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Beijing wary as new US military strategy emerges

It is known as the AirSea Battle concept for the Western Pacific - and, depending on whom you listen to, it is either a dangerously provocative piece of cold war-era strategy from the Pentagon or a shrewd US approach to new threats underpinning China's rise.

Mentioned briefly first in a major strategic review last year, the concept is fast evolving on the desks of strategists in the Pentagon and the Pacific Command in Hawaii - and is starting to resonate across the region.

Chinese envoys are quietly eyeing developments, while one senior PLA officer studying in the US has publicly voiced concerns.

Senior Colonel Fan Gaoyue, a resident fellow at the Pacific Forum of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, warned that if the US developed such a concept, the PLA would be forced to develop its own counter in return.

'This cycle is not beneficial to China or the US,' he said in a Pacific Forum exchange last month. 'In fact, the PLA will never target the US military except if it intervenes in a Taiwan conflict or launches a pre-emptive strike against China.

'If AirSea Battle aims to stop a growing tilt in the balance of power, it means that the US intends to obtain even greater advantages over regional militaries. The US already enjoys the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific; the US has the strongest military and has no counterpart in the world.'

Under the concept, the US Navy and Air Force are trying to fully integrate their forces, weapons and systems to be able to defeat 'adversaries equipped with sophisticated antiaccess and area denial capabilities' to counter 'growing challenges to US freedom of action', according to the Pentagon's current Quadrennial Defence Review. China, in other words.

Anti-access and area denial weapons refer to the PLA's expanding array of advanced ballistic and cruise, missiles, radars, ships and submarines that some analysts believe would effectively make large swathes of East Asian waters effectively no-go zones for US aircraft carriers in a conflict.

Intriguingly, the concept has just one clear parallel. In the 1980s, the Pentagon successfully developed the so-called Land Sea Battle concept to maximise the capabilities of US forces defending western Europe.

This point has not been lost on Beijing. If the latest concept is similar to the AirLand Battle concept, Fan said, 'then the US has made a wrong decision at a wrong time and a wrong place'. The AirLand Battle was conceived amid serious cold war threats in contrast to now, when the US 'is not realistically threatened by a nation or groups and the Asia-Pacific region is a relatively stable area'.

While China 'does not challenge and even welcomes the US presence in the Asia-Pacific', that did not mean China would tolerate US behaviour detrimental to its national interests.

US Defence Secretary Dr Robert Gates last month raised the spectre of shrinking budgets as he outlined the need for the concept amid 'high-end, asymmetric threats' from China as well as North Korea and Iran.

Such threats, he told the US Air Force Academy, 'appear designed to neutralise the advantages the US military has enjoyed since the end of the cold war - unfettered freedom of movement and the ability to project power to any region across the globe by surging aircraft ships, troops and supplies'.

'The leadership of the air force and the navy, who are collaborating closely on this new doctrine, recognise the enormous potential in developing new joint war fighting capabilities - think of naval forces in airfield defence, or stealth bombers augmented by navy submarines - and the clear benefits from this more efficient use of taxpayer dollars.'

But a statement from the US Department of Defence to the South China Morning Post last week insisted that the evolving concept was not designed with a specific country in mind.

Instead, department spokeswoman Commander Leslie Hull-Ryde said it was 'designed to counter a set of proliferating capabilities that present significant anti-access/area denial challenges'.

The concept would help guide defence spending near-term and 'far into the future to ensure US forces continue to possess and advance the capabilities required to assure operational access and decisively project power in support of America's national interests and those of our allies and partners', Hull-Ryde said.

Elements of the concept would be shared with those allies and partners to ensure 'integrated and effective coalition forces'.

'We welcomed their support to field capabilities that will deter or defeat anti-access/area denial threats in the future,' she said.

Senior US naval officials, meanwhile, have in recent days highlighted the use of submarines to support air strikes in the ongoing Libyan campaign as a sign of the doctrine at work.

The USS Florida unleashed Tomahawk missiles to take out air defences so fighter jets could enforce a no-fly zone - a sign of navy and air force co-operation at work.

While the Pentagon has yet to release extensive details on how the concept will be put into operation, a 120-page study produced by a well-connected Washington think tank on strategic issues has pinpointed China as the key.

The Chinese military posed the most formidable challenge in terms of area denial, according to the study by the US Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

It noted that the concept went beyond specific scenarios, such as Taiwan, and was ultimately about setting conditions to sustain a 'favourable' military balance in the Western Pacific.

'This means maintaining an ability to deter China from acts of aggression or coercion in that region and, if necessary, to respond effectively in the event deterrence fails,' the study notes, warning that the US risks being 'locked out' of a region that has been a vital security interest for the last six decades.

The study has already resonated in Australia, where a strategic debate is intensifying about how the country will best support its major ally during looming decades of decline.

One Australian survey has already warned that PLA advances meant US assets such as aircraft carriers were already vulnerable within 1,500 nautical miles of the Chinese coast and its bases on Japan and Guam could be attacked 'within hours'.

Dr Sam Bateman, a veteran maritime scholar based at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, said that while the concept contained elements Beijing would certainly find provocative, its ultimate audience was a domestic US one.

'Yes, it will be a bit provocative but I don't want to overstate this ... it is about the Pentagon dealing with inter-service rivalries and doing something proactive to stave off budget cuts,' he said.

'The air force has been a loser in decades past, so it is about keeping them happy and making sure they are aligned as closely as possible with the navy at a time when money is going to get increasingly tight.'

The lack of a meaningful and deep strategic Sino-US dialogue meant there was always room for misunderstandings over what otherwise might be perceived as a routine military-bureaucratic review.

'There is a risk here that the promulgation of the concept might have gotten ahead of diplomatic measures ... and this may have some way to play out,' Bateman said.

Gary Li, a PLA analyst with the private sector intelligence firm Exclusive Analysis, said it would be closely scrutinised among Chinese military elites but had yet to surface extensively in internal commentaries or among military internet users.

'Yes, it could be said that ... it is quite annoying and biased and hawkishly put together, but [military] planners always need to play for something and unfortunately the only scenario that's worth anything - or likely to get you funding - is the Sino-US confrontation scenario,' Li said.

He noted, too, that fiscal constraints meant that the US was taking a sensible approach of trying to get the best use out of existing facilities and systems rather than simply seeking to throw money at costly new weapons.