American military might asleep in Phase Zero in Asia?

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Senior Researcher of JFSS Grant F. Newsham

China’s military buildup and expansion has never evoked a consistent sense of threat on the US side. 


Perhaps owing to being dominant for so long, American leaders sometimes appear so confident of winning in wartime that they are myopic about what happens during peacetime – the so-called “phase zero” in US military terms.

Consider Asia.  It’s not that US forces aren’t busy in the region, but rather there’s been a longstanding indifference towards China’s military buildup and its undermining of US alliances and commitment to Asia.

If the US isn’t careful, this creeping subversion could put it in the strategic equivalent of wrestling’s Full Nelson and unable to move beyond phase zero at acceptable cost.
China’s military buildup and expansion has never evoked a consistent sense of threat on the US side — just recall a US Pacific Command chief who considered global warming his biggest challenge in the Asia Pacific.

Admiral Harry Harris, the current PACOM commander, described Chinese submarines as Model-T’s while the American versions are Corvettes.

A previous commander, Admiral Dennis Blair, also downplayed China’s capabilities, noting it would take only 10-15 minutes to neutralize Beijing’s man-made islands in the South China Sea — the so-called “Great Wall of Sand.”

Glib dismissals that make for good newspaper quotes, while the noose tightens.

South China Sea disputed islands
South China Sea and disputed islands

If more evidence is needed of American dismissiveness mixed with a dose of hubris, consider the decision to invite China to the world’s largest international maritime warfare exercise, known as RIMPAC, in Hawaii in 2014 and 2016.

The People’s Liberation Army was invited despite well-understood intelligence risks (try ‘acoustic signatures’ for starters), and apparently in the belief that exposure to US awesomeness would convince China to behave. An invitation to China for RIMPAC 2018 is apparently still open.


China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier during its launching ceremony in Dalian, Liaoning province, China, April 26, 2017. Reuters/Stringer.

One would think American leaders would know better after recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan that you underestimate adversaries or overestimate yourself at your own peril.

Less recent experiences teach the same lesson. Condescension toward China’s military is this generation’s version of 1930’s thinking that the Japanese were incapable of producing fighter aircraft like the Zero or Long Lance torpedoes.

It was equally impossible that the Imperial Japanese Navy could ever match — much less outclass — the Royal Navy. Britannia had ruled the waves for a century, after all.

Improvements in China’s naval and air forces over the phase zero of the last decade are impressive and alarming. It also happened faster than all but a handful of American analysts predicted.

■As China has gained de facto control of the South China Sea and threatens similar in the East China Sea, it has also quietly ensconced itself in the South Pacific islands and is moving into the Indian Ocean.

At the same time, Beijing has pulled US allies like the Philippines and Thailand into its orbit, raising doubts in other countries about US commitment.

US military forces — as powerful and professional as they are — would likely defeat the People’s Liberation Army in a straight up fight, though at a cost nobody much wants to think about.

This also assumes moving from phase zero to phase one (war looks likely) and then into phase two (the shooting starts) is automatic. It isn’t.

If China’s military were to do something like, say, grab Japan’s Senkaku islands or perhaps teach Taiwan a lesson, there will be voices in the US arguing that a military response carries too high a price.

This shows that if China as a smart adversary makes the proper strategic moves in phase zero, there might not be a phase one or a phase two, because the US awakes to finds itself in a stranglehold it can’t get out of, except at too high a price.

It’s always the rule to make it so that your adversary, rather than you, can’t get out of phase zero. That comes from taking the adversary seriously.


Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Officer and a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.