Reprinted With Permission From Real Clear Defense
Mr. Trump: Do you believe China would launch a first strike on American forward bases and, if so, will you commit to diversifying and hardening our forward bases to preempt such an attack?
Senators Cruz and Sanders: As president, would you be willing to compromise with the opposing party on a budget bill that would restore military spending to a level necessary to defend our strategic and economic interests in Asia?
Ms. Clinton and Senator Rubio: If a Vietnam increasingly fearful of the power of China invited us to re-establish a naval base at Camranh Bay, would you accept that invitation?
On the eve of the 74th anniversary of Imperial Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, these are particularly critical questions for the presidential debate. This is all the more true because of two particularly disturbing strategic realities: China has a long history of Pearl Harbor-like sneak attacks, and America's forward bases in Asia are extremely vulnerability to swarming cruise missile attacks and new Chinese weapons like its hypersonic glide vehicle.
To understand China's propensity for the sneak attack, consider its entry into the Korean War in 1950. Under cover of darkness, a three-division army numbering more than 100,000 troops surreptitiously crossed the Yalu River into North Korea and slaughtered thousands of US and South Korean troops caught by surprise.
In 1962, China likewise large a surprise attack on India in a war that was pure Hobbes - nasty, brutish, and short. This was simultaneously India's "Pearl Harbor moment" and its most humiliating defeat, and China's perfidy has left the Indian populace with a deep and abiding distrust of China.
In 1969, China similarly surprise-attacked the Soviet Union over a territorial dispute centered on three small river islands along the flanks of the 25,000-foot high Pamir Mountain Range. During this short war, an enraged Nikita Khrushchev came ever so close to "dropping the big one" on China - a cautionary tale in light of China's eerily similar nationalistic territorial claims being made over islands in the East and South China Seas.
In 1979, China would complete its hat trick of surprise attacks on former allies with a blitzkrieg invasion of northern Vietnam. In each case - India, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam -- China justified its sneak attack as "self-defensive counter-intervention." This, of course, is exactly the same twisted logic that led Imperial Japan to its day of Pearl Harbor infamy. The broader point: American presidents should never assume China would never attack the United States as Imperial Japan once did.
As for America's "sitting duck" forward bases in the event of such an attack, the Pentagon has bet the strategic farm in Asia on a relatively small handful of large bases arrayed along the First and Second Island Chains of defense. For example, Guam anchors the Second Island Chain and bristles with the best weapons America has in its arsenal. Warns Princeton's Aaron Friedberg: "China is in the process of developing and deploying new weapons that will soon bring Guam well within range."
Other key bases anchoring the First Island Chain now firmly in the crosshairs of China's vaunted Second Artillery Corps include the Sasebo and Yokosuka Naval Bases and Yokota Air Force Base on the home islands of Japan and the Kadena Air Force Base and Torii Station Army Base on Okinawa. Says Friedberg, these bases are "fixed. They're not going anywhere; and they can conceivably be struck repeatedly by Chinese conventional weapons. So our posture in that part of the world is somewhat precarious; and the strategic policy question is how to make it less so."
At particular missile risk are not just the obvious "planes on the runways" nightmare but also critical elements of the military supply chain. As US Naval War College Professor Toshi Yoshihara clinically puts it:
Many of these facilities can be seen right on Google Earth. They are very visible from the air; and they are soft, fixed targets. So the Chinese can just punch in the coordinates, salvo the missiles, and thereby make sure that our ammunition depots and our oil supplies and other elements of logistical support are simply destroyed. Of course, that would greatly complicate America's ability to sustain its operations along the First Island Chain.
What, then, is a presidential candidate to say about this situation? Perhaps these two words: "harden" and "disperse."
"Hardening" means moving fuel supplies and weapons caches deep underground, siloing aircraft, and pouring literally tons of concrete on literally tons more of steel rebar to fortify runways and buildings and barracks and piers. It also means having specialized equipment on hand that can quickly repair runways and clear the inevitable rubble that will come from swarms of missile salvos. Says Aaron Friedberg:
Things like equipment that can patch craters in runways can be extremely important. They're not high up on the list of priorities. They're not the fancy new systems that military services generally want to buy, but they could be essential in preserving our capacity to use bases and facilities in the context of a conflict.
As for base dispersal, Professor Yoshihara explains how it might work in Japan - the country most likely to be receptive to the idea because of the intense coercive pressures China has been applying.
Redeploying high-value assets like bases and ships across the entire Japanese Archipelago would make targeting a much more complicated issue for the Chinese. For example, the Ryukyu island chain - the string of islands that constitutes the Japanese territories - stretches for about a thousand kilometers; and it has, in fact, a whole host of port facilities as well as airfields that can be used by the air and naval forces of the United States and its allies. Being able to disperse those forces, say, even across the southwestern islands of the Ryukyu Island chain would enormously complicate Chinese targeting.
A second form of diversification -- and the one likely to encounter the most Chinese political resistance - would involve expanding American bases and facilities into countries not currently hosting a large American presence. As American Enterprise Institute scholar Dan Blumenthal notes:
"If Chinese decision makers all of the sudden have to think about hitting many targets in many countries that is a far bigger deterrent rather than just having to hit a few bases in Japan or a US aircraft carrier."
While Vietnam is likely to be most open to such an embrace of the American defense umbrella given its rapidly escalating resource and territorial disputes with China, this type of expansionist diversification does indeed run the risk of crossing one of China's "red lines." As Brooking scholar Michael O'Hanlon has warned about the need to tread ever so lightly:
The number of new bases America might build is a delicate matter, but especially in new countries. So, for example, if we were to put five airfields into Vietnam in order to disperse US forces throughout the region, that's more than a simple dispersal strategy. That's developing a new ally right on China's border. It's going to feed into Chinese fears of containment; and I would only do that under very extreme circumstances.
You can see, then, from all of these considerations why it is so important for our presidential candidates to be pressed during the upcoming debates and on the campaign trail on these issues. Would a President Bernie Sanders, for example, be willing to spend less on social welfare programs in order to harden our airbases in Asia? Would a President Ted Cruz be capable of doing what he has never done as a Senator - compromise with Democrats on budget issues in order to protect the level of military spending? And between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, which might be more willing to disperse our forward bases across Asia even at the risk of offending the Chinese? These are tough questions, and the American people and our military forces now at risk deserve some tough answers.
Peter Navarro is a professor at the University of California-Irvine. He is the author of Crouching Tiger: What China's Militarism Means for the World (Prometheus Books) and director of the companion Crouching Tiger documentary film series. www.crouchingtiger.net
Follow the 2016 Presidential race at RealClearPolitics.