BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
Where Do We Go From Here?
The Chinese won the Cold War. They played the Soviets and the Americans off each other deftly, soaking up as much wealth, technology, and power as possible, in order to progress rapidly from regional, agrarian backwater, to a major international powerhouse in under a century. China was the scrappy underdog, playing for keeps (and in many ways, they still are). China, and not the Soviets (or the United States, for that matter) was the real revolutionary force in the world. Whereas the Soviet establishment and the American elites became enamored of detente, the Chinese plotted and schemed to foment the downfall of their immediate Soviet threat, and then planned to mollify their longer-term American threat, using the old “barbarian-handling tools”–deception, economic interdependence, and indoctrination–that has defined China’s long history.
With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Americans fully embraced globalization and unipolarity. Yet, these two impulses were at odds with each other. While the American economy certainly buttressed the American military dominance, the trade practices of the United States diffused much wealth–and, therefore, power–to the rest of the world. As it did this, the wealthier the world got, the more multipolar it became.
However, the United States did not understand these changes. It continued to conduct military operations that were predicated on maintaining its “full spectrum dominance.” And, while it is important for the United States to maintain its dominance, it simply cannot do this effectively if it is empowering its competitors with money and resources that those competitors will then use to buttress their ability to resist America’s dominance. To compound matters, former President George H.W. Bush in his last year in office began to downsize the Reagan era military that he inherited. This was a modest decrease in forces that President Bush believed was commensurate with the fact that the Cold War was finally over. Unfortunately, though, Bush lost his reelection and was replaced by Bill Clinton.
Former President Clinton disbelieved that old power politics was necessary any longer, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Clinton, like so many Democratic Globalists and Liberal Internationalists of the post-Cold War era, believed Francis Fukuyama’s utopian claims of the “end of history” defining the 1990s. Clinton campaigned on a reductionist theme of “It’s the economy, stupid!” And, since the country was in a recession during the 1992 presidential election, Clinton won handily. When he took over the government, President Clinton crafted policies that comported with his worldview that all human interactions would be mostly peaceful and relegated to the economic realm. Thus, Clinton doubled down on the reduction of the U.S. military and expanded the country’s commitment to the vacuous concept of “free trade” in order to spur greater levels of globalization.
As you’ve seen in the previous two parts of this Weichert Report special three-part series, China benefited disproportionately from these fateful decisions. The paradoxical commitment to maintain America’s military hegemony, but to continue diffusing as much economic power to the world, has created severe strategic imbalances for the United States. This became doubly more complicated when President Clinton enacted his drastic military cuts–the so-called “Peace Dividend”–which essentially led to a systematic straining of America’s military power. For, as the Clinton Administration continued to flirt with the concept of humanitarian warfare–committing U.S. forces to peacekeeping and regional stabilization operations, without having the proper resources to maintain those missions (or the mission parameters to actually win in those wars)–he continued to cut the programs and personnel necessary for waging those campaigns. Thus, unbeknownst to most people at the time, Paul Kennedy’s old concept of “imperial overstretch” became a seriously limiting factor during this period (and would only be exacerbated during the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq).
It was an all-around disaster for the United States, albeit a disaster that would not be felt until well into the 21st century, long after the Clinton team had left office. His two successors, Republican George W. Bush, and Democrat, Barack Obama, did nothing to remedy the paradoxical policy, and only furthered the imbalance that ultimately favored China. Now, the United States stands at a precipice in the vital trading zone of the Asia-Pacific: the Chinese are nearly at a point when they believe they can effectively challenge the American military in East Asia, and have designs to permanently push the Americans out of that region–by force if necessary.
America still retains significant advantages in the military realm. We have the world’s most powerful Navy, many of China’s neighbors do not want to live in a China-dominanted Asia, and the Chinese are not yet at parity with the American military (though they are approaching it or have surpassed it in asymmetrical warfare capabilities). Rather than embracing the Chinese concept of breaking America’s dominance in Asia through “All Measures Short of War,” the United States should call China’s major bluff and start bringing its naval power to bear. The Chinese strategy would be broken in an instant if the United States opted to enforce international law and use its major naval advantages to push back against the rising Red Tide of Communist China throughout East Asia.
This third and final part of the series focuses on what the United States can do to better defend its interests in the Asia-Pacific, and how it can effectively force China to comport with international rules and norms for behavior. The point is not to destroy China or wage world war; the goal is to signal to China that resistance and aggression is futile. The United States seeks amicable trade relations and freedom of navigation throughout the world. Our strategic goals, therefore, are limited and reasonable.
Some Negative Trends Working Against China
Of course, we cannot simply talk about the China threat without first acknowledging that there are some significant negative trends working against the Chinese. Let’s state the truth that China’s economy is now the largest (in Purchasing Power Parity) in the world and the second-largest (in GDP terms) in the world, behind only the United States. Also, if trends persist (as Goldman Sachs and the World Bank predict), China’s economy will overtake that of the United States within the next few years. China’s military modernization has also been incredible. Their people are becoming vastly more educated in the strategically vital science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields (as well as being reared in a culture of competitive educational activities outside of school, just read Amy Chua’s “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom” for more on that), which confers upon China great strategic leverage in the long-run (and it is already panning out with things like Quantum Internet and radar). However, China has much working against it.
China’s demographics are askew. The same negative trends affecting much of the West today are set to consume the socio-political system in China as well. In other words, there are likely going to be more elderly people in China by 2050 than young people. Meanwhile, the cities of China are very wealthy and prosperous, however, they are beset by the threat of unwanted immigration from the impoverished countryside. You see, the countryside of China is still mired in poverty and backwardness, whereas the cities are beacons of modernity. But, this has always been the case in China: the coastal metropolises have benefited from International trade, whereas the interior of the country was left mostly to its own devices.
Speaking of demography, there is a growing problem with the restive populations of China. In the Xinjiang Province in China’s west, Muslim Uighurs are increasingly radicalized and looking for independence from the government in Beijing. There is always the Tibet problem as well. Meanwhile, Catholicism has exploded in the militantly atheist China. Underground churches are packed and the Communist Party has long desired to crackdown on the covert Christians in their midst. This, then, leads to the politically toxic subject of the Falun Gong, who are also the subject of the CCP’s wrath.
Then, of course, the government in Beijing has to worry endlessly about the increasing desire for greater independence from Hong Kong, the former British colony that was handed over to China in 1997. Hong Kongers want to maintain their democratic customs and the English Civil Law they inherited from their former colonial masters, but Xi’s government in Beijing desires to bring the autonomous region much closer to heel with Beijing’s political and legal imperatives.
We mustn’t also forget the cultural division that exists between the commercial capital of China, the cosmopolitan, Western-leaning city of Shanghai, and the political capital of China, the Communist-dominated, Beijing. While these differences are more akin to the differences between America’s political class in Washington, D.C. and its business community in New York City, they are still enough to create some degree of dissonance in a country where political harmony with Beijing is essential.
Plus, for all the talk of globalization being China’s greatest strength, globalization is also China’s greatest weakness. While it has empowered China these last few decades to reach astounding new heights, it has also made China increasingly dependent on the world economy–which is fickle, to say the least. Since China is increasingly dependent on natural resources, such as oil and other commodities, to sustain its meteoric rise, the Chinese have started to focus on developing its naval capabilities (since most of those vital goods come across sea lanes, which are vulnerable). However, the Chinese ability to dominate those sea lanes has offended their neighbors and, in fact, brought the United States back into the Asia-Pacific, as China’s neighbors look to balance its newfound military ambitions against the Americans’ desire to maintain freedom of navigation and open access to Asia’s markets above all else.
Also, China’s forced transition from a developing, industrial economy into a post-industrial, modern one means that the political system is facing an unbalanced period of its existence. While the Chinese Communist Party has weathered other storms that most believed it could not, the fact remains that managing such a globalized economy in China whilst enforcing drastic, fundamental changes to the system is near impossible. The forces that Xi is playing with could ultimately necessitate a political uprising in China that sees the old dynastic cycle come into the fore again–a cycle that would end badly for Xi and the CCP.
However, for all of the naysayers of China’s rise (I admit I remain skeptical, as I wrote about last year), the Chinese have thus far had the last laugh. They have surmounted every single crisis they have experienced. The CCP still maintains its monopoly on power and, so long China’s economic growth remains high (it has dropped in the few years from its shocking double-digit growth levels to about seven percent–far higher than any growth level in the West), the CCP will likely continue to maintain its monopoly on political power in China.
President Xi has parroted former PLA Colonel Liu Mingfu’s commitment to realizing the “China Dream” by 2049–exactly 100 years after Mao Zedong rose to power in China. Should they be successful, the negative trends, particularly those related to population density and fertility rates, could then begin exerting themselves more negatively on China’s development. However, by that point in time, China will likely have achieved near-or-total-parity with America’s Armed Forces whilst its neighbors will have also experienced precipitous declines in their own populations and will have also gotten enriched from increased trade with China. So, by the time Xi’s “China Dream” comes about in 2049, the American position in the Asia-Pacific would have become entirely indefensible and the United States would be forced to abandon all pretense of control in Asia–regardless of whatever negative trends befell China.
America must act now to complicate Chinese ambitions for fulfilling their hegemonic dreams in Asia.
America’s Pre-Failed Asia Pivot; China’s Western Swing
In 2010, the Obama Administration made a big deal about its Asia Pivot. The plan was to redeploy roughly 60 percent–the bulk–of America’s armed forces into the Asia-Pacific, to contend with a rising China, counter North Korea’s nuclear aggrandizement, and disrupt terrorism. However, the crises of the Middle East and, eventually, Europe made this a grim prospect. Add on the Obama Administration’s antipathy toward defense spending reform–and its aversion to adequately using force–and you had the makings of a pre-failed pivot.
This is precisely what we got.
Also, as the Obama Administration continued its deafening calls for the pivot (with minimal follow-on action), it only served to put the Chinese on notice who, in turn, as Vali Nasr commented in 2013, prompted China to begin swinging hard to the West. Comparatively speaking, China’s western pivot has been much more successful than America’s eastern one. Indeed, whereas China has been embraced by African states, Russia, and even Turkey (as well as a litany of Latin American countries), erstwhile allies, such as Australia, have questioned the necessity and prudence of America’s pivot to Asia, worrying that two of their largest trading partners, the United States and China, could soon find themselves in a hostile confrontation–with Australia caught in the middle.
By 2017, America’s pivot was the policy that never truly came to be. Yet, there is ample opportunity for the Trump Administration to rectify the failures of the Obama Administration’s Asia pivot. With the recent passage of America’s defense budget, while I certainly disagreed with the exorbitant cost involved, it does mean that the United States will begin preparing itself to be able to remain involved in the Mideast, effectively balance Russia in Europe, and actually pivot to Asia. Of course, time is not on America’s side.
At its core, the Chinese challenge to America’s regional (and eventual global) dominance is in the non-kinetic realm. While China is certainly beefing up their military capabilities to one day (sooner than we think) seriously challenge America’s military might, the Chinese prefer to use all means short of war to challenge and displace the United States from Asia. The Chinese believe that they can best the United States in all areas other than hard power. For our part, the Chinese have been more competitive and effective at stunting the influence of the United States than our leaders care to admit. Even when we offer the Chinese sweetheart trade deals, such as the Trump Administration did in April, in order to get them to help the United States end a global threat (such as North Korea’s nuclear program), the Chinese backslide and balk. The Chinese take the deal meant to entice them toward action, and then play the North Koreans off the United States, and sit back for all of the fallout to consume America.
Meanwhile, China increases hostilities with its neighbors. Despite receiving an unfavorable ruling last summer for its island-building program in the South China Sea, from the arbitration panel in Brussels, the Chinese have yet to abandon their island-building projects in disputed waters throughout the South China Sea. In fact, the Chinese have taken to establishing full-on military bases on these manmade islands, and have even started having their surface-to-air missile systems on those islands begin targeting aircraft flying nearby. In one harrowing experience, as a Western news crew flew aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft tasked with monitoring the Chinese island-building projects in 2015 recorded, the Chinese sent warnings to both the U.S. Navy aircraft as well as a Delta airlines flight, indicating their intention to defend the island from attack.
The U.S. Navy aircraft, as per international law, identified itself and stated its intentions to traverse international airspace. Even as it made its presence and intentions clear, the Navy plane was threatened with hostile action. More troublingly, though, is the fact that the Chinese on the island seem unable (or unwilling) to discern between the blatant U.S. military aircraft and what was clearly a civilian Delta airlines plane operating nearby. More problematically for the world is the fact that many of these islands sit near major shipping lanes and airline routes. And the Chinese seem intent on putting the fear of death into any ship or aircraft that traverses near what China considers sovereign territory. While it is unlikely that the Chinese would ever knowingly fire upon either a civilian aircraft or a U.S. Navy airplane, the fact remains that grave mistakes can be made. Indeed, as we’ve seen in Ukraine, Russian-manned air defense batteries mistakenly believed that a Malaysian airline was a NATO warplane, and shot it down, killing everyone onboard.
Recently, China has threatened military action against both the Philippines (which is currently led by a pro-China president in the form of Rodrigo Duterte), and last week, China has apparently threatened its intransigent southern neighbor of Vietnam with war regarding its ongoing dispute over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Then, of course, there is the boiling tension since June of 2017 between China and India over a part of their shared border in the Himalayas. In each case, the Chinese brinksmanship is predicated on an increasing Chinese desire to control critical natural resources–in the case of the Philippines and Vietnam, it was over those two countries’ desires to drill for oil. In the case of India, it was over the fact that China wants to control critical fresh water deposits in that part of the region. This, in turn, has led these disparate countries into the waiting arms of the United States, which offers itself as a stabilizing defender of the regional status quo–which means, Chinese hegemony will not be tolerated.
Duterte had a positive reception from the Trump Administration (and unqualified support from President Trump over Duterte’s necessarily draconian military response to ISIS militants who have taken over a town in the Philippines). Vietnam signed a major oil development deal with ExxonMobil, thereby threatening Chinese plans for developing oil resources in the region. Also, in the run-up to Prime Minister Modi of India’s powerful meeting with President Trump, the Chinese opted to stir up trouble along their contested border with India.
Clearly, the Chinese are trying to force their neighbors to kowtow to Beijing in the way that many of these countries have historically been forced to. The United States offers another option that many countries are at least interested in exploring, especially in light of the aggressive form of Chinese nationalism that has taken hold in China since the rise of Xi Jinping. These are all positive developments for the United States and its much-needed “pivot” to Asia. Between the Vietnamese, the Japanese, the Taiwanese, and the Indians, there are powerful, willing actors in the region who at least want America to play an active role in events there. Whereas China envisions a rehabilitation of the old pre-European-era Chinese Empire, many of the smaller Asian states (and India) want America to remain militarily engaged in the region, offering protection and a balance against China’s more ambitious geopolitical aims in the Asia-Pacific.
You see, for all of their talk about beating America, the fact remains that Chinese strategic thinkers–from hawks such as retired People’s Liberation Army Colonel Liu Mingfu to doves, such as renowned Chinese international relations expert, Wang Jisi–agree that for the “China Dream” to be fully realized by 2049, as President Xi has insisted, military confrontation with the United States must be avoided. The Chinese need globalization to continue, they need to be viewed as a reliable trading partner, they need to be seen as the real rising power.
Right now, the Chinese can play the game of managing expectations–and they play it very well. Their economy is on the ascendance. The Chinese have managed to outfox the United States in turning both globalization and the international order to their favor since the end of the Cold War. Meanwhile, the United States has terribly misplayed its hand throughout the world–from the Mideast, where we cannot seem to finish a war in any meaningful way, to Europe where the Russians are running roughshod over the U.S.-backed alliance system there, to Asia, where the United States announced its grand pivot and then did little to enact it.
But, let’s get real here: in a straight display of military power, the United States is unrivaled. Since the United States has shipped just about every job and resource it can to China; since America’s elites have all gotten fat and happy by empowering the Chinese economy at America’s expense; since the Chinese have seriously invested in their asymmetrical competitive advantages to engage in what the Russians refer to as, “hybrid war” against the West, the only thing left to the United States is straight-up hard power.
And we’ve got that in spades.
Of course, over time, that has eroded. In 1996, when the United States sailed an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait, in order to stop increased Chinese hostility toward Taiwan, the show of force had its intended effect in short order. Nowadays, as China has increased its own capabilities in the military realm, it is likely that any show of force will have to be on a slightly grander (and sustained) scale. More dangerously, the longer the United States waits to display force as a means of deterring further aggression from China and reassuring its allies, the less likely that any display will be effective. Once that goes, America will have truly been boxed out of the most economically vital region in the world. Quick, decisive, forceful action is required immediately, if we are to slow the tide of history and turn it in our favor.
China Goes to Sea
Although China has historically had maritime capabilities, as Bernard D. Cole analyzes in his book “China’s Quest for Great Power: Ships, Oil, and Foreign Policy,” China has traditionally been a continental power. It sprang forth from the Yellow River, but it rapidly moved inland, to the north and the west. Ultimately it pivoted to the south and the east–toward the ocean–but China has a longer history of being a continental power. Indeed, its socio-political history reflect this reality: continental powers, tend to be authoritarian in nature. Whether speaking about Confucianism or Communism, the governing ethos in China has tended toward authoritarianism.
The post-Cold War period’s phase of globalization that China has disproportionately benefited from was driven by maritime trade. The source of China’s economic power originally emanated from the goods that traversed between the West and China through the transpacific seaways. Understanding this, the Chinese began to reorient their strategic posture away from China’s hinterland to the north and west and out toward the ocean, to its south and east.
As early as 2005, the Chinese began to seriously reassess their strategic posture toward the ocean. At that time, they recognized that hostilities with the West could intensify and, since China was heavily dependent on imports that usually traveled across the oceans, the Chinese understood that they were at a strategic disadvantage. Beijing’s 2005 White Paper began formulating policies to remedy this strategic weakness.
By 2015, a decade later, Beijing released another White Paper. Understand that Chinese strategic culture is naturally opaque, but the nature of the Communist system only exacerbates this trend. However, the Chinese government released a shockingly frank assessment of both Chinese capabilities and their intentions vís-a-vís their maritime strategy.
As we’ve seen over the last decade, China has been embroiled in a series of increasingly hostile maritime disputes with its neighbors, all in an effort to gain control over vital natural gas, oil, and fishing resources in places like the South China Sea, as well as to have its forces strategically placed along major trade routes. The reason is likely because, should hostilities with the West or its neighbors break out, the Chinese recognize the strategic vulnerabilities on relying on so much trade from the sea. They understand that this is a weakness that their enemies would likely exploit in the event of an international crisis. Thus, by having an expanded naval capacity, they could counter it. Also, they could complicate global trade–thereby complicating U.S. foreign policy–by threatening or securing key oceanic trade routes.
The 2015 Chinese White Paper is divided into six sections, according to Bernard Cole, that read as follows:
- “The national security situation, with ‘the primary security’ coming ‘from the ocean’;
- Missions and strategic tasks of China’s armed forces, with a focus on safeguarding ‘overseas investment interests,’ and ensuring ‘the resource supplies of Chinese companies and expansion of their product markets’;
- Strategic guideline of active defense, with a ‘transformation’ of maritime strategy from ‘offshore waters defense’ to one including ‘open seas protection,’ and ‘strategic [nuclear and conventional] deterrence and counterattack’;
- Building and development of China’s armed forces, with ‘the focus of winning informationalized local wars’;
- Preparation for military struggle, in which the usual Chinese words about only fighting in defense are seriously qualified by the concept of active defense, with the navy becoming a ‘maritime power’ in ‘every corner of the globe’; and
- Military and security cooperation.”
There are a few changes that have occurred within China’s military policy that seem to comport with the view that China must take a more proactive stance in foreign affairs–particularly in its encounters with the American military. In 2015, President Xi announced a two-year program of downsizing China’s large conventional force of 2.3 million troops–from 2.3 million troops down to about 2 million (with more reductions to come over time). Now, before you go and assume that this indicates a more peaceable Chinese foreign policy, as was documented in the previous part of this three-part special, the Chinese have long desired to make theirs a more modern fighting force similar to what the United States possesses. Therefore, such a force would need to be highly complex, technological, less-manpower-intensive, and nimbler than the current force structure of the People’s Liberation Army.
The units targeted for cuts were those identified as being antiquated; those elements which relied on outdated weapons, a litany of non-combat, support elements, and a retinue of bureaucratic administrators (if only America’s Pentagon would be so bold) were strategically cut from the PLA’s budget. The money saved from these drastic cuts would be redirected into developing China’s cyberspace, outer space, and arctic combat operations, as well as purchasing or developing more modern equipment for its forces overall. When Xi made the announcement in 2015, he stated that 2017 was the year that he planned to have the reductions completed. Last week, the Chinese government announced that it had successfully accomplished this task–exactly on schedule.
Indeed, despite what some skeptics claim (or Chinese propagandists), the Chinese government has made clear for years their intentions to match American capabilities in the military realm. Xi has named creating a modern, dominant military force capable of projecting power anywhere as being a sine qua non to his “China Dream” (the concept of a rich nation, strong China). In a week over escalating tension between the West and China throughout the Asia-Pacific, the Global Times, a Chinese government mouthpiece, made an ominous warning to the United States and Australia regarding the recent provocative actions of Chinese spy ships.
In the case of the Global Times statement, they were responding to an official complaint from the Australian government over the presence of a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) spy ship in Australia’s maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ) during a joint-Australian, American, Japanese, et al. military exercise in Australia. Responding to the Australian government’s complaint, the Global Times warned that the Chinese spy ship’s operations off Australia’s northeast coast is “just a beginning of China’s future operations.” The Global Times added more ominously, “China should speed up the construction of its Bluewater [international] navy … In the future, Chinese warships should be able to go to waters off Guam, Hawaii, the Caribbean Sea, or even to the San Diego base on the US west coast.”
Of course, according to Rowan Callick’s reporting at the Australia Times, Chen Hong, director of the Australian Studies Centre at East China Normal University in Shanghai, described the Chinese spy ship’s mission to Australian waters as, “a low key surveillance operation.” Hong added, “[The surveillance mission] tells the US that China is capable of projecting its naval surveillance into Oceania, as well as into American waters.” Indeed, recently, the Chinese deployed a spy ship to Alaska to monitor the testing of America’s antiballistic missile defense system, the THAAD system.
Meanwhile, Zheng Shuna of the legislative affairs commission of the National People’s Congress described China’s national security situation as “increasingly grim,” explaining, “from the inside we are dealing with the double pressure of maintaining political security and social stability.” She described the internal and external security dynamic of China as being “more complicated than at any other time in history.” So, China at once views itself as a power that is in the ascendance, surrounded on all sides by threats, and is seeking to secure its hard-fought ascendance.
Of course, for all of the Chinese focus on prioritizing its navy, the continental perspective still permeates China’s strategic thinking. Recognizing that theirs is in no way up to directly challenging America’s navy, the Chinese continue to insist upon its “anti-navy” strategy of “using the land to control the sea.” Thus, the Chinese have sought to reinforce island chains existing at the periphery of China, where they can place weapons systems and forces that could potentially threaten America’s ability to project naval power close to China (or Taiwan).
Bernard Cole describes these Chinese views of their security situation as, “confused.” However, their one unifying foreign policy objective is to push the United States out of East Asia for good. Chuckle at this concept all that you want, but everything the Chinese have done; all that China has appropriated for its military is predicated on this one strategic end goal. They have used and abused America economically; the Chinese have strategically tethered as much of the region to itself, so that it could never suffer through the isolation that the Soviet Union endured during the Cold War. The Chinese have then used the fortune and economic influence it accrued to make critical investments in its military–specifically those elements of the Chinese military that could most threaten America’s military dominance (cyber, navy, and space).
Air-Sea Battle vs. Offshore Balancing
Since 2010, there has been a serious policy debate within America’s defense circles as to what would be the best military response to a rising Chinese military threat. China has never abandoned its intentions to retake Taiwan who, despite the fact that the Carter Administration set the precedent that the United States would no longer view Taiwan as an independent country, the United States would continue to champion the sovereignty of Taiwan. For years since then, the United States has doubled down on its military commitment to Taiwan. Further, Taiwan has repeatedly shown that it has no intention of rejoining the mainland. Most Taiwanese, while they may seek stable relations with the mainland, enjoy their democratic freedoms and want to remain separate and free.
Also, the Chinese have consistently proven that they are not a status quo power interested in upholding the existing international system. In fact, they have made a point to repeatedly impose old territorial boundaries that date back to the Chinese Empire. Of course, this is an impractical policy, since the Chinese territorial claims would utterly decimate the sovereignty of several Asian states (which is likely the point, given China’s intention of rebuilding the old Chinese Empire and its attendant tributary system). Yet, the Chinese, despite the fact that their continued aggression was jeopardizing their economic prosperity by alienating their neighbors (and having the opposite effect that Chinese military policy was aimed at: removing America’s presence from East Asia), continued to saber-rattle against their neighbors and the Americans.
The United States, obviously, had considerable advantages when compared to the Chinese in the military realm. Yet, the one area where the Chinese were getting better in was in asymmetrical warfare capabilities. The Chinese recognized that riding out and meeting the American military face-to-face was not a good plan. They opted to engage in what Sam J. Tangredi describes as, “Anti-Access/Area-Denial” warfare. The Chinese would create a defensive system that was aimed at preventing the Americans from bringing their full forces to bear against Chinese targets, in the event that hostilities commenced. Chinese military planners believed that A2/AD policies would stunt the American technological and military capabilities to such a point that they could effectively resist the United States and enforce their will upon China’s neighbors, whose territories they coveted and whose loyalty they craved.
In light of the increasing Chinese A2/AD capabilities, the American policymakers looked at two options for overcoming this threat. The first was a highly aggressive concept that doubled-down on America’s technological supremacy and sought to bring in an integrated force of United States Marines, Air Force, and Navy assets close to a Chinese target defended with A2/AD systems. In so doing, the Americans reasoned they could generate enough mass and overcome any Chinese defensive strategy whilst reopening any contested region in the Asia-Pacific.
This American policy became known as Air-Sea Battle (ASB).
Air-Sea Battle was a very interesting concept. In a way, ASB was a natural progression from the kind of warfare doctrines that were developed from Desert Storm onward. And, despite it unpopularity, the Iraq War of 2003 was a direct influence on the ASB formation. When America invaded Iraq it did so with 150,000 U.S. ground troops. The force was designed for rapid mobility and aimed at opening up Baghdad to Coalition forces. It was heavily reliant on technology and airpower as well. Former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld referred to this as “transformation.” He envisioned it as the future of warfare in the 21st century.
However, the problem with ASB is that it is highly aggressive and takes the fight directly to Chinese forces and shores, which would ultimately necessitate a Chinese counter-response that would only antagonize the situation, and lead to a total breakdown of relations. Further, it would likely precipitate a nuclear exchange. Also, ASB has exacerbated the natural divisions between America’s Armed Forces. Since the concept removed the Army from budget prioritization (an odd choice, given the fact that, while the ASB is a theoretical concept based on a hypothetical conflict, the Army is leading the fight against actual enemies in current wars).
Just as we saw during the Iraq War, while the Marines, Air Force, and Navy were proficient in embracing concepts of “transformation,” the United States Army was not. Indeed, the Army was so troubled with “transformation” that it actively eschewed the attempts by the Rumsfeld-era Pentagon to force the Army to embrace the reforms meant to make the Army a better integrated, nimbler, more agile fighting force. And, while these attempts at “transformation”–making the United States military conform to the new standards and realities of 21st century, high-tech warfare–make sense on paper, the way that these changes were implemented were, frankly, idiotic (just look at the rise and death of the Army’s Future Combat System for more proof on that statement).
The animosity that arose from within the Army toward the Pentagon’s “transformation” hawks was profound. In fact, it was so terrible in the formulation of ASB that Pentagon planners simply excluded the Army from its conceptual framework. Rather than finding a way to keep all of the branches together and operating as one, the Army went its own way in search of an alternative. It has yet to find one (other than rehashing its popular Air-Land Battle concept that was the dominant strategy for America’s Armed Forces in the 1980s, during the Cold War. Air-Land Battle became the template for America’s first Persian Excursion against Saddam Hussein in 1991).
The now-retired U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General Ray Odierno, said in 2015 that, “The United States does not need to invent a scenario, or an adversary, or formulate a new problem than those being presented around the world today. In my opinion, we must avoid framing a single problem and then presenting a single and inflexible solution to it.”
Indeed, as Mark Perry reported in 2015,
“As the Navy and Air Force joined up to demand more funding under the evolving ASB idea, the U.S. Army—knowing this meant less money for its troops—did everything it could to shoot down the idea. That effort started at the top with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno. According to a senior retired Army officer who knows Odierno well, the Navy-Air Force AirSea Battle announcement ‘sent him into a tizzy,’ ‘chilled relations’ between him and his Joint Chiefs of Staff colleagues and sparked ‘real resentments towards the Air Force and Navy among Odierno’s staff.'”
While ASB sounds great on paper (and it is), the concept is very dangerous. In fact, the entire Air-Sea Battle concept is an operational, tactical plan aimed at responding to overt Chinese aggression against a target like Taiwan. It does nothing to further America’s strategic goals in the world. Thus, it definitely has merit and should be embraced–but as a tactic, not a strategy. I have long written on Washington’s post-Cold War obsession with favoring short-term, quick solutions that are mere tactics at the expense of longer-term strategies for the United States.
Writing on the Air-Sea Battle concept’s creation, Dr. T.X. Hammes pointed out this flaw with the Pentagon’s unquestioning embrace of Air-Sea Battle in 2010, when he wrote a paper for America’s National Defense University (NDU), which stated:
“Unfortunately, rather than exploring potential strategies in the event of conflict with China, the discussion has focused on the operational aspects of Air-Sea Battle outside any strategic context. What strategy might work in a war with China, however unlikely, is not being publicly dis- cussed. Many media reports have confused the issue by suggesting that Air-Sea Battle is the strategy.”
It is not the strategy. In fact, as Hammes notes, thankfully, even the Pentagon objected to the media reports stating the ASB was the strategy for dealing with Chinese aggression. Hammes dubs ASB “the antithesis of strategy.” In fact, Dr. Hammes warns his readers that the fact that China possesses a modern nuclear arsenal, means that there are inherent limitations imposed upon American war planners, should China act out militarily in Asia.
Yet, given China’s role in the global economy, given their nuclear arsenal, and the fact that America neither wants to jeopardize its own forces in what would become a very long, bloody war, but also wants to avoid the devastation of its Asian allies, the strategic goal in responding to any Chinese aggression should be conflict mitigation. While it would be necessary for America to exhibit its supreme military power in the face of Chinese aggression, it is essential for America to do so without precipitating a full-scale war. The point of using the military to go after China would be less about regime change á la Iraq in 2003, and more to do with protecting the territorial sovereignty and economic viability of the Asia-Pacific.
Under such preconditions, the more logical course of action would be to embrace the U.S. military’s other suggestion (though much less respected), which is to create a strategy based on Offshore Control, in the event of an international crisis with China. Offshore Control is a classic concept in military policy. In this case, it would bring America’s overwhelming naval power to bear, but it would keep America outside of any Chinese A2/AD zone, and it would protect critical American military assets from being targeted by those Chinese defensive systems (systems like the Russian-built S-400, which is widely believed to be capable of shooting down American stealth planes, or the Dong Feng 21D, which is China’s purported “carrier killer” missile).
As Dr. Hammes describes it:
“Operationally, Offshore Control uses currently available but limited means and restricted ways to enforce a distant blockade on China. It establishes a set of concentric rings that denies China the use of the sea inside the first island chain, defends the sea and air space of the first island chain, and dominates the air and maritime space outside the island chain. No operations would penetrate Chinese airspace. Prohibiting penetration is intended to reduce the possibility of nuclear escalation and to make war termination easier.”
China disproportionately relies on maritime trade to sustain its meteoric rise. Thus, the United States Navy–the only real Bluewater naval force in Asia–could easily deploy to a strategic chokepoint, such as the Strait of Malacca, one of seven critical chokepoints in the world, where a majority of the globe’s oil supply passes through. The United States could effectively blockade the Strait, and settle in for a long-term, slow strangling of China. Beyond that, there are other areas and waterways where the United States could complicate China’s economic fortunes with offshore balancing.
Hammes continues by outlining:
“If Malacca, Lombok, Sunda, and the routes north and south of Australia were controlled, these shipments could be cut off. The United States must recognize, however, that the dramatic reduction in China’s trade would significantly reduce its energy demands. Thus, energy interdiction would not be a winning strategy. Exports are of much greater importance to the Chinese economy. Those exports rely on large container ships for competitive cost advantage. Chinese ships also are the easiest to track and divert. Naturally, China would respond by rerouting, but the only possibilities are the Panama Canal and the Strait of Magellan—or, if polar ice melt continues, the northern route. U.S. assets could control all these routes. While such a concentric campaign would require a layered effort from the straits to China’s coast, it would largely be fought at a great distance from China—effectively out of range of most of China’s military power. Furthermore, this phase can employ surface search radars and high frequency radio if U.S. space and cyber capabilities are severely degraded.”
Of course, the problems are threefold:
- This program would take much time and, should the United States be responding to Chinese aggression in the form of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, for instance, during this period, China would be able to solidify its hold on Taiwan.
- Even if a blockade of China’s trade in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean could work as planned, it would not prevent China from turning to its Russian and North Korean neighbors to help offset some of its woes. While it is unlikely that either Russia or North Korea could sustain China’s demand, they could offset the American attempts at cutting off China’s resource lifeline.
- As America complicated global trade along the trade routes in order to harm China, it could have severe, deleterious effects on the world economy over the long-run.
The United States cannot–should not–just give up its position in the Asia-Pacific without having exacted a price from China (and North Korea). So, the only options open to the American military are either the highly aggressive, very violent, sudden Air-Sea Battle concept (which is what we’ve been training for since 2010), or the more conservative, albeit slower policy of Offshore Control. It should be obvious, that despite drawbacks, of the options presented (run, attack, or slowly strangle), the latter option is the best option–it mitigates conflict, reduces risk to America and her allies, and puts the onus on the Chinese, who are disproportionately dependent on maritime trade than the United States. Plus, it plays to America’s strengths as a global military power.
Renowned international relations scholar, John J. Mearshimer, speaks frequently about the “stopping power of water” in international relations. In his epic work on “offensive realism” as a viable strategy for the United States, “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” Mearshimer argues that, “Large bodies of water are formidable obstacles that cause significant power-projection problems.” Indeed, as you’ve seen, while China’s naval capabilities have grown immensely, naval relations is the one area where America continues to possess significant–and will, for some time–advantages over the Chinese. And, as Hammes outlines in his NDU think piece, the geography of the Asia-Pacific confers significant advantages upon the dominant naval power–in this case, the United States Navy. China, despite its shift to a maritime defense strategy coupled with copious investments into land-based A2/AD systems, remains a mostly continental force that is hugely dependent on highly vulnerable maritime trade to sustain its existence.
America is the only force in the world that can–and should–threaten that trade, as China continues to feel its proverbial oats; as its own economic and political standing rise to unprecedented heights, thanks to China’s victory over the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
According to the 2006 People’s Liberation Army book, “Science of Military Strategy,” the Chinese strategists buy into a non-linear notion of naval warfare. As Bernard Cole describes, “battles at sea are characterized as asymmetric operations occurring on, above, and beneath the sea.” In this work, Chinese strategists want to go beyond their power bases in China, they want to “reach out and touch” foreign forces in order to achieve specific objectives for specific periods.
However, this is a, frankly, bizarre strategy that does not play well into Chinese strengths. While it is true that combat is all about gaining–and maintaining–the initiative, by operating beyond China’s power base, by moving into waters typically dominated by the United States Navy, and challenging American forces there, the Chinese are exposing themselves to critical vulnerabilities that the United States will merrily exploit. Current Chinese maritime war policies will only be effective at mollifying the American advantages at sea, if they employed in close proximation to Chinese-held territory, so that the Chinese can bring their land-based defensive systems online, and work in tandem with their maritime forces to disrupt any American attempt to gain entry to contested regions that China claims. By sailing out beyond those geographically isolating positions, the Chinese are abandoning their greatest strengths and playing into America’s hands.
Remember, Offshore Control is about maintaining effective distance from the systems that China intends to use to exert its power in a regional crisis. The Chinese military brass clearly believes that offense and spastic action can be substituted for a viable naval strategy.
As Cole outlines in his work:
“Naval campaigns are specifically discussed at length, taking note of the sea’s openness and lack of defensive lines, a fact that requires taking the initiative with offensive operations to neutralize enemy forces. Flexibility and the clever employment of tactics and forces are emphasized. Even defensive naval operations should, in the PLAN’s view, be imbued with an offensive spirit, that of always taking the initiative and attacking the opponent’s weak points.”
Yet, the Mearshimer view on the stopping power of water is essential for our understanding on this situation. The ocean is a vast strategic domain and the force with global reach and numerous regional partners, such as the United States, has many great advantages. While the Chinese may seek to keep the United States off-balance by “reaching out and touching” distant parts of America in the event of a maritime strategy (either by deploying its naval assets far out, to hit back at U.S. forces operating just over-the-horizon, or by launching blinding attacks on critical American space architecture, or through cyber attacks on the American homeland), the result will not be what China believes it can be. American forces are trained and designed to operate as either a unit, or independent of each other. And, in the context of the maritime domain, should China choose to escalate a crisis with the United States at sea, the Chinese could not control unintended escalation in this domain which would universally favor the U.S. Navy.
Thus, Mearshimer thesis on the stopping power of water is not only true at the strategic level, but also at the tactical level–particularly for the Chinese, who must remain close to their territory, in order for the PLAN to have any real chance of stunting America’s military reach.
Of course, as Robert D. Kaplan notes,
“Mearsheimer’s very cold, mathematical, states-as-billiard-balls approach ignores messy details—like the personalities of Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Slobodan Milošević—that have had a monumental impact in deciding how wars and crises turn out. International relations is as much about understanding Shakespeare—and the human passions and intrigues that Shakespeare exposes—as it is about understanding political-science theories. It matters greatly that Deng Xiaoping was both utterly ruthless and historically perceptive, so that he could set China in motion to become such an economic and military juggernaut in the first place. Manifest Destiny owes as much to the canniness of President James K. Polk as it does to Mearsheimer’s laws of historical determinism.”
To be sure, China has deftly expanded its naval might and crafted highly unorthodox–albeit effective–asymmetrical strategies that continue to complicate the foreign policies of America and its allies in the region. Personalities do matter. However, in the case of President Xi Jinping, we have an overt militarist, an avowed nationalist, and a man whose view of Chinese politics most resembles Mao’s view of politics–something that Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, or Hu Jintao (Xi’s predecessors) did not have in common with the Chinese Communist Party’s founder. Plus, the personality matrix of American President Donald J. Trump, or of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe–nationalists all–suggests that hostility with China is likelier in the near-future than at any other time since the Korean War. This is especially true in light of the Trump Administration’s recent assertion that it will not tolerate further Chinese island-building projects.
In his summation supporting Offshore Control, Dr. Hammes writes:
“By reducing reliance on space and cyber and main- taining transparency in peace, crisis, and war, Offshore Control reduces the escalatory pressure on decision-makers while meeting the other criteria. It is designed to slow a crisis down to allow weeks, not seconds, for decisions concerning escalation. Moreover, Offshore Control is designed to better align strategic requirements with available resources as well as place U.S. and allied forces in favorable tactical positions if it comes to a fight. Finally, it provides for conflict resolution that does not require an unobtainable ‘decisive’ victory.”
Dr. Hammes is correct. Offshore Control plays to America’s advantages, while reducing the chance that a sudden violent outburst by the Chinese neither succeeds in pushing America out of East Asia nor eventuates in what (the now deceased) nuclear game theorist, Dr. Herman Kahn, famously referred to as an “insensate wargasm.”
To a Harmonious Future?
The path to stability and peace lies in disabusing the Chinese that theirs is somehow a comparable military force. If the military component of China’s 100 year marathon is abandoned, then the United States and China can work toward a more stable, harmonious future, regardless of whatever convulsions befall China’s politico-economic system in the next couple of decades. China and the United States must forge a more equitable relationship in the Asia-Pacific and it must be done from a position of mutual understanding and respect (and from an admission from both sides that, at times, the differences are less out of direct antipathy toward each other, and more out of simple cultural differences).
If the Chinese persist in reckless, short-sighted behavior, the United States will have no choice but to respond. America has immense interests in the Asia-Pacific, we have allies who do not want us to leave, and the United States–as are all countries, including China–is entitled to equitable access to the Asia-Pacific. Once access to such a profitable zone, like the Asia-Pacific–where America already has long-standing ties and commitments–is denied, wars will inevitably follow. America and China should seek to avoid full-on warfare as best as they can, regardless of the pressures the two political systems may be under to attack.
What’s more, should the United States be forced into the “Thucydides Trap,” it should fall into it sooner, when America still has significant comparative advantages over their Chinese interlocutors. Once challenged, the United States cannot simply stand down. After all, the Chinese goal in the region is to kick the United States out. This is an unacceptable outcome for American grand strategy and foreign policy. If things were to totally breakdown, and a military engagement were to commence, the Chinese might be effective in the beginning of such a campaign, but “victory” belongs neither to the swift nor the strong, but to he that endureth.
More importantly, the Chinese are not a traditional naval power in the way that the United States is. They are disproportionately reliant on maritime trade to empower their economy (thereby buttressing the CCP’s hold on absolute power in China), yet they remain relatively unable to secure that essential maritime trade from its point of origin, transit, to its final destination in China. The Chinese PLAN can only complicate America’s abilities to interdict against Chinese maritime trade close to Chinese shores. And, given he propensity of most Asian states to favor a system in Asia that has both the Chinese and Americans engaged there, it is unlikely that many Asian states will simply defer to the Chinese–especially when America has a cogent, rational, and limited military policy on the table aimed at pushing back Chinese revanchism without precipitating full-scale war.
Indeed, the outcome of any such conflict with China would likely end the same way that the Opium Wars ended. During that period, China had made considerable investments into its navy, but its navy lacked the experience and understanding of effective wartime maritime operations. Thus, the far superior and experienced British Royal Navy rebuffed the Chinese advances in short order, and imposed their will upon the Chinese for a long time thereafter. While the United States, unlike the British colonizers, would be disinterested in breaking the Chinese domestic system outright, the United States would simply be fighting to return the region back to a stable balance of power between the United States, its Asian partners, and China.
The People’s Republic of China has played its hand masterfully since 1949. First, they manipulated the Soviet Union into beefing up their capabilities. When the CCP realized they had taken their alliance with the Soviets as far as they could, in 1953, they began distancing themselves from the Soviets. By the 1960s, long-running tensions with their Soviet neighbors exploded to the surface in the form of a series of border skirmishes between the two Communist powers. Soon, the Chinese opted to move over to the American camp and manipulate the Americans into killing their enemies (the Soviets) with a borrowed knife. It worked. Thus, after the Cold War, the Chinese found themselves in a world controlled by the economic and military Superpower of the United States.
The Chinese embraced a program of biding their time and hiding their capabilities; pretending to be a backward power in need of trade from the generous Americans, in order to become a simple effective cog in the great international order that America created and controlled. However, within no time, the Chinese had manipulated the entire situation to their advantage, using their historical “barbarian-handling tools,” making America and the West economically dependent on China, as they weakened America’s ability to resist Chinese revanchism and undercut America’s ability to be economically independent.
Thus far, the Chinese 100-year marathon has gone mostly according to China’s designs. However, whereas the Chinese used to be able to hide behind the notion that they were merely a Developing country, just looking to learn at the feet of the superior Americans and Westerners, many Western strategists are now attenuated to the fact that China’s ambitions are far grander than previously thought. Indeed, as all rising powers have done, as China’s economic and military capabilities have increased, their imperious intentions have amplified. As China’s size has grown, as its capabilities have become an increasing challenge to America’s military dominance, and as China has consistently behaved in opposition to American foreign policy, there is an increasing likelihood that China will not be able to “bide its time and hide its capabilities” much longer. As that happens, the United States must be ready at the military level to enact an onerous, long-running response to what will likely be a Chinese overstep in the military realm.
America has but one chance to stunt China’s meteoric growth, thereby preventing China’s ultimate victory over the United States and the West. If there is to be any chance that those aforementioned negative trends afoot in China take hold before China solidifies its place as the world’s greatest power, the United States must complicate China’s timeline of becoming the dominant Asian power by 2049. It can only do this by acting on its Offshore Control program.
So, while China ultimately did win the Cold War, it should be the United States’ mission to prevent China from winning the Hundred-Year Marathon. If the United States cannot accomplish this task–sooner rather than later–then the United States will be consigned to permanent, relative decline, regardless of what befalls China from 2050 and beyond.