The Lost Opportunity of Countering China

After 9/11 US policy planners turned their attention away from hypothetical conflicts in Asia to the real wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A decade on, defence planners find themselves fiscally constrained in the West as China continues its military growth.    

By Professor Aaron L Friedberg

9/11 Retrospectives: This commentary is part of a series of contributions from eminent policymakers, academics and commentators offering their thoughts on the significance of 9/11.

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But for 9/11, the United States would have devoted more resources to countering the rapid expansion in China's air and naval capabilities that began in the mid-1990s. Instead, for the past decade, defence planners have had to focus on different kinds of threats in other parts of the world.

The 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), all-but-complete before 9/11, suggests the path the US would have followed if not for the events of that day. Without identifying China by name, the report detailed the emerging challenge posed by its growing 'anti­access/area denial' capabilities. Beijing was buying large numbers of weapons (especially ballistic missiles, air-, sea-and ground-launched cruise missiles, and diesel subma rines) capable of striking targets with growing accuracy, albeit at comparatively modest distances from its own shores. Even if these were less sophisticated than their American counterparts, they could still sink ships and disable the relatively small numbers of ports, airfields, storage depots and communications facilities on which the United States depended to sustain its forces in East Asia. It seemed increasingly clear that China was pursuing an 'asymmetric' strategy aimed at neutralising America's overwhelming advantages in global power projection.

The implications for defence planning were not difficult to discern. To ensure that it could not be locked out of Asia either by military action or by diplomatic pressure on its friends, the QDR stated that the United States needed to diversify its limited portfolio of bases, securing 'additional access and infrastructure agreements' in the region. In addition, in the somewhat longer run, it would have to develop 'systems capable of sustained operations at great distances with minimal theater-based support'. While the report avoided specific recommendations, its logic seemed to point towards more investment in submarines as well as new systems like low-observable 'arsenal ships' loaded with long-range conventional missiles, armed, carrier-launched unmanned aerial vehicles that could loiter unseen over enemy territory, and a new generation of stealthy intercontinental bombers.

In more tranquil circumstances, the 2001 QDR would probably have served as the blueprint for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's planned 'transformation' of the American military and its reorientation toward the Pacific. After 9/11, however, the global War on Terror got first call on resources, and the Pentagon's attention shifted from a hypothetical future high-intensity conflict in Asia to two very real, ongoing counter-insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the US did take steps to shore up its position in Asia, these mostly involved increased deployments of existing systems to the region and efforts to promote closer co-operation with traditional allies like Japan, and new quasi-allies like India.

Ten years after 9/11, with China's capabilities still growing, and the US commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down, defence planners find themselves confronted by severe budget constraints resulting from the 2008-09 financial crisis. If China ever succeeds in displacing America as the preponderant power in the Western Pacific, future historians will assign much of the responsibility to these two unforeseen events, the bookends of a tumultuous decade. ¡

Aaron FriedbergAaron L Friedberg is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. His new book, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, is being published in the US and UK by WW Norton.

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