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Comes a New Cold War?

Without fanfare or finger pointing, senior Defense Department officials make it abundantly clear that the United States and China are entering a new Cold War era. Indeed, two years ago then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force to collaborate on an air-sea battle concept. This plan integrates air and naval forces in order to operate in an anti-access and area-denial (A2AD) environment.

China is the only nation steadfastly articulating an A2AD strategy. This policy is closely coupled to rapid advances in weaponry and a specious declared exclusive economic zone (EEZ) projecting 200 miles from China’s coast. The Pentagon is approving and formalizing this air-sea battle plan as it girds for another cold war.

Beijing’s emerging modern military capabilities and technologies designed for A2AD create a challenge for the air-sea battle concept. Moreover, China continues to harass vessels, including U.S. Navy ships, by interfering with navigation within their declared EEZ. These are waters regarded by the international community as international waters, regions of high seas freedom.

Pentagon officials insist the air-sea battle plan is not aimed at a specific country; however, they could not cite a country other than China with deployed A2AD associated weaponry. Beijing’s technical advances encompass an anti-ship ballistic missile, new stealth fighter and China’s first aircraft carrier. Electronic and cyber warfare, integrated air and missile defenses, submarines with increasing capabilities and modern surface combatants are all aimed at enforcing China’s A2AD. All of these weapons combined could be used to create challenges to access, to keep military forces out of an area or make it very difficult to maneuver within an area, one air-sea battle office official stressed.

Even with rapid and surprising technological weapons advances, China continues to accelerate its defense spending, with a 12.7 percent increase in 2011, up from 7.5 percent in 2010. The irony is that China’s exports to the U.S. provide the lucre to continue rearming.

The basis of the U.S. air-sea battle plan is to ensure freedom of access in the global commons. This plan evolved after deployment in China of the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile with its maneuvering reentry vehicle. This weapon system is now claimed to be operational. The three U.S. services are collaborating under their respective chiefs to organize, train and equip for this new cold war – seeking jointness at a higher level, cross domain operations with integration of air and naval forces, expanding from there and creating capabilities that can be rapidly fielded.

The air-sea battle organization represents change. Their priority is to network and integrate U.S. forces more tightly, to allow them to remain in a very challenging and complex A2AD environment without being forced to move out of the area, and to engage if necessary. Combatant commanders, in turn, will use this air-sea battle concept to shape their forces to operate with an A2AD environment. This new air-sea battle organization, with approximately 15 officials assigned, has immediate access to major fleet and field commands.

Another decades-long new cold war could play itself out in the Pacific. A recent example of Beijing’s A2AD strategy and heavy-handedness involves China’s claim to oil-rich areas of the South China Sea. During the Bali summit, Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, informed his Chinese counterpart that his country intended to continue commercial oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea. India and Vietnam are jointly exploring in areas off the contested Spratly Islands. China’s bellicose response contained a blunt warning to India not to challenge or violate China’s control.

Realists know there is little doubt that China’s A2AD strategy helps enforce its growing power and influence throughout the Pacific Rim. And Beijing rapidly is harnessing its growing influence to reshape international rules and institutions to serve its own purposes. The question of how America and its allies respond to China’s military modernization efforts and its A2AD strategy is of particular importance. Appeasing a bully never works.

The Air Force and the Marine Corps now join the U.S. Navy, already developing weapons to counter anti-ship missiles. President Obama also announced during a mid-November visit to Australia new plans to deploy 2,500 leathernecks “down under,” along with increasing bomber flights and aircraft carrier port visits. Designed to bolster alliances in Asia, China reacted to Obama’s move by claiming an increase in tensions and that the U.S. is seeking to encircle the People’s Republic. Meanwhile, Singapore and Vietnam are offering basing to U.S. warships.

Bubbling just beneath the surface is the potential for military conflict in the Pacific over Taiwan or another issue. Some observers consider this an unlikely scenario, in part, because of U.S.-Chinese economic linkages. Nevertheless, the U.S.-Chinese military balance in the Pacific is likely to influence day-to-day challenges faced by other Pacific nations.

Washington and Beijing are still at loggerheads over diplomatic, economic and military activities in the Pacific. President Obama expressed his concerns during the Bali Asian leader’s summit. Recent tensions are focused on territorial disputes between Beijing and its neighbors in the South China Sea. Obama told China’s leader that the United States will protect freedom of navigation, the free trade movement and the peaceful resolution of disputes.

While the U.S. military has been preoccupied with jihadist terrorism and rogue states, China’s military has been in the ascendancy. Now, the reality of the situation mandates quick U.S. reaction. This situation, while risky, also requires an open realization that a new bamboo curtain is descending along the Pacific Rim – from the Hawaiian Islands to Taiwan, to the Philippines, to Borneo, to New Guinea and to Australia.

As this new Asian-centered world order drama plays out, the U.S. military pledges an assertive presence, a show of force to assuage China’s A2AD strategy by being prepared to respond and initiate whatever action is required to ensure a strong U.S. presence. Every element of American power will be used to ensure prosperity and freedom in the region.

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Clarence A. Robinson, Jr., is the author of Battleground High, a book in progress on...