China uses “applied friction” – calling coral reefs “islands” to claim them, setting up aerial identification zones, building its navy’s blue water capacity – as part of its strategy to get its way in the Asia-Pacific region, the chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee said Wednesday.
Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), speaking at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the Chinese use that friction “like a check valve on a pump.”
“We’ve become very adverse to any friction,” even to the point of renaming the “Pivot to the Asia Pacific” the “Rebalancing to the Asia Pacific,” he said.
But the Chinese “overplay their hand sometimes,” which causes its neighbors to look to the United States to resolve disputes and provide security.
Forbes said the Chinese realize that they have a certain amount of time, possibly a decade, to keep accelerating its economy before serious problems arise, and the current American administration appears unwilling to act with the same force it has towards Russia for meddling in Ukraine.
For China, like Russia, bold steps overseas can divert public attention from domestic problems, he said.
Forbes, who also serves as founder and co-chairman of the Congressional China Caucus, said it was important that the Obama administration brought the Asia-Pacific “to center stage.” That renewed attention has helped the United States improve relations with countries in the region beyond its traditional allies.
“What we want is networks,” Forbes said in answer to a question. He cited Japan’s closer working relationship with Australia on security and the Philippines giving the United States access to facilities there.
“It causes the Chinese to think.”
But, more critically, Forbes has long asked for more from the administration to ensure the new focus on the region is strategic in meeting the United States’ desired goals.
“Tell me what the strategy is,” “are we winning or losing,” and “tell me the metrics you are using,” he said he always asks of witnesses in his hearings.
He said those questions are often met with sighs from the witnesses.
“We’ve gone away from strategic thinking,” he said.
Later, in answer to a question, Forbes said, “we need to redefine what winning is.” It is not a zero-sum game, but rather “It’s bolstering everyone up,” including China, and promoting rule of law over force.
Forbes said the top concern in the region is trade. He said the Trans Pacific Partnership treaty will improve trade relations between the United States and Asian countries.
In his 14 years in Congress, he said China’s military reach has dramatically increased.
“We were writing reports [that in] 10 years [the Chinese] are going to build aircraft carriers,” and those findings were met with skepticism. Forbes said the same thing has proven true about China’s capability to build a ballistic missile submarine. Chinese “blue water capacity is increasing qualitatively, and increasing their [submarines’] quietness.”
Forbes also addressed the American shipbuilding industry during his speech, saying that the current sending levels are inadequate for a global navy charged with protecting undersea cables that carry international financial data and ensuring safe cargo transportation.
“We’re trying to get that narrative out, why we need to bump up those bottom lines,” Forbes said of defense spending levels.
“That manufacturing capability [of World War II] is not there any more.” The situation is precarious because there are sole-source providers of materials that can be forced out of business by the sharp peaks and valleys of defense budgets.
“I am more optimistic now” about ending sequestration because a growing number of representatives “recognize we let that pendulum go too far” in allowing across-the-board budget cuts. He also cited a “greater deal of cooperation between appropriators and authorizers” in addressing defense needs.
Forbes said that, although he didn’t want to rely on Overseas Contingency Operations funding to support the military’s spending needs in Fiscal Year 2016 – an account that is not subject to spending caps under the Budget Control Act – the spending tactic worked in giving the military what it needs to do its job.
“The question is, I don’t know if [the president] will veto it,” he added.