Cross-Straits Series: Implications of The Emerging Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD) Capabilities in the Asia-Pacific

On March 17, Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security hosted a Cross-Straits Series event on the implications of the emerging anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities in the Asia-Pacific. This event featured Ms. Christel Fonzo-Eberhard, Manager of Monitor 360; Ms. Yuki Tatsumi, Senior Associate of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center; and Dr. Roger Cliff, Nonresident Senior Fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. The panel was moderated by Mr. Harry J. Kazianis, Editor of RealClearDefense.

Since China’s rapid modernization and development including their military capability, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the US and its allies to exercise power in the region. And while China’s A2/AD strategy most highly affects the countries closest to it, the main focus has been the US’ reaction. This event aimed to address how countries in the region perceive China’s growing power and influence; if they view these threats similarly to the US; and what their strategy is given that they live within the area covered by A2/AD.

The first speaker, Ms. Fonzo-Eberhard, focused on ASEAN’s perspective. She started off by establishing the fact that the further away from China, the less of a threat it is. ASEAN does not think the same way as the US of A2/AD. She believes ASEAN’s stance is “based on each member’s narrative,” their history and deeply held beliefs. Indonesia and the Philippines have haunting colonial pasts and difficultly obtained independence. They will cautiously seek to act as the bridge between China and the US while maintaining their sovereignty. Thailand on the other hand, is the only country in the region that was not colonized and will make sure to balance its close economic ties with China as well as security support from the US. Vietnam also recognizes that it cannot stand up against China militarily, but has been progressively showing aggressive signs that it can “be a nuisance.” And meanwhile, Malaysia has quietly maintained a “cautious neutrality” resulting in “thriving trade ties with China,” but also building bilateral ties with the US. The “ultimate balancer” is Singapore. They are not too concerned about the A2/AD strategy beyond the fact that it may cause a war between China and the US. The six countries discussed see that the US can be a “fickle friend” and are apprehensive about China’s growing power, but China is not yet necessarily denying these countries anything, and they do not believe that China will actively use military capabilities to harm their interests. They are aware, however, that were the two superpowers to engage in any type of “kinetic military action” in the region, that it will “not benefit them in any way.”

Dr. Cliff continued the discussion with Taiwan’s view on the matter. He first defined A2/AD as: “capabilities that prevent outside forces, such as the US from deploying forces into the theater of combat operations, or prevent them from operating freely once they are in the theater.” He then moved onto the different types of military operations made possible and made necessary for China, Taiwan and the US because of A2/AD. China’s capabilities are not only limited to their aircraft and ballistic missiles, but also extend to mines at harbors, submarines, anti-ship cruise missiles, covert operatives, and more. The possible effects of the use of these weapons and attacks is not so much preventing the outside forces from actually entering the region, but really obstructing communications systems that commanders need to protect, communicate and control their forces once they are inside. This would result in upholding the forces at more distant bases. Such effects have two implications for Taiwan: 1) Taiwan does not have the capabilities to defeat China on its own, meaning, were China able to delay the US from deploying its forces in the region, Taiwan could potentially be defeated; 2) Although most of China’s efforts regarding the A2/AD strategy are directed against the US forces, one must not forget that China’s ballistic missiles and other forms of attack can easily and directly be used on Taiwan. It is then, not the A2/AD strategy itself, but rather the capabilities that enable the anti-access that is a threat to Taiwan (and the US). Taiwan has several points to its advantage: it has the most “robust” air base in the region, the ability to rapidly lay sea mines along its beaches, and missile crafts. However, Cliff suggests they have room for further development and investment. The US should also invest more in facilities and capabilities in the region. He concluded by saying that A2/AD “is not a new way of war,” but simply “something made possible by new technologies developed in the particular geography in the Asia-Pacific region.” Therefore overcoming these challenges require a different approach for both Taiwan and the US military from before – it requires “vision,” “determination,” and “persistence” for the leaders to “push through the changes.”

The Japanese perspective was outlined by Ms. Tatsumi. She spoke on the main concern of the Japanese government: homeland defense. Describing Japan as a nation with jurisdiction over extensive maritime regions, Tatsumi stated that Japan is mostly focused on who controls the sea. But the issue of homeland defense becomes a lot more complicated with the other two domains: air and land. While the maritime domain is the most visible and manageable with the Chinese coast guards primarily engaged and the Japanese constantly monitoring, the air and land domains are a lot less tangible and distressful with the Japanese defense establishment system constantly anticipating “the worst-case scenario” of the Senkaku Islands being taken away. These concerns are the main driving forces for the Japanese “force-posturing.” But Japan now is moving on from simply domestic security issues to a broader range – the safety and stability of the global commons, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. The three main challenges to responding to these issues are: 1) budget – Japan does not have enough resources to “up the amp” in their defense system on a large-scale; 2) legal – the Japanese government needs to decide whether to authorize the defense forces to play a larger role than it already is doing; and 3) political – there are complications in the public realm as to how the government is portraying kinetic security concerns posed by the modernization of the military equipment, such as the Osprey, to the public by “couching” its purpose as only a matter of defense.