Experts urge U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee to “shore-up” Pacific military presence and contain Chinese influence

by Aurora de Peralta

Washington, D.C. – U.S. defense policy experts expressed their concern for China’s growing influence during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on April 14, urging the committee to “shore-up” U.S. military efforts in the Asia-Pacific theater and combat China’s presence in the region.

The Senate committee, led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) met to hear from four witnesses with expertise in military affairs.

While each witness presented varied tactical military recommendations for the Asia-Pacific theater, all agreed that the U.S. should mitigate China’s influence through a reassertion of military power.

For Graham Allison, director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the U.S. should not address the strengthening influence as a temporary problem, but a new norm.

“The rise of a 5000 year old civilization with 1.3 billion people is not a problem to be fixed,” Allison said. “It is a condition—a chronic condition that will have to be managed over a generation.”

Allison’s testimony focused on the relative power of the U.S. and China, presenting charts that compared the size and weight of the countries’ respective economies. He posited that, while the U.S. is still unquestionably richer and stronger in absolute terms, China has been growing richer and stronger at a much faster rate. While conceded that this economic growth would not immediately translate into military conflict, he insisted that the U.S. needs to “rebalance” power and avoid being displaced by China has the predominant Asia-Pacific power.

Michael Green, Vice President of the Center for Strategic and International Studies,  reiterated Allison’s concern about China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific region. He cited specific activity of China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) like its lightning campaign to construct island ports and air bases in the East and South China Seas.

“China is developing so-called ‘anti-axis’ area denial capabilities,” he said. “[They will be] targeting all of our forward bases with ballistic missiles, crowding the sea with coast guard ships, PLA fighters, drones, [and] fighter and satellite capabilities.”

To combat this activity, Green presented a comprehensive military plan: first, to “shore-up,” or strengthen, U.S. military deterrence efforts in Japan, Korea and Guam; second, to restore defense engagement in Southeast Asian countries vulnerable to power confrontations; third, to involve all branches of the U.S. government beyond the Department of Defense; and fourth, to respect China’s strength, but stand firm in advancing U.S. interests and commitments.

“Our reassurance strategy must never involve pandering to Beijing’s calls for a ‘new model of great power relations’ between the United States and China,” he said. “But we should continue pushing for transparency, confidence-building, and above all, consistent articulation of U.S. interests, values and commitments.”

Retired U.S. Navy admiral Gary Roughead built off Green’s recommendations, employing maritime strategy to contain China’s growing power. He recommended naval expansion to promote cooperation with key regional allies–cooperation, he said, that is necessary to maintain stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

“China seeks to diminish the strength and efficacy of the Pacific alliance structure that has been the foundation of regional stability,” he said. “The importance of our alliance relationships and cooperation with key partners in the region must be continuously reinforced.”

Roughead’s words outlined the overarching concern of each witness: that China would wield its increasing military and economic power to promote an expansionist agenda, eclipsing the U.S. as the primary power in the Asia-Pacific region.

“The rise of China is the important game that will play out. The question is, will it become the dominant power in Asia? And do we in the U.S. accept that?”

And the Senate committee shared that concern.

“This has been brilliant,” said Sen. Angus King (D-Maine), thanking the witnesses for their testimony. “It seems to me that  what we need to be thinking about is a broad strategy to deal with a very rapidly changing circumstance.”

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