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Reshaping the Rebalance: How the 114th Congress Can Advance U.S. Asia Strategy

By Van Jackson


This brief addresses three strategic challenges facing U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific and identifies specific actions the 114th Congress can take to address them.

Main Argument

The 114th Congress has a crucial role to play in securing U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific. U.S. influence and the preservation of a stable, liberal order in Asia will hinge on how Washington addresses three major long-term challenges: (1) maintaining military-technical superiority and countering asymmetric military strategies, (2) curbing North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear triad, and (3) adapting the network of U.S. allies and security partnerships in the region to meet the needs of the emerging strategic environment. Although the Obama administration acknowledges these problems, its strategy of “rebalancing” to Asia is not addressing them adequately. Congress thus should intervene in limited and very specific ways to shape U.S. Asia policy in a direction that better supports the country’s long-term interests.

Recommendations for the 114th Congress

  • The U.S. military’s technological advantages over potential adversaries is eroding in Asia, especially in relation to China. Surmounting this trend will require devoting a greater portion of the defense budget to advanced R&D and rethinking the Pentagon’s current capability investment portfolio.
  • As North Korea moves closer to developing a secure, retaliatory nuclear strike capability, the U.S. will need to start adapting contingency plans to consider the potential for limited war scenarios. It will also need to find ways to diversify North Korea’s military relations away from sole reliance on China.
  • To keep the U.S. alliance and security partnership network relevant as the region’s strategic environment evolves, the U.S. will need to use its resources to build the military capacity of regional partners to maintain situational awareness, defend local borders, and deny adversaries’ power-projection capabilities.

How the 114th Congress Can Advance U.S. Asia Strategy

During the Obama administration, U.S. policy toward Asia has been generally stable. Despite heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula and confrontations in the South and East China Seas, the Asia-Pacific has managed to avoid war, U.S. alliances have strengthened, and the United States has built new security partnerships. Moreover, the administration’s strategy of “rebalancing” to Asia is widely popular across the region. [1]

But this sheen of relative success obscures troubling undercurrents in Asia that threaten to upend the very goal of the U.S. rebalance: preserving not only U.S. influence in the region but a stable order with liberal features. [2] To date, the U.S. rebalance has avoided facing down the most difficult and dangerous challenges threatening U.S. interests:

  • the loss of the U.S. military-technical edge relative to China and the rise of other Asian powers
  • the consolidation and expansion of North Korea’s nuclear program toward achieving a retaliatory strike capability
  • the need to modernize the U.S. alliance and security partnership network to keep pace with a changing environment

Although there are many potential threats and risks across the region, some are better attended to than others, and some are of more obvious consequence. The three challenges identified here are being insufficiently addressed by the Obama administration and could disrupt the U.S. strategic position in Asia. The consequences of these challenges are unlikely to materialize in the near term, but decisions made during the 114th Congress and the defense budget cycles for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 will have a major impact on whether future U.S. administrations face a deteriorating security environment in Asia that limits the options available to policymakers. The following analysis offers brief background on each of the three challenges and describes specific actions that Congress can take to reshape the U.S. rebalance in a way that better addresses them.

Maintaining Military-Technical Superiority


The U.S. military is losing its technical edge relative to rising middle and great powers in Asia. The ability to project power anywhere in the Asia-Pacific underwrites U.S. extended deterrence commitments to allies, deters adventurism by would-be aggressors, and consequently helps preserve stability in the world’s most prosperous and populous region. U.S. power projection has always depended on what is sometimes described as “military-technical superiority,” which refers to military technologies and doctrine that offer advantages over a competitor’s military technologies and doctrine in the event of hostilities. Over the past decade, two factors have combined to erode long-standing U.S. military-technical superiority: (1) the rapid spread of advanced military technologies and (2) asymmetric competitor strategies to deny the U.S. military the ability to conduct operations in parts of Asia. [3]

The leading challenger to U.S. military-technical capability is China, which has developed a well-documented anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) operational concept of mating advanced and relatively inexpensive technologies with a military doctrine that uses those technologies to pin down U.S. forces already resident within Asia while simultaneously preventing the United States from being able to flow additional reinforcements from outside the region. [4] This is a problem for the United States because a military strategy that employs A2/AD ostensibly benefits China politically: if successful, it would allow China to keep the United States at bay while coercing its regional allies and partners.

Both former secretary of defense Chuck Hagel and current deputy secretary Robert Work have called for the Department of Defense to develop a strategy that will offset the longer-term and growing vulnerabilities facing the United States as advanced technologies become cheaper and more accessible to actors with bad intentions. [5] Yet a solution has so far proved elusive.

Priorities for Congress

The recommendations below do not assure U.S. military superiority in the long term; only continued investment, adaptation, and innovation can improve that prospect. They do, however, offer the best near-term chance to improve the United States’ military position relative to would-be challengers relying on asymmetric A2/AD strategies.

Require the U.S. Air Force to implement the Joint Aerial Layer Network (JALN). U.S. power projection requires resilient communications, especially through satellites that are vulnerable to attack. JALN would create a layer of aerial communications relays to improve communications resilience across all airborne platforms, directly countering one of the pillars of Chinese military strategy. [6] At present, operationalizing JALN requires creating two new programs of record: the “5th to 4th” program, which ensures fifth-generation and fourth-generation fighters can communicate with one another, and the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, which ensures intact command and control between aircraft and ground stations. [7]

Expand investments in robotics R&D. Numerous studies have identified the operational benefits of unmanned systems, [8] yet U.S. military investment in this area is declining at the same time that such technology is spreading quickly across the Asia-Pacific. Even North Korea, for instance, now operates a drone fleet. [9] Accelerating R&D in robotics may open new possibilities in operational approaches and military doctrine capable of countering A2/AD.

Fast-track railgun as a U.S. Navy program of record. Railgun is a low-cost, electric-powered weapon that fires target-destroying projectiles at a high velocity without the traditional need for explosive charges or chemical reactions. This weapon enables the United States to fire many more rounds of ammunition more quickly and at lower cost relative to munitions with comparable destructive power. [10] Such technology potentially rectifies a major shortfall identified in simulated conflicts between the United States and China where U.S. forces face regular challenges in maintaining functional weapons inventory as a conflict proceeds. [11]

Task the secretary of the U.S. Navy with reporting to Congress on the role of aircraft carriers in an A2/AD environment. Aircraft carriers remain the U.S. Navy’s center of gravity, yet recent reports suggest that the limited U.S. inventory of aircraft carriers is highly vulnerable in A2/AD environments because adversary anti-ship missiles are far less expensive than the ongoing operations and maintenance costs of aircraft carriers. [12] The U.S. Navy needs to address how it envisions adapting aircraft carriers to engage adversaries armed with missile technology that exceeds the range of the longest-range carrier-based fighters (currently the F-35).

Task the Office of the Secretary of Defense with reporting to Congress on how the Defense Department will offset China’s A2/AD concept. Every presidential administration during the Cold War benefited from the military-technical edge that the United States retained over the Soviet Union because this advantage expanded the range of policy options available to Washington at any given time. China’s capabilities and doctrine directly challenge U.S. military-technical superiority, which will severely constrain the policy options available to future U.S. presidents in the event that they face a militarily aggressive adversary with an A2/AD strategy. China’s A2/AD concept cannot be overcome by simply spending more on existing weapons platforms. The Department of Defense needs a vision for how it can offset the most advanced military technologies accessible to potential adversaries, and the requirement of reporting on this challenge to Congress will hold the department accountable for doing so.

Disrupting and Defending against North Korea’s Nuclear Program


U.S. policy toward North Korea is in many respects a bipartisan failure that has worsened with time. For the past generation, the United States has pursued two overarching goals relating to North Korea: (1) preventing North Korea from becoming a nuclear state and (2) preventing the renewed outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula.

The United States has acutely and visibly failed at the first goal: North Korea is not only now a de facto nuclear state, but the size of its arsenal is unknown, and Pyongyang is progressing toward its own version of a secure retaliatory nuclear strike capability. [13] The second goal is increasingly at risk of failure because the first goal has failed. North Korea may now believe it has a free hand to engage in various forms of coercive violence and military adventurism precisely because it has a nuclear deterrent against major war. [14] In 2010, North Korea aimed these acts of coercive violence directly at South Korea, triggering multiple military crises in which U.S. and South Korean preferences for retaliation and conflict escalation vastly diverged. For decades, U.S. policymakers have grudgingly accepted small-scale North Korean violence as an alternative preferable to risking a larger conflagration. [15] But as North Korea moves closer to a retaliatory nuclear strike capability, it also moves closer to being able to set the terms of conflict with South Korea. If South Korea deems the prospect of continuous small wars or repeated acts of coercion unacceptable—as it did in 2010—the United States will lose the ability to prevent war on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea’s cyber capability has received much attention after the country proved in 2014 that it could attack U.S.-based corporations, but this capability is only lethal in conjunction with other weapons systems. More disconcerting is North Korea’s drone fleet, which has demonstrated the ability to repeatedly penetrate South Korean airspace undetected and, with modest payload improvements, could be configured as weapons delivery systems. [16] Still more dangerous are developments in North Korea’s ballistic missile program. It has been reported that North Korea’s short-range Rodong ballistic missiles, once thought only useful for striking bases in Japan because of their range, have now been tested at new launch angles that allow North Korea to fire against South Korean targets as well. [17] North Korea has also developed the KN-08, a mobile ballistic missile capability, which produces a unique problem for the United States: if North Korean missile launchers can fire, move, and then quickly fire again from a different location, U.S. intelligence assets may find it difficult to physically locate and target the missiles, leaving U.S. bases—and potentially U.S. territory—vulnerable. [18] In addition to North Korea’s fixed missile sites, drone fleet, and road-mobile missile capability, there are some indications that the country may also be developing long-range sea-launched ballistic missiles. [19]

Priorities for Congress

The collection of capabilities described above puts North Korea on a trajectory to achieve a survivable nuclear force. If that happens, the United States will have few, if any, alternatives to either beginning a process of political reconciliation with North Korea as a nuclear state or preparing to fight repeatable limited wars against a nuclear-armed adversary. In the meantime, the alarming trajectory of North Korean capabilities and the small prospect of significantly improved relations demand certain responses from the United States as a matter of prudence.

Task U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Forces Korea with generating contingency plans for limited war. The next generation of Korean contingency plans should focus on limited war. For decades the U.S.-ROK alliance has been prepared to “fight tonight,” by which is usually meant readiness to defeat North Korea in a large-scale war. But manning, training, and equipping a military for limited war requires different plans, timelines, and resources than a total war. While the United States has been more than prepared for total war with North Korea, and increasingly prepared for a total collapse scenario as well, [20] there are few indications that it is prepared for limited war—that is, a short North Korean military campaign and partial seizure of territory, with limited aims.

Grant South Korea an exemption for long-range precision-strike munitions. As North Korea improves the ability to launch mobile missiles and penetrate South Korean airspace with self-described “kamikaze drones,” South Korean demand for cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles will only increase. [21] The United States—and Congress in particular—has historically blocked and discouraged South Korea from acquiring, developing, or exporting missiles with a range to payload ratio that would qualify as Category I systems under the Missile Technology Control Regime (300 kilometers to 500 kilograms). [22] Given the acute and growing threat that North Korea poses to the South, Congress should consider authorizing a blanket exception for any South Korean requests for U.S. cruise missiles or unmanned aerial vehicles through the Foreign Military Sales or Foreign Military Financing program.

Press the White House to open a bilateral military dialogue channel with North Korea. For much of the past 60 years, the United States has sought to outsource management of North Korea to China. This strategy emerged as early as the Lyndon Johnson administration, [23] but it became central to U.S. North Korea policy during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. The Obama administration has continued this approach of trying to shape North Korea by persuading and pressuring China. [24] With some modest exceptions, however, this policy of relying on China has failed. [25] Without any sanguinity about building a genuine friendship with a post-totalitarian nuclear state, the United States might offer North Korea the opportunity of military-to-military diplomatic engagement to diversify the Korean People’s Army’s relations away from only China’s People’s Liberation Army. [26] The status quo alternative of continuing to outsource North Korea policy to China empowers Beijing without delivering much for U.S. interests.

Modernizing the Network of U.S. Allies and Partners


The United States must be responsive to the evolving needs of its Asian allies and security partners in order to maintain regional influence, as well as continuing access to the bases and ports necessary to project military power should it need to do so. Two regional trends in particular offer insight about these needs: (1) strategic hedging and (2) military modernization. The hedging trend reveals that Asian states are uncertain about the future—U.S. staying power in the region, whether China’s rise will be peaceful, and the intentions of neighbors. [27] The trend of military modernization is a symptom of this same angst about the future. [28] Irrespective of U.S. security commitments, Asian states are diversifying their security and economic relationships at the same time that they have begun upgrading their militaries with modern weapons systems ranging from ballistic missile defense and anti-ship cruise missiles to unmanned aerial vehicles and aircraft carriers. [29]

Priorities for Congress

The United States should be anchoring its approach to Asian allies and partners in these trends. This means using military engagements and sales through the Foreign Military Sales or Foreign Military Financing programs to empower smaller states in the region to better defend themselves. It means lending the weight of U.S. moral authority to legitimating international law and Asia’s many regional institutions, both of which hold the possibility of nonviolent resolution of the region’s many territorial disputes. And it means helping like-minded states eliminate the military operational fog that obscures the distinction between aggressors and defenders when ships and aircraft clash in disputed maritime spaces.

Require the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs to develop a security cooperation strategy that builds ally and partner local A2/AD capacity. Due to a confluence of competing authorities, priorities, and resource allocations within the executive branch, the United States has no coherent security cooperation policy. As a result, U.S. military sales, foreign education and training, and other forms of international assistance do not add up to any logically consistent policy outcome. [30] The region-wide military modernization already taking place in Asia suggests that organic demand for enhanced military capacity is high. In the region’s strategic environment, the military strategy that is most cost-effective and least antagonistic is a localized A2/AD strategy, akin to what China aims to be capable of doing against the United States. By building ally and partner coastal defenses through aerial and maritime surveillance, increased coast guard capacity, improved air defenses, and undersea mines, the United States would enable smaller powers in the region to prevent would-be aggressors from invading or occupying disputed territory. This could help alleviate some U.S. defense burden in the region while also providing an orienting focus for U.S. security cooperation resources.

Ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Part of U.S. strategy in Asia rests on legitimating peaceful means of dispute resolution. [31] UNCLOS provides a legal and normative foundation for adjudicating disputes without the use of military force as well as potentially greater legitimacy if the United States needs to resort to military force in defense of the legal protections UNCLOS provides. The specific terms of the convention serve U.S. interests by protecting U.S.-flagged ships of all types when traversing the coastal waters of other nations; this is why both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have advocated ratification. [32] Even separate from the language that UNCLOS employs to offer legal protections for U.S. interests, failing to ratify the agreement undermines the U.S. moral argument in defense of a rules-based regional order and the adjudication of territorial claims on the basis of law rather than force of arms.

Require the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to identify the resources and authorities needed to aid Asian allies and partners in building a multilateral common operating picture in the South and East China Seas. Despite low degrees of trust and high degrees of uncertainty among Asian states, most have proved willing to participate in consensual (that is, nonbinding) forms of cooperation like military exercises and voluntary regimes. [33] The region needs a way to render transparent high-friction areas in the East and South China Seas, which have both hosted multiple military confrontations over the past several years. A common operating picture—that is, an information-sharing regime that gives its users maritime domain awareness—provides one way of doing so. [34] Constructing such a network requires organizational and limited technical cooperation among like-minded Asian states, but it does not require the degree of trust or vulnerability inherent in formal alliance treaties or other legally binding forms of cooperation. Given the U.S. military’s advantage in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, the United States should perform a bridging and brokering role in the region to facilitate the construction of a common operating picture network.


[1] Michael J. Green and Nicholas Szechenyi, Power and Order in Asia: A Survey of Regional Expectations (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies [CSIS], 2014).

[2] Tom Donilon, “The United States and the Asia-Pacific in 2013” (remarks delivered at the Asia Society, New York, March 11, 2013).

[3] Amy Chang, Ben FitzGerald, and Van Jackson, Shades of Gray: Technology, Strategic Competition, and Stability in Maritime Asia (Washington, D.C.: Center for a New American Security, forthcoming).

[4] Evan Braden Montgomery, “Contested Primacy in the Western Pacific: China’s Rise and the Future of U.S. Power Projection,” International Security 38, no. 4 (2014): 115–59.

[5] Chuck Hagel, “Defense Innovation Days” (keynote address at the Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance, Newport, September 3, 2014); and Robert Work, “A Technological Edge over Our Adversaries” (remarks at the National Defense University, Washington, D.C., August 5, 2014).

[6] Anthony H. Cordesman, Chinese Strategy and Military Power in 2014: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, and U.S. Perspectives (Washington, D.C.: CSIS, 2014).

[7] George I. Seffers, “Joint Aerial Layer Network Vision Moves toward Reality,” Signal, June 1, 2013,

[8] Paul Scharre, “Robotics on the Battlefield—Part I: Range, Persistence, and Daring,” Center for a New American Security, May 2014.

[9] Van Jackson, “Kim Jong Un’s Tin Can Air Force,” Foreign Policy, November 1, 2014.

[10] Jon Harper, “Navy Says ‘Star Wars’ Railgun Is Almost Ready for Primetime,” Stars and Stripes, April 9, 2014,

[11] David Axe, “Think Tank: China Beats U.S. in Simulated Taiwan Air War,” Wired, August 5, 2009,

[12] See, for example, Henry J. Hendrix, “At What Cost a Carrier?” Center for a New American Security, Disruptive Defense Papers, March 2013.

[13] In the nuclear deterrence literature, a secure retaliatory strike capability implies that a nuclear power could not be fully disarmed by a first strike, which enhances the deterrent effect of a nuclear arsenal because a first strike would invite nuclear retaliation. When two nuclear powers each have a retaliatory strike capability, the condition of mutually assured destruction obtains, rendering the prospect of nuclear war—in theory—extremely low.

[14] Wyatt Olson, “U.S. ‘Strategic Patience’ Policy toward North Korea Not Working, Analyst Says,” Stars and Stripes, November 10, 2014,

[15] Brad Glosserman and David Santoro, “The ‘Lynchpin’ Grapples with Frustration and Distrust: The Fourth U.S.-ROK Strategic Dialogue,” Pacific Forum CSIS, Issues & Insights, February 2012.

[16] Van Jackson, “Kim Jong Un’s Tin Can Air Force.”

[17] “NK’s March Missile Test Aimed at Evading Interceptor Systems: Sources,” Yonhap, June 19, 2014.

[18] John Barry, “The Defense Secretary’s Exit Interview,” Daily Beast, June 21, 2011,

[19] Julian Ryall, “North Korea Launches Soviet-Era Style Ballistic Missile Submarine,” Telegraph, November 3, 2014,

[20] For a discussion, see Peter Hayes, “Thinking about the Thinkable: DPRK Collapse Scenarios Redux,” Nautilus Institute, NAPSNet Policy Forum, September 24, 2013,

[21] J. Michael Cole, “Coming to a Warzone Near You: Kamikaze Drones,” Diplomat, October 15, 2012,

[22] Jung Ha-Won, “U.S. Oks Longer-Range Missiles for South Korea,” Defense News, October 7, 2012,

[23] Van Jackson, Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in North Korea-U.S. Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

[24] Jeffrey Bader, Obama and China’s Rise: An Insider’s Account of U.S. Asia Strategy (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2012).

[25] For a discussion of a rare instance of success, see Christopher P. Twomey, “Explaining Chinese Foreign Policy toward North Korea: Navigating between the Scylla and Charybdis of Proliferation and Instability,” Journal of Contemporary China 17, no. 56 (2008): 401–23.

[26] Van Jackson, “Does Kim Really Run North Korea? Find Out with Military Diplomacy,” Diplomat, October 15, 2014,

[27] Van Jackson, “The Rise and Persistence of Strategic Hedging across Asia: A System-Level Analysis,” in Strategic Asia 2014–15: U.S. Alliances and Partnerships at the Center of Global Power, ed. Ashley J. Tellis, Abraham M. Denmark, and Greg Chaffin (Seattle: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2014), 316–42.

[28] Van Jackson, “The Rise and Persistence of Strategic Hedging across Asia”; and Chang, FitzGerald, and Jackson, Shades of Gray.

[29] Chang, FitzGerald, and Jackson, Shades of Gray.

[30] Derek Reveron, Exporting Security: International Engagement, Security Cooperation, and the Changing Face of the U.S. Military (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2010).

[31] Donilon, “The United States and the Asia-Pacific in 2013.”

[32] “Should the United States Ratify the UN Law of the Sea?” Council on Foreign Relations, Ask CFR Experts forum, November 11, 2014,

[33] Van Jackson, “Power, Trust, and Network Complexity: Three Logics of Hedging in Asian Security,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 14, no. 3 (2014): 331–56.

[34] John Schaus, “Accelerating Maritime Security in the South China Sea: Small Satellites and a Common Operating Picture,” CSIS, CogitAsia, November 13, 2014,

Van Jackson is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow. He is also a Visiting Scholar with the Asian Studies Program in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. The views expressed are his own.

Van Jackson authored the chapter "The Rise and Persistence of Strategic Hedging across Asia: A System-Level Analysis" in Strategic Asia 2014–15: U.S. Alliances and Partnerships at the Center of Global Power.