Those who believe that the United States is no longer capable of strategic planning should pay a visit to the Pacific Command (PACOM), headed by the impressive Admiral Willard. Besides the almost unimaginable number of tasks associated with running a command of 325,000 personal that covers half of the globe, Admiral Willard has also charged himself and his staff with long-range strategic planning for this most vital of regions. Unfortunately, Washington is of little help. Not only can the bureaucracy (under any administration) no longer respond to anything but a day's events, but political leaders on both sides of the aisle have been asking PACOM to do more and more with less and less for over a decade.
What's more, PACOM has little strategic guidance. As a country, we vaguely know that we want to deter Chinese aggression while encouraging "responsible behavior"; integrate India as a full strategic partner; empower Southeast Asian countries as independent, prosperous, and hopefully democratic partners; encourage Japan to play a "normal" role; and denuclearize North Korea while working for eventual unification of the peninsula under Seoul's governance. But military staffs need to plan -- and no one knows for what exactly we are planning. Will we or won't we come to Taiwan's defense? Will we get into a conflict over disputes in the South China Sea? Will we intervene in a Sino-Japanese conflict? What if China is the main aggressor in a Korea conflagration? All unclear.
The situation is most akin to the years of "Orange" planning at the Naval War College that unfolded over the three decades before the Pacific War. We knew we might one day have to fight Imperial Japan, but we had no idea over what. We possessed the Philippines but we certainly would not go to war over those islands alone. Taiwan today is the closest analogue. It may be the trigger over a fight for, as Aaron Friedberg has put it, "mastery" or "supremacy over half the world."
While Taiwan may seem today to be an idiosyncratic American concern about democratic friends, if attacked the island may look like the place where China has chosen to change the global balance of power. Unfortunately, the years of "Orange" planning ended up in a horrific Pacific War. American ambiguity over red lines played its part in triggering that conflict. Japan attacked China with no response. Tokyo did not know if an invasion of Southeast Asia would be met with similar passivity. Finally, Japan decided that one decisive blow against the U.S. fleet in Hawaii would keep Washington out of the sphere of influence it was building in Asia. It was wrong.
Ambiguity has its place -- it allows for flexibility. In the case of Sino-American relations, ambiguity allows the United States to respond both to an aggressive China and one that does not repeat the mistakes of Imperial Japan. But clarity serves its purposes too. Secretaries Clinton and Gates, for example, proclaimed "core interests," as the Chinese would say, in freedom of navigation through the South China Sea; PACOM is now trying to interpret and operationalize Washington's guidance.
But an uneven commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act, a law that has helped to keep the cross-Strait peace for decades, only invites more Chinese probing and testing in the place where Beijing is most likely to challenge American staying power.
PACOM is doing its part to, as the military likes to say, "shape" the region in concert with U.S. interests -- through its planning, its robust program of engagement with allies and partners, and its very active and enduring presence. Besides the lack of clarity from Washington -- a function of the absence of effective strategic planning mechanisms -- political leaders are overtaxing the command charged with defense of the world's most vital region. We are slowly and without due deliberation heading toward the famous "Lippmann Gap" -- our declared interests in Asia keep growing, we ask PACOM to do what it can to advance them, but we starve them of resources to do the job. We are coming to a point where either we retrench from our commitments in Asia (a policy with untold consequences) or we decide as a nation to properly fund them.
Hana'lei Shimana/U.S. Navy via Getty Images