There are management lessons to be taken from America’s mismanagement of its security and defense preparedness that rumbled through three decades of wrong turns that have led to its current precarious situation. Here’s what I gathered from my research.
US security officials fear that Beijing fully understands America’s readiness deficiency and may exploit it by attacking or blockading Taiwan within the next few years. They’ve taken note of President Xi Jinping’s orders to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027 (or thereabouts), despite his dismay of Russia’s “very poor performance” in Ukraine.
After Taiwan’s President visited the US and obtained pledges from US authorities to arm Taiwan last April, the PLA rehearsed blockading the island for several days. It then released a statement that it is “ready to fight… at any time to resolutely smash any form of ‘Taiwan independence’ and foreign interference attempts.” In recent months, several Chinese fighter jets buzzed American military aircraft over the South China Sea (SCS).
Top US defense officials acknowledge valid concerns over the possibility that Beijing may even act against Taiwan sooner than later. A sense of urgency moved President Joe Biden to invoke the emergency Defense Production Act to rebuild and expand the nation’s domestic hypersonic missile industry, a key area of Chinese advancement that US officials’ fear will be used by Beijing to push US ships and bases out of close range in the Asia-Pacific region.
Many critics say it’s not enough citing that the US is in a “window of maximum danger.” According to them, the US could throw a trillion dollars a year at the defense budget now, but it still won’t get a meaningful increase in military capabilities in the next five years because it doesn’t have the industrial base it once had. China and other countries — not all friendly — produce and supply what the US used to manufacture.
The US heedlessly ceded shipbuilding, aircraft parts, and circuit boards over to China. America’s new F-35 fighter jets, for example, contain a magnet component made with an alloy almost exclusively manufactured in China. China dominates tools and metals essential to missiles and munitions production; lithium used in batteries; cobalt, aluminum, and titanium for semiconductors. China industrialized while the US foolishly deindustrialized.
It took decades of delusional thinking by both political parties about turning China into a friendly “stakeholder” in a peaceful international system. After the Cold War, Washington was lulled into defense doldrums from which it is still not fully awakened. After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, America expected a “peace dividend.” Russia sought US advice in shifting to a market economy. It was cooperating in eliminating nukes. China was brought into the World Trade Organization, with it naively expecting Beijing to observe the US-dominated rules-based international system, a policy that both Republicans and Democrats supported.
After the Gulf War and the advent of the “smart bomb” era in 1991, complacency spread far and wide. In 1993, the US shrank its military-industrial complex that shaped the course of the next 30 years. It precipitated a whole series of consolidations as well as dependence on global supply lines that incorporated China, a possible future adversary. I was surprised during an official visit to Israel in 1995 when a top security official confided that the US was dismissive of Israel’s analysis that China was America’s real foe.
Successive administrations pushed industry to globalize, despite export restrictions on defense technology sharing. Defense spending dropped. Unwinding America’s Cold War defense apparatus went a bridge too far. Its industrial base was reduced to one or two monopoly suppliers for everything from large-scale weapons systems to a whole array of crucial components. More importantly, its liberal democracy allowed easy infiltration and espionage.
So, here we are today after three decades. America’s weaknesses are being fully exploited by its resurging traditional adversaries — China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and its terror networks. It failed to detect and deter North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; Iranian-backed terror surprise attacks on Israel; and China’s creeping, then rapid, takeover of the South China Sea. China’s been thumbing its nose at America’s Freedom of Navigation Operations and has, in fact, harassed its planes and ships in taunting defiance.
That explains why, despite the US’ declared “iron-clad” support for the Philippines, China continues to escalate its coercive “gray zone” tactics throughout the SCS, especially in our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and occupied islands in the Spratlys that we collectively name the West Philippine Sea (WPS). China is aware that the obsolete Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) does not cover gray zone tactics nor asymmetric warfare in its definition of “attack.”
From our national interest and security perspective, this dire situation is truly a cause for alarm, and the raison d’etre to accelerate military and civil defense preparedness for a scenario that’s more likely to happen, than not — a US-China military showdown that I sense both sides want to happen now to exploit what they see as the other side’s weakness before they get any stronger and more difficult to defeat.
If it doesn’t occur, which is what everyone in their right senses would want for the sake of humankind, then good for us. I’d be thankful as a parent and grandparent that my descendants have a chance to help build a long and better future. We would, at the very least, be prepared for other security challenges that may come our way. But if it does happen, preparedness would enable us to mitigate the impacts on our safety, security, and survival.
I maintain that we must still participate in peacebuilding and conflict resolution. But we should also prepare for the worst outcomes that could come our way. The national leadership is now acutely aware of it, and it must harness the whole-of-nation to focus. Situational awareness of lurking dangers; removing all legal and regulatory obstacles in defense procurement and local manufacturing; redesigning Reserve Force Development; updating military and civil defense preparedness; and sanitizing our environment of fifth columnists must be our top of mind.
This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or MAP.
Rafael “Raffy” M. Alunan III is a former governor of MAP. He was secretary of the Interior and Local Government under President Fidel V. Ramos and is a trustee of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations.