July 02, 2012
Credit: Credit: Christina Mackenzie
Richard D. Fisher Jr. Alexandria, Va.
If late 2011 heralded the U.S. “pivot” toward East Asia—so far, words backed up by modest deployments meant to reassure allies and remind China of Washington's interest in the region—then early 2012 looks like a time for China to parry the move. China has used its geographic and asymmetric advantages to challenge Washington's latest strategic turn.
The origins of the pivot date back a decade, to a point when the U.S. concluded that China was building a force of submarines, space weapons and anti-ship ballistic missiles to execute anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies against U.S. forces. But it was Asian fears of Chinese belligerence in 2010—such as its vigorous support for North Korea following its March 2010 sinking of a South Korean corvette, plus its rejection of mediation of conflicting claims in the South China Sea—that forced the Obama administration to “rebalance” toward Asia following drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In her October 2011 Foreign Policy article, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. had reached a “pivot point” that required renewed U.S. emphasis on Asia, and while taking care to reject the notion that China is a “threat,” made it clear that U.S. “treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand are the fulcrum for our strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific.” During President Barack Obama's mid-November 2011 visit to Australia it was announced that the U.S. would station up to 2,500 Marines in Darwin by 2016 and that the Navy might deploy two to four Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore. (U.S. and Singaporean officials have clarified that this arrangement does not entail basing the ships there, just rotational visits.)
In January 2012, it emerged that U.S. and Philippine officials were discussing a revival in military alliance cooperation, potentially including rotations of U.S. surveillance aircraft and about 500 troops through Philippine bases, and more exercises. However, in an update to reporters at the Pentagon last month, Adm. Samuel Locklear, 3rd, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said, “We're not really interested in building any more U.S. bases in the Asia-Pacific.”
In early November 2011 the Pentagon announced the formation of its new Air-Sea Battle Office, which ostensibly will deepen cooperation among the U.S. armed services, starting with the Air Force and Navy, but which has long been depicted as the manifestation of a Defense Department effort to counter China's growing A2/AD capability. Even though budgetary and force cutbacks announced in late 2011 and early 2012 made it clear the U.S. would all but abandon its previous “two-war” force planning strategy, U.S. officials also asserted that cutbacks would spare U.S. forces in Asia.
China's challenge during early 2012 was to exploit the Obama administration's intention to end its two-war planning strategy, by strengthening the potential for Chinese allies to tie down the U.S. in multiple conflicts. Prominently displayed in North Korea's April 15 parade was a large new missile on a 16-wheel transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) apparently manufactured by China's Sanjiang Hubei Special Vehicle Co., part of missile maker China Aerospace Industry and Science Co. (Casic). While China immediately denied making such a sale, the TEL is clearly a version of Sanjiang's WS51200 vehicle, that in turn was developed in cooperation with MAZ of Belarus, which makes TELs for Russia's ICBMs.
China's provision of a TEL for a new North Korean missile raises the possibility that it is assisting that program, but even the fact that China provided the TEL points toward a new level of support for Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. This contradicts China's oft-stated opposition to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons development, including its leadership of the Six Party Talks intended to reverse that development. It suggests that China directly supports a nuclear threat aimed at the U.S.—and Europe as well, since North Korea's new missile could be sold to Iran.