February 17, 2020
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'Beyond Containing China'

Former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO Policy on new questions posed by Obaman's recent Strategic Defense Review and the US move toward Asia

'Beyond Containing China'

US President Barack Obama recently unveiled his country's new defence strategy aimed at trimming the defence budget. The eight-page document spells out the plan that refocuses the armed forces on threats in Asia and the Pacific region. Ian Brzezinski, former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO Policy, says that while the specifics of the strategy will be announced in the coming weeks, it will not affect the readiness and capabilities of the US armed forces. Mr. Brzezinski, currently a Senior Fellow in the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council, puts the strategy in perspective

Sachin Gaur: After the announcement of Strategic Defense Review, there is an apprehension that reduced defence spending has the potential to harm US interests. Will it have any impact on the “War on Terror”?

Ian Brzezinski: I am a little struck by the fact that someone was saying it is going to result in cutting off US forces by half. I’m not sure if that is true in a couple of regards. One is that there aren’t many statistics and force projections released with the Strategic Defense Review. The review kicks off a process that will lead to further documents and budget submissions to Congress. That will then give us an insight into what impact it will be on the size of US forces. With that said, I think the president himself stated during his press conference in the roll out of his defence review that he did not anticipate the defence budget decreasing significantly. In fact, he was saying he expected it to remain constant in constant-dollars over the next ten years, it will increase with the rate of inflation or just below that. Regarding your question about war on terror, the document does make clear that it remains a primary priority. They use the word or phrase: "combating violent extremism". That is the new phrase that covers the priority of global war on terrorism.

Some have suggested that the US move toward Asia could reinforce China's fear of encirclement and prompt further militarisation. Would it be fair to say that a renewed US focus on the Asia pacific region is like a containment strategy?

Well, the administration says it doesn’t, but when you read the document it is very clear that in addition to the fiscal challenges that face the United States, a clear driver behind the strategy is to deal with the emergence of new powers in the Asia Pacific region. The text of the document gives particular emphasis to the emergence of Chinese power. I think it would be unwise to try to encircle China but I think it is prudent to develop capabilities that will ensure US ability to operate with full access to the global commons of the Asia Pacific.

The document notes that the United States is investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India. What expectations does the US have from India?

I think the expectation is that India would become more of a partner with the US and democratic community of nations in dealing with the challenges we are facing in 21st century— including the threats posed by violent extremism, threats posed by regional instabilities or power vacuums — threats that could undercut the international community’s ability to freely access the global commons including the sea, air, cyber space and space domains.

But India has clarified that it does not intend to form an alliance against China.

I’m not sure there is consensus in the United States that we want to develop a strategy of containment against China. There are some who advocate that but I don’t think there is consensus in the US that is leading to the development of a policy towards that end. That of course doesn’t preclude deeper cooperation between United States and India.

There is much more that India and US could do together beyond containing China and that include, as I mentioned, working together against violent extremism, developing capabilities that could be useful for peace operations, working together to ensure that the key maritime commons and other commons remain open to the international community.

If the Pentagon abandons its strategic principle that the US military should have the ability to wage two wars simultaneously, how would it be perceived?

There is a fundamental flaw in this document. First of all, I don’t see a real requirement for the administration to move to a one-war strategy. The fact is that the defense budget, even if it goes down to the levels of what it was in 2001 prior to 9/11, it is still larger than next several largest defence budgets combined. Our force structure, I think most are thinking, will probably shift from about 560,000 down to about 480,000 in terms of just the army forces alone. These are highly capable, technologically advanced, well trained, and highly experienced forces. There really is no peer competitor to the United States military.

So I’m not convinced of the need to move down to a “one war strategy”. The administration has articulated the need to ensure the ability to successfully combat one major military operation against the state combatant and then the ability to deter or impose a high cost upon the aggressor in the second region.

The language is little ambiguous and I think it can be interpreted as an abandonment of two-wars strategy. If that is the case, it's completely unnecessary, and I think it is a wrong message to send abroad. But you know, the real facts will come out in the administration’s budget submissions and the further articulation of force 2020, which will articulate the forces it will have tomorrow, the next day, and then down into 2020. I think what we will see is a force structure fairly capable, probably capable of living up to the past paradigm of one major contingency, and a second somewhat marginally smaller contingency, which is what the past paradigm was.

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