By Dr. Subhash Kapila
“China can be expected to react forcefully as in its perceptions it would view this strategy as counter-balancing China and commencement of destabilization of China” – Bonnie Glaser, China Specialist, CSIS, Washington
China has emerged more pointedly and intensely in United States strategic cross-hairs as the main thrusts in the US Defence Strategic Review 2012 would indicate. Envisioned in this Review are the main threats to the United States in the 21st Century and United States military blueprint to meet the challenges these threats pose to United States national security interests.
Topping the list of the US threats perceived in the 21st Century is The China Threat and hence the United States predominant shift in military focus and a ’pivot’ to the Asia Pacific.
Apparently, the United States has come to a strategic conclusion that a pronounced militarization of US strategic formulations and responses to The China Threat has now become an over-riding imperative. This would run parallel to the United States policy thrusts in the politico-strategic and politico-military thrusts.
The impact on China of United States comprehensive and integrated thrusts to neutralise what the United States perceives as The China Threat would be considerable and cannot be minimized.
The US Defence Strategic Review 2012 approved by President Obama emerges as a “game changer” in Asia Pacific strategic dynamics and places US-China relations at strategic crossroads with far reaching implications. It is a manifestation of United States seriousness to come to grips with The China Threat, a seriousness which the United States was ducking so far.
Initially what must be noted is that China has never cowed down in face of stupendous strategic challenges. Remember China taking on the United States during the Korean War in the 1950s, when the United States was the sole nuclear weapons power and China had nothing else to militarily boast off other than massed manpower.
China expectedly can be expected to react forcefully to the new US strategic formulations and therein lay the seeds of an increased confrontation between China and the United States.
Initially, no official reactions were forthcoming and only media publications of Chinese Government mouthed some edgy views. It was only a few days later that the first official response appeared on the Chinese Ministry of Defence website. All of them were highly critical of the militarization of US strategy in the Asia Pacific.
More pointedly striking hard stances was the Global Times, a virtual mouthpiece of the Chinese Government which asserted that the United States cannot stop China’s rise and further that “ China needs to enhance its long distance military attack ability and develop more ways to threaten US territory in order to gradually push outward the frontline of the game with America”
Not to be overlooked in this context is that China does not come out with knee-jerk official reactions and official assertions are made with painstaking deliberations.
The strategic impact on China of the US Defence Strategic Review would be considerable and with long term implications. Hence one would have to await a comprehensive and deliberated official response from China.
Notwithstanding the above, it does not prevent an analysis of the strategic impact on China of the latest US Strategic Review. This Paper intends to precisely and briefly do the same under the following heads:
- China and the United States Strategic Confrontation: A Reality Check
- Political and Strategic Impact on China of United States New Policy Thrusts in the Asia Pacific
- Military Impact on China of US Defence Strategic Review 2012
- China’s Ensuing Options Arising from Above
China and the United States Strategic Confrontation: A Reality Check
China and the United States have been in a state of confrontation ever since the emergence of Communist China in 1949. Within a year or so China entered the Korean War in 1950 against the United States and fought it to a stalemate.
Thereafter, with the exception of spasmodic interludes when China and the United States enjoyed brief convergence of strategic interests, both nations have been in a state of confrontation, open or sub-surface.
China’s confrontation with the United States arose mainly out of geostrategic factors and this became more pronounced as China gained tremendous economic strengths facilitating rapid military upgradation of its military machine.
This enabled China to jostle with the United States for the limited strategic space of East Asia specifically and Asia Pacific in general as China geographically bordered both.
By the end of the 20th Century, China and the United States notwithstanding their rhetoric of ‘cooperative engagement’ or ‘competitive engagement’ figured prominently as “threats “in each other’s threat perceptions.
This primarily arose from China’s perceptions that the United States strategic aims were to prevent the emergence of China as a regional power as a prelude to emerging as the second pole against the United States on the global stage.
In United States perceptions, China was a ‘revisionist power’ intending to challenge United States global leadership and military superiority.
What has now come to head between the United States and China would have come to a head in 2001 but for the 9/11 events which forced the United States to temporize with China following the US military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
China skilfully used the Post-9/11 interregnum to muscle into United States strategic space in East Asia and South East Asia particularly and in Pakistan in South Asia, both politically and strategically.
By 2009-2010, it could be said that China was so emboldened by the US generated strategic vacuum in Asia Pacific as to directly throw a strategic gauntlet to the United States in the form of a declaratory policy that the South China Sea was China’s “core interest”, China exercised sovereignty over this region and that China was prepared to defend with armed force its “core interest” of the South China Sea.
The United States seemingly took up the challenge even though the United States earlier overlooked China’s military bullying of its security allies Japan and South Korea and South East Asian countries over the South China Sea.
The US Defence Strategic Review 2012 needs to be viewed in the above context and the strategic reality check suggests that the stage now seems to be set for decades of a Cold War between China and the United States even if both shy away from an all-out armed conflict.
Political and Strategic Impact on China of United States New Policy Thrusts in the Asia Pacific
The United States mindful of China muscling into United States traditional strategic turf and traditional strategic space in the Asia Pacific in the Post 9/11-interregnum embarked over a year ago to reclaim its leadership and military superiority in the Asia Pacific.
In strategic power-play perceptions count and undoubtedly China to some extent had been able to diminish United States image as the predominant power in Asia Pacific leading to South East Asia countries to emerge as ‘fence sitters’ and US Allies like Japan and South Korea to temporize with China’s aggressiveness against them.
United States to reclaim its Asia Pacific leadership and military superiority which was being nibbled away by China engaged itself in two parallel policy thrusts, namely:
- Political, strategic and diplomatic initiatives to infuse vigour in the spider-web of its existing security relationships in East Asia, striking new strategic cooperative relationships in the Asia Pacific and weaning away countries entangled in the strategic embrace of China.
- Strengthening its own US Military Forces postures in the Asia Pacific by relocation of its Military Forces, and reinforcing its military strengths in the Pacific to cater for any enhancement of the China Threat to the United States, its Allies and friends in the region. Major relocations have taken place southwards to US Territory of Guam and US deployments in Australia.
Measuring the index of success of the above policy thrusts of the United States in the recent past, the picture that emerges is that traditional US Allies like Japan and South Korea feel more strategically assured against China, new strategic partners seem to be emerging in the form of Vietnam and the United States seems to have taken the first steps to weaning away Myanmar from the Chinese strategic embrace.
As part of these China-Centric thrusts, the United States has not been oblivious to economic strategies too. As part of the US Pivot to Asia Strategy, the United States is working to forge a “Trans Pacific Partnership” which excludes China. Apparently a comprehensive and integrated US strategy seems to be underway to contain or constrain China.
The overall impact on China of the above US policy thrust is considerable and likely to place China in a strategic dilemma and besides making it strategically edgy too.
What China was striving for in terms of unquestioned regional predominance in East Asia especially, now stands replaced by a virtual “China Containment Strategy” of the United States.
Echoing the above was a recent Op-Ed in the Jakarta Globe which stated: “On the strategic front, the message is……the Americans are thinking big………..What is big is the strategic intention behind them….. At one go America has inserted itself in the Indo-Pacific theatre created by the military rise of China and manifested in its assertiveness in South China Sea.”
Military Impact on China of US Defence Strategic Review 2012
China’s military differential with the United States as it is was considerable. Creating nuclear strike capabilities reaching out to the East Coast of the United States from the Chinese mainland does not make China the strategic equal of America.
China’s military modernization and upgradation programs were all aimed at reducing this differential to manageable limits, but the gap is still considerable in China’s offensive capabilities against the United States and its Force Projection capabilities are negligible compared to the United States.
Measured against the above, the US Defence Strategic Review 2012 lays down three major thrusts in meeting The China Threat, namely (1) US will enhance its military presence in the Asia Pacific (2) US will enhance its Power Projection capabilities in the Asia Pacific (3) US deterrence postures will be further strengthened.
Articulated by some senior US military officials is the aim of this Strategic Review is to DISSUADE, DETER and DEFEAT implying China.
If the above is the underlying United States aim against China then as part of this Strategic Review one can expect massive insertions in the US military profile in the Asia Pacific, over and above the present levels.
At the macro-level the military impact on China can be surmised as follows (1) China’s military differentials with the United States stand to be further widened (2) China’s political and military coercion against its neighbours would stand that much more checkmated (3) Militarily, China gets that much more circumscribed (4) China’s “Anti-Access and Area Denial Strategy” to deter US military intervention gets diluted (5) China will be checkmated by the United States in the South China Sea with all its force and assisted by other nations in the ‘defense of the global commons’.
On the fifth impact noted above, the United States is already experimenting with new operational concepts of “Air-Sea Battle Doctrine” under which the US Air Force and US Navy would be able to break through the Chinese military web of air-defences, naval mine-fields at sea, Navy battle ships and submarines denying access to US offensive forces. The US ‘Air-Sea Battle Doctrine” is being viewed as an instrument with which American military power can address “asymmetric threats in Western Pacific” –an implicit reference to China.
On balance what becomes apparent is that the United States is focussing on using US military strengths against Chinese military weaknesses in the Air Force and Navy fields.
It is not to suggest that China is woefully militarily weak against the United States. What one is analytically suggesting in terms of impact on China is that China’s existing strategy of making the costs of a US military intervention against China as prohibitive becomes that much more dented and vulnerable.
Significantly, it may be well worth quoting a despatch by BBCs correspondent Damien Grammaticas which states “Note the way that China is described as an “emerging regional power”. The Pentagon is not ready to accord China the status of a global power or superpower, or even an emerging superpower, a reflection that China’s military reach is still far from global”
This reflects the significant military differentials between China and the United States and therefore the overall military impact on China of the US Defence Strategic Review would be considerable.
Chinese military hierarchy seems to have misread the decline of American military power by basing their assessments on US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
China’s Ensuing Options Arising from Above
China in the short term perspective may prefer to wait and watch the unfolding of the full dimensions of the US Defence Strategic Review 2012 in terms of the three stated aims of this review which are China-Centric. This could be for two reasons in that China reads this declaratory policy as more bluff and bluster and secondly await the outcome of the next US Presidential elections due at the end of the year. This however does not rule out forceful reactions against China by the United States
In the mid-term perspective China could be expected to initiate programs to upgrade and put on fast-track its build-up of its Air Force and Navy combat assets. Accretions to its nuclear weapons arsenal are a distinct possibility as China is not a party to any Strategic Arms Limitation regimes. Cyber warfare capabilities will be enhanced.
In the long term perspective but yet running concurrently with the above would be China’s efforts to build up its Space Warfare capabilities.
A significant point of note is that China has stupendous financial resources to fast-track its military capabilities to match US accretions in the Asia Pacific and continue to make the costs of any US military intervention against China that much more prohibitive.
China has made rapid strides in electronic warfare and cyber-warfare and many analysts suggest that China could inflict a “Electronic Pearl Harbour” on the United States to blunt and pre-empt United States offensives against China.
Notably President Obama has exempted the Asia Pacific theatre from any troop cuts or budgetary cuts. On the contrary accretions are going to take place from the drawbacks from Afghanistan and Iraq.
China can be expected to indulge in a greater resort to political and military brinkmanship with the United States and its Allies in which miscalculations can end up in open conflict when a severe strategic “trust deficit” exists of each other’s intentions exist.
On balance while the military superiority is tilted towards the United States, it can be expected that China would attempt a push-back against the United States containment of China.
Overall, the notable observation I want to make is that inherent in the new US strategy is to inflict an “Arms Race” on China as the United States inflicted on the Former Soviet Union in the earlier Cold War and put it out of business of challenging United States global leadership and military superiority.
This viewpoint stands aptly summed up by Michael Kramer, a Defence Correspondent who has asserted that “In a move that could prove as momentous—and dangerous—as President Truman’s 1947 decision to initiate a Cold War with the Soviet Union. President Obama has chosen to commence a military buildup in the Asia Pacific region aimed at reasserting US primacy and constraining China”