By Genevieve Hackman
Outgoing head of the Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Philip Davidson has made no secret what he believes to be the number one regional military threat: China. In March, he painted a grim picture for the Senate Armed Services Committee: “I worry that they [China] are accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States,” noting specifically, “I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.” His favored prescription to address the China threat is the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), Congress’ plan to counter China in the Indo-Pacific.
Adm. Davidson’s highest priority is funding for the air and missile defense of Guam. Guam is a U.S. territory in the Western Indo-Pacific, hosting Anderson Air Force Base, which coordinates theater operations. This is the closest U.S. base on U.S. territory to China, allowing quick deployment to the region in time of conflict.
Larry Korb, a senior Pentagon official in the Reagan administration has called into question Adm. Davidson’s prioritization, asking incredulously, “Are the Chinese going to attack an American territory?” Further, Democratic lawmakers like Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) are “troubled” by the PDI’s “arms race approach” to China. To bolster the U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific without accelerating arms-race dynamics, Congress should reshape the PDI to focus on cooperation with regional allies rather than increasing military might.
Why is Guam such a hotspot?
Supporters of a new missile defense system on Guam outline two reasons they believe the system is necessary to fight China. First, the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system currently stationed on Guam is not designed to defend against cruise missiles, a capability China is building. Second, Admiral John Richardson in 2018, chief of naval operations at the time, explains that in order to protect Guam fully from ballistic missiles, Navy ships would have to stay in a small area to cover THAAD’s blind spots from Chinese naval assets. However, this limits their mission to only missile defense and assumes cruise missiles to be the only threat.
Adm. Davidson has called for a new Aegis Ashore missile defense system to provide 360-degree coverage of the island and cruise missile defense. This would be a costly and duplicative step for little practical benefit with THAAD and the Navy already on the job.
Moreover, the entire premise is questionable. A near-term war with China is unlikely due to co-dependency and positive linkages that characterize the U.S.-China relationship, and because it is not in the United States’, nor China’s, national security interest. Concerns about China’s military overwhelming the United States are wrong as well. John Isaacs, Senior Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, argues, “Now, it seems that China has become the new Soviet Union strawman. But there’s one big difference: while the Soviet military and nuclear arsenal were a fair match for the United States’, China’s simply aren’t. By many measures, it is not even close.” While China is, at present, a regional power and the U.S. has global responsibilities, the point remains that there is no overriding U.S. interest in trying to match China missile for missile in the eastern Pacific. Our current capabilities provide ample deterrence. In the worst case, pumping additional systems into the region unnecessarily risks fortifying arguments within Chinese policy circles that more proactive tactics are needed, raising the chances of miscalculation.
Instead of a U.S. military buildup in the Indo-Pacific, the United States should further invest in allies in the region to build their capabilities and confidence that they are not vulnerable to a more bellicose China. Working with allies demonstrates a more united front against potential Chinese aggression, but without the same arms race dynamics that piling in new systems would cause. Michael O’Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution, says this “web of allies” can support the United States’ regional goals.
Given the risk of driving Chinese military modernization, strengthening the PDI’s prioritization of allies over military duplication would be the best route forward. The benefits of the proposed PDI will only matter if we are engaged in a shooting war with China, which seems unlikely in the near future. With improved regional security cooperation, such a conflict becomes less likely. Competition with China is real; military confrontation need not be. We need to manage the competition through carefully reasoned strategy, not by throwing every expensive system we can imagine at the problem.