OP-ED: China: The center of our strategic gravity


Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in the United States Tuesday, welcomed by business leaders in Seattle before flying to Washington to discuss key challenges in Asia and around the world.

Ceremonial pleasantries aside, President Obama must use this opportunity to tell Xi that the United States and our friends in Asia are rightly concerned with China's growing aggressiveness.

In recent months, China has built artificial land around disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea, large enough on which to construct airstrips and ports with clear military purposes.

These moves are part of Beijing's attempts to realize its claim — inconsistent with international law and challenged by other Asian nations — that China has sovereignty over 90 percent of that mineral-rich sea.

In doing so, China has heightened tensions to an extent that, if unchecked, could lead to conflict. This is immensely harmful to our Asia-Pacific allies, and damaging to our own security and economic interests.

These concerns explain why we must enhance our security presence in Asia and signal to Beijing that the Western Pacific is our home as much as China's — and we will remain there as a stabilizing force for decades to come.

We should have turned our attention more to Asia a long time ago. In 2001, at a meeting with all navy admirals shortly after I received my first flag star, I argued that we should place two, not just one, aircraft carriers there — one in Japan, as we have today, and another in Guam.

Some naval leaders, including a future Chief of Naval Operations, agreed with my assessment. Others objected. But 9/11 turned us all toward Central Asia, leaving little check on China as it pursued its ambitions in Asia during the last decade.

Today, as China continues to intimidate neighbors, disrupt trade in the South China Sea, and transform its military to project greater power, eyes are again on Washington, wondering what regional role we will take.

The recent decision to send U.S. military aircraft to fly over areas where China is building fake islands — defining those areas as international airspace and essentially rejecting China's claims — is only a short-term response to a long-term challenge.

Going forward, we must fundamentally retool our strategy and our presence in Asia.

First, President Obama's "Rebalance to Asia" strategy unveiled four years ago leaves much to be desired if one believes the center of gravity for our economic, financial, diplomatic, and overall security lies in the Western Pacific for the rest of this century.

Washington's orders to deploy 2,500 marines to Australia, four littoral combat ships to Singapore by 2018, and 60 percent of naval assets to the Pacific by 2020 fall short of what is needed when balanced with the significance of the area's stability for American interests.

We need to permanently base a second aircraft carrier in Guam, as I suggested 15 years ago, backed up with submarine forces in the area and an air force presence in Guam.

These are critical elements for us to establish a convincing case to both our allies and China that we are present as an "honest broker" — with the utmost capability to maintain peace through security that can prevent, or react to, different contingencies in the region.

In the longer term, we must devise a smarter defense strategy that values capability over numbers, especially in the Far East. We must invest more in knowledge, technology, and speed — not in more costly force size.

Rather than buying more submarines at $2 billion each, we can develop a netted sensor information system to track Chinese underwater movements, and then direct an aircraft to engage with underwater weapons. This is particularly true as reports continue of our submarines passing close by quiet Chinese diesel submarines and never detecting them.

Our investment in the newest sensors, our ability to quickly turn just-gathered intelligence into swift action, and our development of aircraft technologically connected to exact targeting information that can replace large, costly ground units will take us a long way in that region.

In effect, we must focus on force posture, not force structure.

I proposed this very plan in 2005, when I served as the deputy chief of Naval Operations. Unfortunately, the plan never advanced beyond Congress. Given recent developments, it is time to do a serious rethink.

It is in our interest to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea, where over $5 trillion of trade passes through with at least one fifth of which involving the United States. By 2022, Asia will be home to over half the world's middle-class consumers.

The administration has set goals to reboot our manufacturing base and double exports to create good jobs here at home. We cannot achieve that unless we can guarantee that China will not disrupt the peace in Asia.

— Joe Sestak is a former Navy Admiral and U.S. Congressman. He is running for U.S. Senate in 2016.