Beijing’s Belligerence Has Set the Stage for Conflict

Thomas Shugart

China’s military buildup is undeniable. It has built hundreds of long-range and precise ballistic missiles, launching them for years at mockups of U.S. ships and bases in Asia. It has constructed the world’s largest navy in terms of the number of ships, vastly exceeding the U.S. Navy’s rate of warship production in recent years. As Beijing has grown stronger, it has also become increasingly belligerent: it bullies neighbors that have had the temerity to use their own natural resources, and its state-controlled media routinely threaten Taiwan with invasion.  

But in “America Is Turning Asia Into a Powder Keg” (October 22), Van Jackson argues that an “overly militarized” U.S. approach is to blame for increasing the risk of war and worsening negative regional trends. Although Jackson concedes that Washington is not “the cause of these troubling trends,” and “should not be blamed for the actions of China and North Korea,” his article leaves the opposite impression. Furthermore, he makes his case by presenting facts that are at times misleading, mischaracterized, or inaccurate. He portrays as recklessness what is in fact a rational U.S. and allied response to a dramatic expansion of China’s offensive military capabilities.

Jackson starts by blaming Washington for “surging troops and military hardware into the region.” Although there have been a number of initiatives to “pivot to the Pacific” and rebalance the U.S. military toward Asia, the change in American troop presence has not been as dramatic as this rhetoric suggests. According to the Pentagon’s personnel records, roughly 89,000 U.S. active-duty troops were stationed in the Indo-Pacific theater as of this summer. A decade ago, the number was about 84,000. An increase of 5,000 troops, constituting less than half a percent of the U.S. armed forces’ personnel, does not constitute a “surge” that is aggravating tensions in the region, even if one takes into account the few thousand additional soldiers that are likely present at any time on rotational missions.

Jackson also blames the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden for embarking on defense initiatives that he claims escalate an arms race with China. He cites its encouragement of Japan to develop hypersonic weapons (a program that was unveiled in March 2020, ten months before Biden’s inauguration) and extend the range of its antiship missiles (also begun in 2020). He further states that the administration has announced plans for an expanded presence in Guam—reference to the ongoing move of 5,000 U.S. Marines to Guam from Okinawa, Japan (farther away from China), which has been planned since 2006. Finally, he mentions a new base in Papua New Guinea—actually an upgrade of an existing base, which was announced in 2018—and new radars in Palau, which lie more than 1,500 miles from China and whose arrival was first announced in 2017. These policies to counter China’s growing military threat should not be attributed solely to Biden’s team; instead, they represent a cross-administration and bipartisan effort to cope with the clear reality of a rapidly deteriorating military balance.

In the realm of nuclear forces, Jackson also mischaracterizes the timeline of events and gets some of the details wrong. He states, for example, that the “the Trump administration drew up plans for a three-decade nuclear modernization effort that would cost between $1.2 and $1.7 trillion” and points to China’s expansion of its nuclear arsenal as one reason for this initiative. In fact, President Donald Trump inherited those plans from his predecessor, Barack Obama. And although China’s activities constitute one factor in Washington’s need to maintain a nuclear deterrent force, far and away the greatest reason for the modernization program is the aging of decades-old U.S. nuclear platforms, which are vital to U.S. national security for a host of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with China.

As Beijing has grown stronger, it has also become increasingly belligerent.

Jackson also mischaracterizes U.S. nuclear modernization plans as an “expansion.” In reality, the plans will reduce the number of nuclear-only strategic launchers—that is, intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles—that Washington maintains. The U.S. Air Force will reuse launch facilities, and the ballistic missile submarine force will drop from 14 to 12 submarines and from 20 to 16 missile tubes on each one. The air force’s planned purchase of B-21 bombers will increase the number of aircraft, but the new bombers are intended for both nuclear and conventional roles. And although Jackson describes the B-21 as replacing the current B-2 bomber force with “more than six times as many planes,” the B-21s will in fact replace both the B-2 and the larger B-1 fleet—and possibly even the venerable force of 1960s-built B-52s.

Finally, Jackson asserts that China’s recent and breathtaking nuclear expansion is “clearly a response to the gratuitous, unrestrained nuclear policies of the Trump administration.” This is far from clear, however. Several other factors may account for China’s moves: Beijing may want to be able to overwhelm U.S. missile defenses, may be trying to escape U.S. nuclear coercion, or may be seeking to maintain leverage in the event of a conventional conflict. And China’s leaders stated in 2017—well before the release of the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review and National Defense Strategy—their desire to have a “world-class military by the middle of the century.” Developing world-class nuclear forces may be part of that larger effort, which would take place regardless of the actions of the Trump or Biden administration.

Jackson is correct that the United States should be working harder to find ways to cooperate and compete with China in nonmilitary arenas. But he presents Washington as busied “with new arms sales and expanding its force posture” as China has become an economic giant—as if China weren’t also selling arms and dramatically altering the military balance in the region while it did so. China, like the United States, has the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Washington is finally coming to recognize the looming danger that an aggressive and increasingly powerful techno-authoritarian Chinese regime poses to the region and the world and is taking action accordingly. Failing to recognize this danger and to pursue appropriate responses would increase the chance of conflict by making it more likely that the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party will someday decide that the military balance of power has tipped in their favor—and that they should take advantage of the shift by resorting to force.

THOMAS SHUGART is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He served for over 25 years as a submarine warfare officer in the U.S. Navy, where he last worked in the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment.

Jackson replies

Thomas Shugart dismisses the idea that Washington’s adversaries might react to its overmilitarized foreign policy in undesirable ways. His critique compiles minor complaints that misrepresent what I wrote and also fail to refute my argument. The larger point that Shugart misses is that U.S. policy in Asia remains on the wrong side of trends that adversely impact both regional security and U.S. interests. He appears to be primarily concerned with ensuring that Washington receives no “blame” for Asia being awash in militarism, and he shows little interest in having the United States improve an increasingly precarious situation in Asia.

Shugart mostly quibbles with my choice of words rather than challenge the claims I advance. For instance, I describe the broad trend of Washington “surging troops and military hardware into the region” and then detail precisely what I mean over the course of several paragraphs. Shugart ignores my description in favor of telling the reader how many troops the United States positions in Asia. This does not refute my argument, as the surge of militarism I describe has taken place over the course of several years and is as much about hardware and bases as it is about personnel. Disputing the rate of change and whether rotational forces or weapons systems count as “surging” litigates a gerund rather than addressing the actual posture and force structure changes I describe in my essay. Moreover, Shugart’s figure of 89,000 U.S. troops stationed in the Indo-Pacific—which is a lot in its own right—excludes forces that surge into the region for the many large-scale exercises the United States conducts each year.

Shugart also incorrectly states that I blame President Joe Biden’s administration for Japan’s pursuit of hypersonic missiles. I do not, and my essay makes clear that Biden is the steward of a bad trend that predates him. I do not state that the administration initiated the development, as Shugart suggests.

In response to my cataloging of Washington’s many new military initiatives over the past several years, Shugart rationalizes these programs by writing that they aim to “counter China’s growing military threat.” Of course they do. He states this as a rebuttal, yet I say explicitly that the United States justifies its litany of changes to the U.S. force posture in response to China’s military modernization. My problem with it is that it reflects poor judgment.

As Asia’s military hegemon, the United States has a hand in shaping the trends that endanger the region.

On the issue of U.S. nuclear forces, Shugart argues that former President Donald Trump’s gratuitous nuclear plans were actually former President Barack Obama’s policies. This is not entirely correct and is in any case irrelevant. During the Obama administration, the Pentagon did draw up nuclear modernization plans that Trump inherited. (I worked there at the time.) But Trump’s nuclear-related budget submissions expanded the Obama-era nuclear agenda. Even so, Biden’s nuclear policies are no more vindicated by assertions that they date to the Obama era than that they date to the Trump era. I care about the consequences of U.S. actions, not their genealogy.  

Here again, Shugart shadowboxes with my diction rather than my analysis. I characterized U.S. nuclear modernization many times in my essay and toggled between describing it as “modernization” and “expansion” for the sake of variety, but both terms are accurate. Shugart seizes on the word “expansion” to point out that the number of long-range nuclear-capable missile launchers that the United States possesses is not increasing. But I never said it was. What’s expanding is the lethality and cost (and opportunity costs) of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

But even if all of these misleading complaints were valid, they do not amount to a defense of current U.S. policies or their military-first character. As Asia’s military hegemon, the United States has a hand in shaping the trends that endanger the region. For politicians, American exceptionalism means never having to acknowledge Washington’s complicity in bad outcomes. Analysts, however, can’t afford to be so myopic.   

Shugart aligns himself with what I see as America’s militarist drift without specifying how U.S. efforts to “counter” China’s military modernization with more missiles, ships, and nuclear weapons help anything. And he neglects to address the concern that takes up the final third of my essay: the idea that an obsession with military strategy distracts from what actually threatens Asia. Gross economic inequalities, environmental degradation, and the devastation wrought by the pandemic are what Asians most worry about and what threaten to sow the seeds of future military conflict. Shugart’s failure to acknowledge, much less address, these problems reflects the very obsession with military affairs that my essay sought to highlight. In this sense, he inadvertently makes my point. The Pentagon has warped analysts’ ability to contemplate statecraft beyond defense policy.

The totality of Shugart’s criticisms fails to refute my case that the U.S. approach to Asia is overmilitarized. Shugart declines to propose any particular way of seeing or understanding China. And if his assumptions about the intrinsic goodness of American power become a basis for U.S. policy, the region will face a grim future.

VAN JACKSON is a Distinguished Fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.

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