WASHINGTON: What’s the strategy for coping with what everyone on Capitol Hill and inside the Obama administration agrees is an increasingly assertive China? The White House can’t answer, Rep. Randy Forbes says, “because they don’t have it.” So, it’s fair to ask: what is Forbes’s strategy, then?
The House seapower chairman’s outline for a “winning strategy” boils down to five principles, he told me in an interview:
- Have a clear objective: a peaceful and prosperous Pacific where China follows the rule of law and the US works closely with its partners.
- Speak truth to Chinese power: Be willing to offend Beijing with frank statements, especially on issues like human rights and Taiwan.
- Punish Chinese provocations, for example by un-inviting them from international wargames like RIMPAC if they continue building artificial “islands.”
- Strengthen our military presence in the Pacific, especially (but not only) naval forces.
- Communicate our strategy — to the American people so they buy in, to our allies so they’re reassured, and to the Chinese so they’re deterred.
“One of the cornerstones of any strategy is the ability to articulate that strategy,” Forbes told me. “The administration will tell you have they have a strategy, but ask them in any hearing, ask them in any place, to put it on the record… They will not tell you, because they don’t have it.”
“We’ve been trying to encourage them to have an East Asia strategy review,” Forbes added. “We haven’t had one since the ’90s… They’ve refused to do one since they’ve been in office.”
Forbes isn’t alone in his frustration with the administration. Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jack Reed, the chairman and ranking Democrat of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote the Pentagon in May protesting the Chinese invitation to participate in the world’s largest naval exercise, RIMPAC. McCain, Reed, and two other Senators — Bob Corker, and Bob Mendez, the top Republican and top Democrat on the Foreign Relations committee — sent Obama a letter in March calling for a strategy on Chinese provocations in the East and South China Seas. “Without a comprehensive strategy…long-standing interests of the United States, as well as our allies and partners, stand at considerable risk,” they wrote.
At a Center for Strategic and International Studies conference on Wednesday, Forbes outlined three crucial questions on which he’d never gotten a satisfactory answer: “When it comes to China, what is our strategy?.. Are we winning or losing?… What are the metrics that we use to measure that?”
“We should have as the cornerstone of our strategy that we want to have a winning strategy, [not] do this just to get this participation trophy,” Forbes told me.
That said, “winning doesn’t mean the Chinese come out worse and we come out better,” the congressman clarified. “It just means we have to have a definition of what winning is.”
So, I asked, what’s your definition? “Winning to me would look like China stops being as aggressive with their sheer strength and starts complying more with the rule of law,” both with their military forces and “grey area” paramilitaries like their well-armed Coast Guard, Forbes said. “Winning to me would look like a continued strengthening of both trade and military/defense partnerships with our allies and partners in the region.”
“Winning to me would look like we control our own…lexicon,” Forbes added. “We can’t let them tell us what words we can use and what words we can’t and what we can talk about and what we can’t talk about. And they’ve clearly dictated that to this administration for some time.”
Consider the US relationship with Taiwan, which Beijing insists is not a separate country, but a renegade province, one which the US has not recognized diplomatically since 1979. Taiwanese troops routinely come to the US for training, but “we won’t even let their soldiers put on uniforms when they’re visiting the United States,” Forbes said. “We make the president of Taiwan go through this fiction that he’s not even visiting the United States; that he’s ‘in transit’.”
“We should not have stopped talking about issues such as human rights,” Forbes added. (The administration would argue President Obama has never stopped). He was also scornful of administration officials’ unwillingness to call China a “competitor,” let alone an “adversary.
Forbes dismissed the Pentagon’s argument that military-to-military relations with China must be kept going, even and indeed especially at times of tension, to prevent dangerous misunderstandings between the two nation’s armed forces.
“It sounds good in theory, but… name one situation where it actually works,” Forbes said. When US officers reach out to their Chinese counterparts to ask for help managing some conflict, he said, “they don’t pick up the phone.”
The US should be willing to cancel military-to-military exchanges, visits, and joint exercises as a signal of displeasure when China does something wrong, Forbes said. “We shouldn’t continually be rewarding them when they haven’t shown any difference in behavior,” he argued. “They try to reclaim 2,000 acres with these man-made formations (in the South China Sea). What do we do? Well, we invite them to RIMPAC.”
Admittedly, Obama administration leaders have denounced the Chinese construction and called for it to stop. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris has overflown Chinese-claimed airspace and said just today at the Aspen Security Forum that China’s actions were “aggressive,” “coercive,” and legally meaningless as a means of establishing territorial claims. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russell, speaking at CSIS on Wednesday after Forbes, said “no amount of sand, no matter how high it’s piled, will garner any sovereignty. These outposts don’t benefit China’s claims under international law.” But key leaders in both the House and Senate want the administration to do something more tangible.
The US military should focus on building up its own strength in the Pacific, Forbes said. “You certainly don’t do it by a budget proposal that would take an aircraft carrier out or 11 cruisers out,” he said. That’s something he can directly affect, the House seapower chairman noted, unlike his other strategic recommendations.
Congress’s other role is to keep up the pressure: to “continue to be willing to stir up the pot,” Forbes said, “and raise questions that other people will not raise.”