A recent study from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) looks at how China’s military capabilities in Asia make forward-deployed U.S. bases there vulnerable. The report warns, “the growing capability of China to threaten U.S. bases in the region” may represent “the greatest military threat to U.S. vital interests in Asia.”
“In the event of an unforeseen U.S.-China crisis,” the report explains, “a preemptive missile strike against the forward bases that underpin U.S. military power in the Western Pacific could be a real possibility…particularly if China perceives that its attempts at deterrence of a major U.S. intervention—say in a cross-strait Taiwan crisis or in a brewing dispute over the Senkaku Islands—have failed.”
Two important points need to be made in response to this assessment. First, it explores a scenario—an outbreak of war between the U.S. and China—that is extremely improbable. While it is true that Chinese strategic planners have discussed striking U.S. bases in the unlikely scenario that inadvertent escalation results in an outbreak of conflict, deterrence remains robust in Asia. China in particular has little interest in getting into a shooting war with the United States. Not only do both countries have conventional capabilities devastating enough to make any war too costly to contemplate, but nuclear deterrence and economic interdependence make a military clash not even close to being worth the fight.
Furthermore, the Defense Department describes China’s posture as “strategically defensive” and “rooted in a commitment not to attack, but to respond aggressively once an adversary decides to attack.” Indeed, China has been far less assertive than often depicted. As MIT’s M. Taylor Fravel puts it, Beijing “has compromised more frequently than it has used force,” and “has been less belligerent than leading theories of international relations might have predicted for a state with its characteristics.”
Second, even with the understanding that an all-out Chinese attack on U.S. bases in Asia is a very low probability event, it seems to me, as I argue in a recent Cato Policy Analysis, that this is a good reason to withdraw from U.S. bases in Asia, thereby making American military assets and troops less vulnerable. Granted, this would mark a truly dramatic change in U.S. foreign policy, but it wouldn’t undermine the core economic and security interests of the United States.
The authors of the CNAS report have a very different view. They recommend spending billions of dollars on missile defense systems to better protect U.S. bases. Notably, they concede this would be an extremely expensive way to not even solve the problem: this “admittedly expensive investment in several billion dollars of missile defense forces” would only marginally reduce the damage done to U.S. bases and troops. These new missile defense systems, they admit further, would still be “overwhelmed by sheer numbers” of Chinese ballistic missiles.
A far wiser, and cheaper, solution would be to withdraw U.S. bases from the region and encourage allies to build up some of the same surveillance, targeting, and missile defense technology China possesses. Another Pentagon boondoggle to inappreciably shore up America’s outdated strategic force posture in Asia is not the way to go.