ISSN 2330-717X

Growing Sino-American Military Rivalry – Interview


The global world order is witnessing a substantial shift. Part of the greater tussle for strategic and geopolitical dominance is the military rivalry between the U.S. and China. The two countries together now account for over one-half of the world’s defense spending.


In recent years, Sino-American military competition has intensified in the contested waters of the Western Pacific, with the South China Sea and Taiwan both potentially dangerous flashpoints. The People’s Liberation Army is also developing global capabilities to support the PRC’s Belt Road Initiative, posing challenges to nations beyond the Asia-Pacific region. Efforts to mitigate the risks posed by these developments are complicated by the diverging geopolitical interests of Washington and Beijing, and both sides’ quests for military technological superiority which encourages economic decoupling.

Karl Eikenberry’s military, diplomatic, and academic careers have included numerous postings and projects in China and East, South, and Central Asia. The multi-faceted soldier, scholar and Sinologist was most recently Director of the U.S. Asia Security Initiative at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University. He is Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Deputy Chairman, NATO Military Committee; and has been Defense Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Eikenberry discusses the systematic expansion of China’s footprints and its implications for the world with Ambassdor Ashok Kantha of Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi, and Manjeet Kripalani of Gateway House, Mumbai.

Question: What are the defense strategy differences between the Trump and Biden positions? What will change, if Joe Biden is elected to the White House? 

Answer: There is broad support in America for the general direction of the Trump administrations China policy. Three points.


First, within the executive branch, there are sweeping sets of rules and regulations that had been put in place by Trump dealing with economic exchange, technology competition and law enforcement. In the Department of Defense, there is in place new and more stringent rules and regulations.  The same is the case with the Department of State, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Treasury, the Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Communications Commission, and others. So, even if a Biden administration came in and wanted to effect major change and take U.S. China policy in a different direction – which they will not – it would be very difficult to do so.

Second, the Trump administration often wasn’t acting on its own. Many times, what gets reported as Trump administration policy is, in fact, a response to Congressional legislative acts.

Consider the current U.S. 116 Congress spanning from January 2019 until the 117th Congress is seated next January. To date it has introduced 567 resolutions and bills that name China.  To put that number in context, the 107th Congress, from 2001 to 2003, during the first years of the Bush Administration’s ‘global war on terror’, introduced some 135 resolutions and bills naming China. The current (116th) Congress’s resolutions and bills range from sanctions related to PRC actions in the South China Sea and East China Sea, the Fair Trade with China Enforcement Act, the Preventing China from Exploiting Covid-19 Act, and the Countering Chinese Government and the Communist Party Influence Act,  There are resolutions condemning the persecution of Christians in China – and even a bill to prohibit the use of federal funds for purchasing cats and dogs from wet markets in China and for other purposes. The only bipartisan action going on in the current U.S. Congress relates to China policy.

Third, is this is not an exclusively elite issue in Washington, as often foreign policy matters can be. In some of the surveys conducted in the U.S and around the world, just 35% of Americans polled in 2005 had an unfavourable view of China. In this year, 2020, 73% do. I should point out, though, that this trend is not unique to the U.S., especially among democratic countries. From 2005 to 2020 unfavorable views of China increased in Australia from 40% to 80%, in Japan from 42% to 86%, in Korea from 24% to 75%, and in Germany from 25% to 71%. Even in Sweden, the rise was from 40% to 81%.  My point is that this is not just U.S. phenomenon.

What policies would we see change in a Biden administration? Overall, less defense spending, but with a continuing prioritization of China. There will be a tendency to, as in during the Obama administration and the Trump administration, to lower the U.S. military profile and commitments in the Middle East and Central Asia. It’s uncertain what a President Biden would do in Europe because of concerns with Russia, but it certainly concentrate defense efforts in the Indo-Pacific area and invest in global enabling systems.

Under Biden, the difference will be this:  First, much more emphasis on allies and partners.  The Trump administration has received much criticism for erratic and transactional economic and security policies. This is perhaps more true regarding Europe.  I think the critique is overstated, to some extent, when it comes to Asia. Regardless, globally a Biden administration will reinforce and reinvigorate alliances and partnerships, and it will better align economic and security policies. For example, I believe it will be more flexible in economic negotiations with allies and partners in an effort to build a united front when dealing with China on major trade, investment, and geopolitical issues.

Second, a Biden administration will return to a more transparent and coherent bureaucratic decision-making process. This would be a welcomed change. Over the past three years in Washington D.C., the national security decision-making process has been incoherent, unpredictable and characterized as much by daily tweets as by rigorous deliberation.

Biden will make an effort to see if there are areas where China and the U.S. can possibly cooperate. Perhaps in fighting pandemic threats. Certainly, in the area of climate change. However, a Biden administration would continue to regard China as a “strategic competitor”, a term brought into vogue by President Trump.

Third, Biden will make an effort to see if there are areas where China and the U.S. can possibly cooperate. Perhaps in fighting pandemic threats. Certainly, in the area of climate change. However, a Biden administration would continue to regard China as a “strategic competitor”, a term brought into vogue by President Trump.

Q: The theatre of risk is now in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. What are the risks and consequences of conflict there between China and the U.S.? 

A:  Let me play out a scenario. Let’s imagine that a U.S. destroyer and a Chinese destroyer collide somewhere in the South China Sea. Both sides would immediately move to control escalation.  Beijing could elect to get out front and immediately tell the world that the U.S., despite repeated warnings, conducted yet another “provocative and reckless” freedom of navigation operation, resulting in the ramming – perhaps intentionally – of a PLA Navy destroyer.  And it might simultaneously announce that, regardless, it is committed to saving the lives of innocent American sailors, and conduct rigorous search and rescue operations in its proclaimed territorial waters where the collision had occurred.  But it would also emphasize that because these are Chinese territorial waters, all search and rescue operations must be coordinated through the PLA Navy forces in the area and only those with permission will be allowed to enter the area.  Beijing then could show video clips demonstrating it is conducting effective SAR operations, and treating rescued and injured U.S. military personnel with great compassion and care.

This would pose a huge dilemma for a U.S. administration.  And – if the U.S.  decided to enter these self-proclaimed territorial waters over Chinese objections, I would expect Beijing might use this as the pretext to “reluctantly” militarize their artificial islands in the South China Sea, permanently stationing naval and air forces on at least several.

So what would be the U.S. response? The initial priority would be to ensure effective conduct of search and rescue operations. Is it worth getting into a tactical fight and jeopardize American sailors’ lives in order to assert rights claimed under international law?

This is just one of many plausible and very dangerous scenarios we might consider. Some experts might argue that this specific scenario is not realistic, but – even so – almost all would agree that there are countless potentially explosive scenarios that are realistic.

I worry that even as the U.S. conducts freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, neither side has sufficiently well thought out escalation control strategy to follow in the aftermath of an incident.

Regarding Taiwan, in the early-1990s, its defense spending was on par with that of the People’s Liberation Army.  But now its spending is about 1/23rd the PLA’s budget. Of course, China – militarily – has to consider more than just Taiwan. It is becoming increasingly global.  It has to consider India, for instance. So it is not that they can bring to bear all of their military capabilities against Taiwan, whereas Taiwan’s military only focuses on the PRC.

But the quantitative and qualitative trends over the past 25 years have decidedly gone against Taiwan.  Taiwan’s ability to withstand a determined large-scale assault is problematic and more so in the absence of a quick U.S. response.

The key question for leaders in Beijing and Taipei is, what is the likely U.S. response if China uses military forces against Taiwan? Are the American people prepared for a conflict with China that could be catastrophic for both sides and would be a life-changing event for this planet? Polling indicates that less than 50% of Americans would support a military intervention, but it is not clear what decisions Washington would make in the time of an actual crisis.

At the end of the day, the PLA and the Chinese Communist leadership, know that, even though they have decisive military advantage, an invasion of Taiwan would be a very costly expedition even without the involvement of the U.S. The number of landing beaches that are available in Taiwan are quite limited. The Taiwan Strait has mostly very shallow waters, negating much of the PLA’s advantage against Taiwan in submarine warfare. The weather in the Taiwan Strait is generally not conducive to amphibious operations offering relatively small windows of time during the year in which to act.

I could go on, but the military problems are very significant ones and the likelihood of China, then, rolling the dice and opting for a risky and costly bet, is still limited.  The application of persistent military coercion short of armed conflict, in concert with diplomatic, economic, and information tools – a comprehensive salami-slicing approach – seems more probable.

U.S.  continuing military assistance to Taiwan helps it field a military capable of deterring PRC leaders by increasing their risk factor.  PRC priorities remain economic modernization, wealth distribution, and domestic stability. It is important for like-minded democratic countries like Japan, Australia, those of the European Union, and India, to regard the Taiwan issue with concern. Should the PRC through military coercion and force, compel Taiwan to be absorbed by an autocratic system, the implications for China’s future conduct globally are unsettling.

Q: What are the challenges that the U.S. military faces in redirecting its efforts from counterterrorism and counterinsurgency to a peer or near-peer competition with major powers like China and maybe Russia? 

A: The U.S. military, from 2001 until 2014-15, was focused on finding and defeating terrorist cells and insurgent groups of maybe 10-15 fighters.  During this period our military lost no tactical battles. In fact, it became accustomed to usually winning 100:0 or at worst, 99:1. During the Cold War, when the U.S. focused on state- to- state competition, and the Soviet Red Army was the American military’s peer, U.S. military leaders understood that winning 51:49 might be the best that could be done, and that it was accepted that some fights be lost.

So, a kind of complacency and hubris developed during the long wars in the Middle East and Central Asia.  It became assumed that the assets and conditions enabling U.S. tactical victories – air supremacy, persistent intelligence platforms, space-based communications infrastructure, etc. – would always exist and never be seriously threatened.

When the U.S. military began, some 6-7 years ago, to reemphasize interstate it had to reconsider some of the basics and find innovative solutions to a very difficult problem.  Let me highlight three ongoing adaptations or evolutions.

First is the need for resilience. Six years ago when visiting the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, I asked the commander of a destroyer if he was concerned about the PLA’s ability to threaten his warship’s enabling systems when operating in the South China Sea. He expressed a degree of concern.  Explaining the difficulty of acquiring the skills required to mitigate the threats, he noted that long-planned large-scale expensive exercises could quickly be completely disrupted when advanced command & control and communications systems were negated after a simulated enemy cyber attack.  He said after a few hours of frustration, senior commanders would tell the exercise controllers to allow the systems to be turned back on before too much time and money was wasted.

However, last year, when I visited Pearl Harbor, I received a very different reply. The commander of another destroyer explained that his crew routinely practices shutting key systems down, even reaching a point where the primary form of navigation is by sextant and the stars, a state-of-the-art skill during the era of the sailed and familiar to Lord Horatio Nelson.

So resilience is important. One’s deterrence is greatly increased if an enemy knows that even if it manages to degrade several of your key enabling systems, you will still be able to effectively operate.  The U.S. military is getting increasingly adept at doing so.

Second, is to distribute the forces better. The U.S. military is aware that it has, in the Pacific region, single points of failure that the PLA can attack and damage or destroy – such as the major operational and logistics hub at Guam. In response, the American armed forces are developing some very innovative service and joint doctrines. For instance, the Army and Marines have designed small, tailored units that can be deployed into the Western Pacific.  They would be hard for an opposing military to locate, and would possess capabilities that could threaten an opponent operating far from its own shores, as well as their support systems.

Third, the U.S.  civilian and military leadership is thinking much more now about long-range precision strikes, going far beyond the previous doctrine developed during the Cold War, and used with devastating effect during the first and second Gulf wars.  By the 21st century, the U.S. military assumed that when faced with a potential military adversary, it could build up according to its own schedule combat power at the doorstep of the adversary, and then at a time of its own choosing – kick the door open.  This is not possible today against opponents who possess sophisticated anti-access and area denial capabilities, such as those enjoyed by the PLA.

Q: Chinese troops are now inside the Indian territory of Ladakh. What is the thinking in China? Why it is that Xi Jinping has undertaken this manoeuvre or aggression into India at this point? Do you think it’s Xi Jinping who has given permission for something like this and why? 

A: Was Xi Jinping aware in advance and authorize the PLA’s aggressive actions this past summer in Ladakh?  I don’t know – and there are few ways of knowing. I think that many in the U.S. intelligence community would say yes, he was aware.  Xi appears to have a very strong grip on the Chinese military.

Uncontrolled, the PLA is a potential challenger to the Communist Party of China.  And Xi seems determined to control all facets of the PRC’s politics, economy, military, foreign policy, and society. So, yes, I would wager a good sum of money that he was calling the shots on the fighting along the Line of Control in June.

As to the timing of this battle and the objectives, there is speculation that PLA leaders were increasingly concerned by the growth of Indian Army capabilities in the Ladakh region, mostly in terms of logistics due to improvements in ground lines of communication and the establishment of a new high-altitude airbase.  They may have made a compelling argument to Xi Jinping that in order for China to maintain a dominant position in the Ladakh region, offensive actions would be required.

To me, the way China has operated here is consistent with how, in the past, it has operated along your border and those of other neighboring states – both in the land and maritime domains. Beijing will, using the element of surprise, launch a very bold attack, put its opponent back on its heels, and then partially pull back, gaining military advantage and improving its future negotiating position, while maintaining escalation control.

For example, China did the same against Vietnam in 1979, albeit at considerable cost. Beijing follows this same playbook in the South China Sea.  It keeps salami-slicing until confronted with determined and credible opposition, at which time it suggests negotiations which often result in a new status quo that is incrementally better for China than the previous status quo.

So, I look with alarm at their operations this summer along the Line of Control. I think such actions should serve as wake-up calls to U.S. allies and like-minded partners because this is the same kind of aggressive strategy we will likely see employed not only along the LOC, but in the South and East China Seas, and against Taiwan.

Q: What would you suggest to your friends in the Indo-Pacific region or Taiwan? How can they plan long-term and how can they take security decisions when they are not so sure which way U.S. policy will evolve?

A: The Trump administration has actually done some pretty good work in terms of its defense policies and military strategy in the Indo-Pacific, though not as well regarding its economic and trade policies. The question that U.S. regional allies and partners, the nations of Southeast Asia, and the people of Taiwan ask is: What is the staying power of the USA? That staying power is brought into question by inconsistent messages from Washington D.C. and an economic future that appears to some less favorable than China’s. But these questions inevitably are driven by geography. One thing that China’s neighbours know is that 100 years from now, China is still going to be on their doorsteps and the U.S., an ocean away.  Maintaining credible reassurance will require American strength and presence, but will never be easy.

Q: What will be the QUAD’s response? Will it contain the PLA?

A: I earlier spoke of U.S.-China military competition and how the American military is rethinking its doctrine. But more important, going forward, will be U.S success at regaining its prestige regionally and internationally. It will be much be more persuasive that it’s in the Indo-Pacific to stay and compete.  It needs to work with major powers such as India to create a denser network of allies and partners. Not to build an alliance against China, but groups that can firmly and collectively respond to PRC aggressive actions that violate the norms of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

For example – consider the vast maritime reaches of the Indo-Pacific region.  India has direct interests in the Indian Ocean. But it also has interests in Southeast Asia and should be troubled by the PRC’s aggressive pursuit of extensive maritime sovereignty claims in the Western Pacific. More – the precedent of ignoring China’s flagrant violations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, has potential implications for the future freedom of navigation in waters far beyond the South China Sea.

Similarly, Japan and Australia – and even Korea – while not claimants – should be concerned by the prospect of the PRC gaining control of the South China Sea.  France has territorial possessions in the South Pacific and is committed to defending free and open trade.  Even distant NATO has expressed growing angst about China’s increasingly muscular behavior.  The task is to forge a common plan of action and effect policy coordination among the stakeholder and interested nations.

This is the way to compete with China. Beijing is an expert in singling out an opponent and trying to isolate it.  Effectively addressing the challenge that the world is facing with China’s rise, requires a comprehensive and integrated approach.

This is the Q & A transcript of the Gateway House – Institute of Chinese Studies jointly hosted Webinar on 21 October, 2020.

Source: This interview was conducted for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

Gateway House

Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations is a foreign policy think-tank established in 2009, to engage India’s leading corporations and individuals in debate and scholarship on India’s foreign policy and its role in global affairs. Gateway House’s studies programme will be at the heart of the institute’s scholarship, with original research by global and local scholars in Geo-economics, Geopolitics, Foreign Policy analysis, Bilateral relations, Democracy and nation-building, National security, ethnic conflict and terrorism, Science, technology and innovation, and Energy and Environment.

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