While the ongoing trade war between China and the United States makes headlines, periodically roiling the markets, another Sino-American struggle of far more serious import has attracted surprisingly little attention in the mainstream media.
Since Xi Jinping’s assent to power in 2012, China has been pursuing a grand strategy of “national rejuvenation,” seeking to reclaim its place as a great world power with global reach and influence. Xi has often described his muscular foreign policy as one of “peaceful rise and development,” meant to enhance the prosperity and stability of China, its neighbors, and the world as a whole. At the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Xi claimed his nation’s emerging system of global financial institutions and foreign partnerships “offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.”
Not everyone sees it that way. In fact, a great many international relations experts in the West see something far more menacing behind China’s “peaceful” rise. Beijing’s willingness to use economic coercion and thinly veiled threats of military force against its neighbors to achieve its ends suggests it has embarked upon a traditional strategy of regional hegemony. A crucial objective of that strategy is to gradually pinch the United States out of its current position as the primary strategic actor in East Asia and the Pacific, and assume the mantle of leadership itself.
In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Prof. Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth College argues there is little new in Xi Jinping’s expansive vision of China’s rise, and a great deal that is troubling. Having obtained an extraordinary degree of personal control over the organs of state and Party power, he is pursuing a foreign policy strikingly similar to those of Imperial Japan before and during World War II, and the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe after that war. China, says Lind, “is using economic coercion to bend other countries to its will. It is building up its military power to ward off challengers. It is intervening in other countries’ domestic politics to get friendlier policies. And it is investing massively in educational and cultural programs to enhance its soft power.”
The most dramatic evidence of China’s intention to establish military dominance over East Asia through coercive means is surely its militarization of seven hotly disputed islets in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and the bullying of neighbors with rival claims for attempting to exploit fishing and development rights to which they are plainly entitled under international law.
Since 2013 China has built up and fortified approximately 3,200 acres of disputed islets and reefs in the South China Sea. It has placed surface-to-air missiles, sophisticated radars, jet fighter runways, and communications facilities there, despite Xi’s 2015 promise to President Obama that he would not militarize the region. In the past eighteen months, Beijing has repeatedly strong-armed its neighbors into halting the exploitation of natural resources beneath their own sea beds.
In July 2017 and in March 2018, China succeeded in pressuring Vietnam to suspend two natural gas drilling projects on its own continental shelf, reportedly threatening to attack Vietnamese outposts in the area if the projects were not halted. In May 2017 Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte claimed that Xi warned him that that any attempt to unilaterally exploit resources at Reed Bank in the South China Sea would mean war. Duterte ultimately agreed to tap the area’s resources jointly with China.
The Philippine president went on to announce a “separation” of his country from the United States in favor of closer ties to China, but he has encountered considerable resistance from the Philippines congress and the military, which, according to Gregory Poling, Fellow in the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and international Studies, “remain broadly pro-American and distrustful of China.”
While China has reached a draft framework for a South China Sea Code of Conduct with 11 neighboring nations, many experts, including Poling, see the initiative as lacking in substance, and unlikely to amount to a fair and binding agreement anytime soon. It may well be more of a tactic to deflect criticism while China continues to build up its military and economic power in the region.
Likewise, Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative appears seems on the surface to be well-intentioned global infrastructure improvement program. But read against China’s proclivity for bullying and coercing its “partners,” the BRI seems to be as a clever way to exchange Chinese capital and development expertise for privileged access to key foreign strategic assets. China has already constructed commercial ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Namibia. More port deals are almost certainly in the works. All these new ports could easily be transformed into Chinese naval bases or stations. Should the home governments resist China’s entreaties to establish such installations, it’s not hard to imagine Xi using economic and military pressure, or even military force itself, to secure them.
Xi Jinping has been the driving force behind an unprecedented modernization and reform program of the armed forces, shifting billions of dollars from a conscript-oriented ground force to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), now seen by most defense experts as the second most capable navy in the world. “The traditional mentality [in Chinese strategic thought] that the land outweighs the sea must be abandoned,” says an official 2015 PRC government white paper. “It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security structure.”
In a truly radical change for a country that has kept a low-key international profile for several decades, the Chinese national security umbrella now officially covers Chinese people living abroad, as well as Chinese business investments and strategic interests around the globe.
The PLAN has already been transformed from a coastal defense organization into a true “blue water” force that poses a credible threat to U.S. carrier task forces operating in the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. China’s Navy developed the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile. It has rapidly expanded both its submarine and surface fleets, and the addition of extremely lethal multi-purpose 055 guided missile destroyers is said to be a real worry for U.S. Navy planners.
In May 2018, the PLAN launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier. Another is currently in construction, and defense analysts predict that at least four more are probably on the drawing board. These carriers are conventionally powered and displace only 50,000 tons, about half the displacement of the American Nimitz-class carriers, but they nonetheless mark a significant step forward in the PLAN’s capacity to project power far from Chinese waters.
In August 2017, China opened its first overseas naval base at Djibouti, on the horn of Africa. Beijing is anything but transparent about its naval expansion plans, but it seems more than likely that several other overseas naval bases are being negotiated at present.
The PLAN has a very long way to go to approach the overall capability of the U.S. Navy, but together with China’s increasingly lethal rocket and air forces, and a newly unified command for information and cyber warfare, it already has truly formidable “anti-access/area denial” capabilities, meaning it can deny an adversary freedom of entry or maneuver into vast regions of the seas in East Asia.
In short, China’s ever-more-capable military forces are tightly focused on developing assets to counter the pillars of American military pre-eminence in Asia: the aircraft carrier battle group; information dominance; air superiority; and a system of foreign bases. In 2018 China’s defense budget is estimated to be $175 billion, far more than any other country besides the United States, and its defense spending grew at the brisk clip of an average of 8.5 percent per year between 2007 and 2016.
Testifying before Congress this past May, Capt. James Fanell, former head of Naval Intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, claimed that the PLAN’s highly visible presence in and around the “First Island Chain”—the major archipelagos off the East Asian mainland, including the Kuriles, the Ryukus, Taiwan, and the northern Philippine islands—has already “dramatically altered the strategic balance of power in the Indo-Asia Pacific region.”
Last April the PLAN carried out live-fire exercises in the Taiwan Strait, involving 48 ships, 76 aircraft, and 10,000 personnel. These were the largest exercises ever carried out by the navy since its inception in 1949, according to official government media. Xi Jinping proclaimed in a speech during the exercises that “the task of building a powerful navy has never been as urgent as it is today.” The People’s Republic of China, of course, claims sovereignty over Taiwan, and its unification with the mainland is an integral part of Xi’s vision of national rejuvenation.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has demonstrated a greater willingness to show public support for Taiwan’s continued independence than any of his recent predecessors. In 2017 he signed legislation encouraging mutual port calls for U.S. and Taiwanese naval vessels, and in March 2018, Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, encouraging high-level official visits between the two countries, drawing harsh criticism from Beijing in the process.
After the Travel Act went into effect, Deputy Secretary of State Alex Wong told a group of Taiwanese officials that America “wanted to strengthen our ties with the Taiwanese people and to bolster Taiwan’s ability to defend its democracy.” No one can say how the United States would respond should the PLAN attempt to carry out an amphibious invasion of Taiwan. The U.S. has not recognized Taiwan as a nation formally since it adopted a “one China” policy in 1979, and therefore no longer has a treaty obligation to come to the island’s defense. But a U.S. military response is in no sense out of the question, as America’s failure to defend the island would amount to a staggering blow to American credibility in the region.
In 2017, Harvard political science professor Graham Allison published a well-received book on U.S.-China relations, focusing on whether the two nations could avoid falling into “Thucydides’ trap.” The great Greek historian famously noted that it was the rise of Athens, and the fear that rise inspired in the dominant power in the Mediterranean, Sparta, “that made war inevitable.” Allison points out that the vast differences in American and Chinese political and strategic culture only “exacerbates their competition and makes it more difficult to achieve rapprochement.”
But rapprochement—or, at the very least, peaceful management of great power conflict in East Asia—is in no sense impossible. Allison is surely right to urge American policymakers to recognize that Chinese conceptions of competition and warfare are very different than their own, and that there is a pragmatic and cautions aspect to Chinese strategic reckoning that lends itself to working out compromises. Because it will be at least a decade before China achieves something resembling military parity with the United States in Asia, it’s likely Beijing will go very far indeed to avoid a direct clash with American forces over the next few years.
Meanwhile, in recent studies of the strategic implications of the rise of China by such think tanks as the Brookings Institution and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the consensus seems to be that Washington needs to show the Chinese as well as our Asian allies that it is well aware of the shift in the balance of power in this vast region, and committed to rising to the challenge, despite Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and seeming hostility toward traditional alliances.
The obvious first step in halting the shift in the military balance in East Asia is to deploy additional U.S. forces in the area. A recent Center for Strategic and International Affairs study recommends moving the entire 10th Amphibious Ready Group, an expeditionary force of about 5,000 sailors and Marines from San Diego to Sasebo, Japan, and the establishment of an entirely new Ready Group on Guam to strengthen American crisis response capabilities. The study also recommends the deployment of an additional carrier battle group to the Western Pacific on a permanent basis.
Then there are a few general suggestions put forward by numerous experts that come down to little more than common sense. The United States needs to step up the pace of joint military planning and operations with its key allies in the region: Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia. The State Department and the White House must reassure allies and partners in the region of our intention to back them in disputes with China, and of the American Navy’s intention to preserve freedom of navigation on the high seas.
Finally, deterring conflict requires more direct and open discussion between Washington and Beijing, and their military commands in the region, over how to manage the competition, including direct discussions on regional alliances and strategies, and protocols for crisis management. Without such discussion, without a vigorous and determined response to the rise of China’s military power, the two most powerful countries in Asia may well find themselves caught up in Thucydides’ trap.