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Unipolarity Is Over: Great Power Rivalry Has Returned to Asia

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s support puts “paid” to any lingering notions of an enduring U.S. unipolar moment, and thoughts that a liberal democratic order is the settled future of world governance. Polling in many democratic countries shows a remarkable change of attitudes about deterrence and defense, perhaps reflecting a recognition of the challenge. But this change of attitude, and the resources it may generate, are temporary. We must respond quickly with meaningful security policies and strategies for today’s international balance of power and profound changes in the conduct of warfare. We must show we can take the initiative, win this thing, and not merely react.

We did this before in the years immediately following World War II. But that day’s template is no longer apposite. The Cold War was a singular event with unique conditions, including an enemy right out of central casting with an autarkic economy. This is not a “new Cold War,” but there is a need to compete while keeping our competition “cold.” Effective deterrence, defined as an undoubted capability to prevail, is essential.

A fair summary of our national interests is that they are centered on the health, welfare, and security of our allies and friends, specifically including Taiwan. Our allies are our greatest strength. Our vital interests lie along the First Island Chain, not on Asia’s mainland. It’s been this way since the Truman administration. More recent descriptions of our national interests can be found in the 2017 National Security Strategy and the 2021 Interim National Security Strategy.

What’s changed from the Cold War? The short answer is “a lot.” One constant is that nuclear weapons shape the conditions of conflict. Three Asian nations, Russia, China, and North Korea are so armed. Attacking the mainland of a nuclear-armed nation requires some deep thinking.

The most jarring change facing the United States and our allies is that our air and sea superiority is challenged. From 1945 throughout the rest of the twentieth century, the United States enjoyed unchallenged air and sea superiority. We could fly, sail, and operate anywhere we wanted, projecting and sustaining forces ashore as we wished. Even in the early days of the Korean War, our forces offshore were the foundation of all our success and the salvation of our disasters. Japan became the offshore sanctuary in those days, supporting the combat theater on the Korean Peninsula. Our forces offshore in the Vietnam War were essentially unchallenged, projecting gunfire, aviation forces, and logistics ashore as we wished. The sea was indeed a secure operational maneuver space. Our force structure in Asia, and its disposition, developed assuming enduring unchallenged air and sea superiority.

Now our air and sea control are seriously challenged by China’s massive force development program; long-range precision munitions; and ubiquitous, pervasive surveillance. China took advantage of its massive geographic sanctuary, building a missile arsenal that looks to establish sea control from the land. But they are not limited to one option. Their naval building program, and that of all other armed elements of the People’s Liberation Army, including paramilitary organizations, continues unabated. China conducted an unchallenged dredging operation in the South China Sea to create large military outposts on seven previously submerged features. Some estimate that China achieved and demonstrated de facto control over the South China Sea through this action. Our allies and friends, and our forces on and within the First Island Chain, are within range and targeted. Intelligence estimates vary, of course, but there is no disagreement that China’s naval and air forces enjoy a great numerical advantage over U.S and allied forces. We’re outnumbered and outranged. And allies, notably Japan and the Philippines, are in the Chinese weapons engagement zone.

While this balance within the traditional air, land, and sea domains was changing, new domains of conflict rapidly emerged, adding still-growing complexity to the situation.

We must prepare for the prospective fight we have, not the one we might prefer. But “the way we’ve always done things” exerts powerful influence and is not easily overcome. In 2016, General Joseph Dunford, serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: “we’re already behind in adapting to the changing character of war today, in so many ways.” A longer, sobering read is the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission report of 2018. The commission concluded that the United States could very well lose the next big war because we have not done the hard intellectual work to know how to win the competition we have.

The prospect of starting a fight already within range of a vast enemy arsenal is not without precedent. In December 1941, Manila Bay in the Philippines was powerfully defended by coastal artillery on Corregidor against attacks by enemy warships. But it was totally vulnerable from the air. General Douglas MacArthur’s air force was parked wingtip-to-wingtip as a counter sabotage measure at Clark Airfield. Surprise was deadly, and decisive. We must do better this time.

If our allies are critical to our national strength in Asia across the full range of national capabilities, then it follows that our policy and strategy must support their welfare and security and be something that they can actively support. Our policy and strategic concepts must demonstrate how our alliance forces contribute to successful deterrence and effective combat operations if necessary.

One common geographic circumstance they all share—save Australia—is a coastline on the East or the South China Sea. Taiwan touches both. Australia has already declared its concern with these seas, and is shaping its defense program accordingly, most notably through the AUKUS agreement that supports its power projection there. Fortunately, sea and air control over the South and East China Seas is also high on the list of U.S. vital interests. We must build allied force capabilities to ensure that we can maintain, or quickly regain, sea and air control while operating inside China’s weapons engagement zone.

The emergence of long-range precision strike and pervasive surveillance demands that sea and air control be a joint function. No longer can forces ashore afford to wait with fixed bayonets for the enemy to show up. The odds are so great that we cannot accept serial engagement—sea then land—across the terrestrial conflict domains. Forces ashore must contribute materially to the fight for sea and air control. Forces ashore must be widely distributed and agile to ensure survival. They must be armed with weapons that can range the sea and airspace, fully integrated into the maneuver and fires of U.S. and allied forces at sea and in the air. All forces, in the air, at sea, and on land, U.S. and allied, must be networked into the same common operational picture, and operating as component parts of an articulate and robust kill web across the East and South China Sea littoral. It’s the only way to fight while outnumbered and win.

All elements of national power must be brought to bear. The current conflict in Ukraine demonstrates a remarkable ability of the United States, European allies, and many other nations to quickly agree on the employment of a wide range of national capabilities, including painful sanctions and seizure of ships. The same can work in Asia. With sea and air control over the South and East China Seas in conflict, we gain the ability to control access to the limited number of straits that enable China’s seaborne trade. This gives us the ability to control the conflict and contain it while working toward acceptable war termination conditions. Building and demonstrating this capability establishes the undoubted capability to prevail essential to deterrence.

Wallace C. Gregson served as a former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs (2009-11) and is currently a senior advisor at Avascent International as well as senior director for China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest. Gregson last served as the Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific; Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific; and Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Bases, Pacific, headquartered at Camp H. M. Smith, Hawaii. He is a senior advisor to General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems.