Monday, January 10, 2011

Why China Has the Pentagon in Knots

America is getting the jitters because China is behaving exactly like any emerging economic power would.  Beijing is using its new found wealth to develop a modern, high tech military.   Not the sort that could pose a threat to the continental United States.   China has had a force of intercontinental ballistic missiles for a long time but it's still pretty small compared to America's.  No, what China is actually doing is threatening to dominate its own territory to the potential exclusion of US forces.

Washington is, shall we say "accustomed" to having its fleet carrier battle groups enjoy free run just about everywhere there's water deep enough to float them.  It has long counted on these aircraft carrier flotillas to flex its muscle in Asia.  There's often a carrier battle group in the neighbourhood whenever North Korea gets frisky and US Navy carrier forces have played a quiet role in bolstering Taiwan's independence.   These have been backed up by US Air Force squadrons stationed in Japan, South Korea and Guam.

America's historic military dominance in the region has been instrumental in keeping countries there within its sphere of influence.  If America's power is contested those alliances could weaken.  So just what is China up to these days?  In fact, just about everything.

China seems to have given everybody the vapours last week by unveiling the existence of its own, 5th generation stealth fighter, the J-20.    We weren't expecting to see that for at least another decade.   China has also been designing, building and deploying its own fleet of diesel and nuclear subs.  They've even built an underground sub base on Hainan Island where subs enter and leave submerged.   A couple of years ago one of these diesel subs surfaced, undetected, within five miles of a US carrier battle group in a "gotcha, you're dead" moment.

It's feared the Chinese are acquiring a space warfare capability that could potentially take down the satellite system the West cannot function without.  The Chinese are also deploying modern air and ground-launched cruise missiles in large numbers.   And then there's the Chinese navy.  It's growing and fast.  It has already bought an aircraft carrier from the Ukraine and there's word China will launch its first, indigenous aircraft carrier next year.

Add it all up - space technology, new missiles, new aircraft, new subs, new ships - and all this with a military budget about a tenth of America's.  Then again it's not so much the size disparity in the rivals' military budgets, it's how China spends its money.

The US wants to be everywhere - the Pacific (north and south), the Atlantic (north and south), the Arctic, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, the China Sea - the lot.   China, it seems, wants to secure its own region and its sea lane access to the Middle East.  It doesn't seek to exclude the US from these specific regions.   It simply wants the capability to drive out US forces if that becomes necessary.   And China may be getting very close to that threshhold.

The RAND Corporation has extensively studied China's evolving military prowess and presented its findings to Congress.   It has concluded that China could indeed make it very difficult for the US military to operate in the East and Southeast Asia regions.   America's remaining Air Force, Army and Marine Corps bases in the region could be quickly overwhelmed by cruise missile barrages while its carriers are vulnerable to submarine "carrier buster" torpedoes, as well as cruise missiles and medium-range ballistic missile weapons optimized to take out US fleet carriers.

It's not so much that America has been knocked off its perch as that China has stepped up to join it, at least in this corner of the planet.  Under the Bush Doctrine, America reserved the right to use its overwhelming military force against any rival that challenged US military supremacy - anywhere and forever.

It's ironic that it was the bellicose Bush administration that unwittingly unraveled the world's notion of American military invincibility.   America may succumb to the imperial urges to conquer pushover states but it completely lacks the imperial instincts and resolve to effectively occupy them.  It's a drama for which America has only learned the lines for the first act.   Once the audience figures that out, they tend to get a bit surly.

Since Reagan ushered in America's Age of Ruin, the US military has relied heavily on technological wizardry, ultra-expensive high tech stuff, to anchor its unipolar supremacy.  Unfortunately that's a bluff that can be called by any rival nation with a bag of cash and the will to spend it.

I think America and China are heading down a one-way street.  America's supremacy in East and Southeast Asia is ebbing.   The world as it was in 1980 or 1990 isn't coming back. 

Much as America has reason to be nervous about China's rise to great economic, diplomatic and military stature, it's the potentially seismic reaction to those tectonic forces that most worries me.   What happens if the White House falls to another simpleton like Bush or a force as diabolical as Cheney?   What could befall us if a rabid ideologue who rises in a cloud of ignorance like the Wizard of Wasilla somehow bubbles to the top?  God save America and the rest of us if She has time.


crf said...

How does hard power relate to soft power? In the US, hard power backs up, or defends, other important aspects of their international relationships.

What will be interesting to watch is how China will use soft power in the developing world: economic aid, social aid, cultural ties, education and scientific aid, disaster relief, and deep alliances. I get the impression that it's really still playing a silent second fiddle to the US in this area right now. It's hard to get real news about this though (given the financial problems in the western press).

The U.S. has very complicated policies, but has been a little indifferent lately in clearly articulating them, or growing them, or defending them to the world at large. Certainly the military has taken, at the expense of the state department, congress, the President, US NGOs and private charities, a larger role in defining and implementing soft power.

China seems content to deal directly with the economic issues, and avoid dealing at the same time with human rights, political rights, environmental issues, and labour rights (I'm not sure China is indifferent to these issues, but they don't agonize over them). It's indifferent to dealing with dictators and democracies. But at the same time, I don't get the impression China are trying to get countries to believe in them, or become their friends, the way America traditionally has done (eg, with Israel, Canada, Georgia, Japan, Korea).

So It will be interesting to see what's the point of China's military? What is it backing up?

The Mound of Sound said...

China doesn't seem interested in projecting military power as America has done. I expect that's because it can't afford to and sees very little benefit in it. China's military ambitions appear regional but that's not to make light of them.

While China plainly wants to be able to make its backyard potentially untenable to American forces, it's far more concerned with containment issues arising out of a US/India alliance particularly as that could impact Chinese access to fossil fuel resources. That's one reason why China is helping Pakistan. It could provide China with a pipeline route into Iran as well as potentially enabling it to thwart plans to run Caspian Basin reserves through to India or down into the Indian Ocean for shipment to Europe.

Beyond Asia, China seems to prefer to exercise soft power through money alone. This has allowed it to make major inroads into Africa and to begin extending its interests into South America also. I'm not sure the US could any longer assert any Monroe Doctrine restrictions to South America. That horse may already have left the barn.

Beijing York said...

Perhaps talks about expanding NATO's mandate, led by the US, is related. The US cannot make it's military presence felt in every region without backing partners to provide troops infill.

The Mound of Sound said...

@BY. I suspect you're right. For years now I've seen NATO in the guise of America's Foreign Legion. Who knows, change is in the wind.

Anonymous said...

China has the ability to move fast and when it decides to do something it does as do most wealthy Asian countries. They do not sit on their hands for years when making advancements or changes to their system as we do in Canada and that is a FACT.

The Mound of Sound said...

Command economies inevitably move more quickly than their democratic counterparts. That's how multinational capitalism fell into bed with the world's biggest totalitarian state. We were raised to take for granted that capitalism was the exclusive preserve of democracy. Then again we were fed a whole lot of nonsense about our world and our place in it.

Anonymous said...

South Korea is a democratic government and when it makes changes it does so in a short period of time. So the argument that command economies move more quickly than democries isn't quite correct. Australia also moves much more quickly than we Canadians do. "We were raised to take for granted that capitalism was the exclusive preserve of democracy. Then again we were fed a whole lot of nonsense about our world and our place in it."....I totally agree with.