typical U.S. strategy of leveraging military might to impose costs on the enemy until they concede is unlikely to work in the case of China. As I recently co-wrote in War on the Rocks, I think Doklam teaches us that strategies of denial are more effective than deterrence by punishment. Predominance does not help if the United States is not willing to step in and put its forces at risk.

There is no doubt that the United States will remain the mightiest military power in the world in the foreseeable future. I am no military specialist, but I believe Chinese military strategy is to defend the country’s interests instead of challenging the U.S. military power.

China’s defensive military strategy and China’s nuclear strategy of minimum deterrence reflect that kind of philosophy.

It is a smart strategy given that China, despite being world’s second largest economy, is still a developing country, ranking 71st in nominal GDP per capita according to IMF, and 66th according to the World Bank. China’s military spending is only one-third of that of the U.S. And in 2017, China’s military budget accounts for 1.3 percent of its GDP, much lower than the 3-plus percent in U.S.

The fact that China has not drastically increased its defense budget to the percentage level of the U.S., or India, or Russia, also shows the goals of its military strategy are defensive in nature. Unlike the U.S., China is not seeking regional or global dominance. It’s too costly for a developing nation.

As a developing country, China needs to focus on domestic economic and social development and continues to lift people out of poverty despite its phenomenal achievements in this area in the past decades.

However, the U.S. strategy of rallying its allies in the Asia Pacific against China is not helping the situation. Rather, it has increased military competition in the region. This is only great news if you belong to the military industrial complex.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Harry Harris, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, is likely to be the next U.S. ambassador to Australia. The Post and several other news outlets focused on Harris’ military background and his past tough rhetoric about China on the maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea and assumed that Harris will rally Australia to counter a rising China.

That is a wrong job description for Harris, or anyone who takes up that job. His job description should be to improve U.S.-Australia relations deteriorated under the Trump administration rather than to drive a wedge between Australia and China. Countries in the region don’t want to be forced to choose between China and the U.S.

A lot of observers in the U.S. worry that Australia is getting too close to China especially after then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott ignored the U.S. warning in March 2015 against joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiated by China.  China is now by far Australia’s largest trade partner. That is also true for many other countries whose largest trade partner is China, not the U.S.

The U.S., as the existing power, should provide more space to accommodate a rising China, in an increasingly multipolar world. As Harvard scholar Graham Allison pointed out, that adjustment of relationship is more painful for the established power.

China’s P.L.A. Navy has participated in the Rim of Pacific (RIMPAC) naval games off Hawaii twice. Military-to-military cooperation between China and the U.S. has increased, with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford Jr. visiting China two weeks ago.

It is true that China and U.S. still do not see eye-to-eye on many issues. But this does not mean that they should engage in a competition for dominance in the Pacific. The future should be about how China and the U.S. work together in the Pacific, not about who is the predominant military power there, a wrong path for both China and the U.S.

The United States is definitely no longer the predominant power in the Pacific—if one considers more than military power. Power is a much-studied concept in international relations and should be viewed comprehensively—economic, diplomatic, political, technological, cultural, and military power. Scholars of power also distinguish between “capabilities” power and power as “influence.” Using these criteria, it is clearly evident that the United States is no longer “predominant” as the question is posed. Only in terms of military power can this be asserted—but even there America’s military strength in the Asia-Pacific is increasingly contested by China and one cannot ignore the capabilities of Japan, South Korea, North Korea, even Vietnam and Singapore.

I have just returned from six months living in Singapore and traveling throughout Southeast and South Asia—and I can attest that across these regions the United States is no longer viewed as the predominant power. China is. The perceptual shift in the balance of power and the balance of influence away from the U.S. and towards China is unmistakable, and is evident in many spheres and in many countries. All ASEAN countries, except Indonesia in my opinion, have gravitated into China’s orbit and away from the United States. As a recent poll by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore makes clear, the decline in the American position has been precipitous since President Trump took office (paralleling a global trend)—the survey revealed that 43.4 percent of respondents agreed that the Trump administration is “not interested” in Southeast Asia, 43.3 percent said U.S. engagement with the region had “deteriorated” under Trump, 43.8 percent said the U.S. was an “undependable ally,” while 51.4 percent said “America had lost strategic ground to China” since Trump took office. This was reflected in the shocking finding that 73.6 percent of Southeast Asian respondents said China is the “most influential country in Southeast Asia,” while the U.S. registered a paltry 3.5 percent (one percent less than Japan!).

To be sure, this geo-shift did not occur overnight, but has been building incrementally over the last few years as Southeast Asians began to judge the Obama pivot as quite hollow while China’s presence and financial largesse loomed increasingly large. As Singaporean Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee observes: “In reality some ASEAN states have been realigning toward China in differing degrees for quite some time. Cambodia, Laos, and to some extent Thailand, Brunei, and Malaysia have all moved into the Chinese orbit without fanfare.” Leading Thai scholar Thitinan Pongsudhirak echoes this perspective: “China has been gaining ground in Southeast Asia by picking off ASEAN member states one-by-one. No Southeast Asian state can now afford to stand up to Beijing on its own.” Most Southeast Asian states see practical utility in moving closer to China, and they see no counter-consequences from the United States in doing so.

The economic domain is clearly where China’s predominant power is now felt most powerfully across Southeast and South Asia. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road—one half of the Belt & Road Initiative—is giving strong impetus to China’s appeal, with countries across the Indian Ocean littoral and Southeast Asia all clamoring for a piece of the construction action. China offers these countries exorbitant amounts of investment, aid, and trade. True, there have been some setbacks for China—in Sri Lanka and Myanmar—but China’s economic largesse, and particularly its contribution of much-needed infrastructure, is warmly welcomed across the region. The United States has has no answers, capabilities, or even a strategy to compete with China in this realm. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib goes to Beijing and is rewarded with a $34 billion package of investments and loans—while Washington is lucky if it can cobble together a few hundred million dollars in aid and credits.

The United States still dominates arms sales to the region, but China is beginning to get a bigger slice of the pie. Thailand has recently purchased three Chinese submarines, 28 tanks, and 153 armored vehicles—while Bangkok increasingly trains its officers in Chinese military academies and conducts joint exercises with Chinese naval and air forces. Myanmar and Cambodia are completely dependent on China for their arms and military training, while Beijing is beginning to make military equipment sales to Malaysia and the Philippines.

When it comes to soft power, America still has the edge—but it can relinquish it if not careful. The Trump administration's defenestration of public diplomacy programs (worldwide and in the region)--including the shocking proposals to eliminate the East-West Center and Asia Foundation—will significantly undermine one of America's traditional strengths in Southeast Asia.

The United States is not without tools in its toolbox, or without support in the region, but it was plainly and painfully evident to me during the past half year in Southeast Asia that a power shift is well underway—and the United States is unilaterally ceding its leading position to China. This is not necessarily a permanent trend, however, as the U.S. can recover (if it deems it a priority) and China is also quite capable of overreaching and alienating its neighbors. The best that Washington can do is to maintain a steady hand and active presence across the region, so as to give regional states alternatives to China, particularly when Beijing inevitably oversteps and irritates these countries.

The P.L.A. Navy may one day overtake the U.S. Navy in quantity of ships, but in almost all qualitative measures that matter—command and control, training, doctrine, and military diplomacy, for instance—the Chinese navy is not going to supplant the U.S. Navy as the predominant power in the Asia-Pacific anytime soon. Make no mistake, the recent incidents involving the U.S. Navy in the Pacific are a tragic reminder that accidents can and do happen at sea, even among the most professional sailors in the world in the United States Navy. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that such mishaps foreshadow a decline of U.S. naval power or presence in the Asia-Pacific. In fact, these accidents may only serve to strengthen U.S. resolve in and commitment to the region.

The U.S. Pacific Fleet is arguably the most powerful blue water fleet in the world. With over 200 ships and submarines, over 1,100 aircraft, and 140,000 sailors covering the largest area of operations among all U.S. fleets, the U.S. Pacific Fleet is the embodiment of a global, forward-deployed navy. Its experience conducting joint maritime operations with its U.S. Air Force, Army, and Marine counterparts has been battle-tested and honed over centuries. The P.L.A. Navy, on the other hand, is a regional navy with global ambitions. While their capabilities are increasing, they nonetheless have limited experience operating in far seas environments and still lack the training, doctrine, and force structure to sustain out-of-area operations for long periods of time. They also only recently deployed their first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. A second is under construction. The U.S. Navy, on the other hand, maintains 10 active carrier strike groups, with an 11th–the USS Gerald R. Ford–to be deployed by 2020.

The U.S. Navy does not operate alone in the Pacific. It enjoys a network of allies and partners with whom it trains and exercises regularly—the navies of Japan, South Korea, and Australia, in particular. U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis summarized it well when he said the “combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed, and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth.” This is also true of the combined naval forces of U.S. allies and partners. China does not enjoy such a force multiplier in the Asia-Pacific, which sets it apart from U.S. regional power in this regard.

I just returned from the 13th biennial International SeaPower Symposium in Seoul, sponsored by the South Korean Navy. The one theme that came out of my interactions with regional naval officers was how indispensable the U.S. Navy is in assuring partners and allies and deterring aggression and adventurism–be it North Korean provocations or Chinese coercion on the South China Sea—during both peace and wartime. Countries in the region still look to the U.S. as the ultimate security guarantor in the region. This, too, will not change anytime soon. China had a rather large delegation at the conference. They were conspicuously quiet throughout.