WASHINGTON: Wealth, population and thin-skinned nationalism make China the number one threat to the US-led world order, not Russia or Islamic terrorism, writes leading military strategist Andrew Krepinevich. That means the US must build up forward-deployed forces in the Western Pacific, he writes, if necessary at the expense of defending Europe. Russia’s oil-dependent economy and withering demographics relegate it to the second-place threat in the near term, he argues, and in the long term — say, by the 2030s — Russia may become less dangerous than Iran, which Krepinevich’s forthcoming study from the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments ranks currently at No. 3.
That analysis puts Krepinevich starkly at odds with defense officials like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford, Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley, and Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis, who all put Russia first. (Mattis is also a hardliner on Iran). By contrast, Krepinevich argues that, if Russia really understood its own strategic interests, it would make common cause with the US against Islamic extremists — who have fought Moscow in the Caucasus for decades — and a rising China — whose emigres and industries are starting to take over mineral-rich but underpopulated Siberia. Don’t ask Krepinevich to endorse Donald Trump‘s outreach to the “very smart” Vladimir Putin, however. “We might be able to flip Russia to our side, because we’re not the problem they have,” Krepinevich told reporters, but not until the reflexively anti-American ex-KGB agent is out of power.
Unfortunately, Krepinevich emphasized, we can’t postpone a West Pacific buildup until Europe is safe. That may mean we can only afford a “tripwire” defense in the Baltic States, he said, just enough to “ensure some Americans get killed and we go to war if some ally or partner is attacked.”
President Obama had the right idea with the much-derived “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Pacific, Krepinevich said. He just failed to follow through, in part because new eruptions in the Mideast and Europe drew off US attention. “The pivot hasn’t kept up with reality, the actions haven’t matched the words,” Krepinevich said. “The balance of power in the Far East has shifted further and further in China’s favor.”
Krepinevich is quite consciously using an old-school realpolitik approach to that “balance of power.” That balance-of-power tradition goes back through the Cold War to US intervention in the World Wars, British opposition to Germany and France, and ultimately the War of the Grand Alliance against Louis XIV. In these scales, Russia doesn’t weigh as heavily as China, and Islamic terrorism — however horrific — doesn’t shift the balance appreciably. By contrast, China’s economic strength relative to the United States is already far greater than past adversaries’ such as the Soviet Union, Imperial Japan, or Germany.
Today, Krepinevich said, “in terms of maintaining an overall favorable balance of power across the mainland (of Eurasia), then the greatest challenge… doesn’t lie in ISIS. It doesn’t lie in Russia. It lies in China — and they are doing things right now.” China is fortifying artificial islands in the South China Sea, sponsoring a new Silk Road across Eurasia to re-route global trade, hacking billions in American companies’ intellectual property, and building up its military.
Indeed, China’s long-range precision weapons — the teeth of its Anti-Access/Area Denial network — increasingly have the reach to put our key regional allies on the front line: Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. (In the Korean War, by contrast, Japan was a safe rear area, well out of range). As a result, the US lacks “strategic depth” in the Pacific. In Europe, in the worst case, we can retreat from the Baltic States and fall back hundreds of miles without putting a major economy like Germany in jeopardy. In Asia, however, there’s no room to retreat without abandoning a first-tier ally. Yes, the Pacific is vast, but it’s mostly between us and our allies, not between them and China.
So the only way to ensure US forces make it to a Pacific war zone in time is to have them already there in peacetime, Krepinevich said. This forward-deployed concentration of mostly air- and seapower should receive the lion’s share of US investment. Europe and the Middle East should rely mainly on an expeditionary force, based in the US and able to deploy to either theater. That means accepting the risk that, if Russia and Iran both go on the warpath at once, we may not be able to stop them both.
We’d rather have a defense in depth in all three theaters, but that’s probably unaffordable, said Krepinevich. US allies have the raw economic power to contribute more to their own defense, especially in Europe, but there’s no historical track record to suggest they will. As for the US, barring some great national security awakening among the voting public, the refusal to raise taxes or cut entitlement spending will constrain defense spending even if the Budget Control Act is repealed, as Trump has promised. It’d be nice to have a lot more money, said Krepinevich, but “we don’t assume the American people are going to get religion.”