Friday, 10 July 2009

Is China A Threat?

Keeping with the July/ August 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, there is an interesting article by Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. on ‘The Pentagon’s Wasting Assets’, which is more appropriately subtitled ‘The Eroding Foundations of American Power’. In many ways, this develops the thinking touched upon in the past two posts. First, we asked the question ‘When Is China not China’ to start to think about the expansion of Chinese territorial limits (see post). We then expressed the view that, in its future dealings with the US, the US would need Chinese co-operation more than the Chinese would need US co-operation (see post). This article moves the thinking along a bit further by asking what the Chinese government would need to do in order to limit US military power in East Asia.

According to Mr Krepinevich:

The intended message to the United States and its East Asian allies and partners is clear: China has the means to put at risk the forward bases from which most U.S. strike aircraft must operate. Area-denial capabilities are aimed at restricting the U.S. Navy's freedom of action from China's coast out to "the second island chain" -- a line of islands that extends roughly from the southeastern edge of Japan to Guam…

The implications of these efforts are clear. East Asian waters are slowly but surely becoming another potential no-go zone for U.S. ships, particularly for aircraft carriers, which carry short-range strike aircraft that require them to operate well within the reach of the PLA's A2/AD systems if they want remain operationally relevant. The large air bases in the region that host the U.S. Air Force's short-range strike aircraft and support aircraft are similarly under increased threat.

Just suppose that this is true. Does it matter? It is by no means clear that an expansion of Chinese influence out to the First Island Chain would be the cause of conflict. We know that there are issues surrounding Taiwan that need a long term resolution. However, the current policy of not bringing matters to a head whilst encouraging a convergence of interests between China and Taiwan seems to be working well. Conflict will only result if one sides reads the actions of the other side in this way.

This is where I part company with Mr Krepinevich. Can we assume that U.S. taxpayers are willing and able to provide a security umbrella to East Asia for an unspecified period into the future? many think not. If that umbrella is taken away, who will guarantee peace and stability in the region? China seems to be an obvious candidate. In which case, it seems to me that a logical process of engagement would be to recruit China into the international community as a partner, recognise that China has strategic issues of its own, and use the willingness of the Chinese Government to act as a peace-keeper in the region.

If we were to do this, then China would be seen less as a peer-to-peer threat and more as a willing ally who is prepared to pull their weight when it comes to the defence burden in the region.

The Pentagon's Wasting Assets Foreign Affairs


HorizonWatching said...

Stephen, you've posted a number of very interesting writeups on China. We do live in very interesting times. I remember when Nixon made his visits to China as President. That was really my first exposure to China. So much has happened since then. And if you fast forward another 30-40 years we can imagine so much more progress being made by China. There is no question that China is a threat to those countries that have held a position of power in the international community since WWII.

But I always try to think of the positive side to everything. So I would advice the developed economies of the world to look at the opportunities that are available as China, the sleeping giant, continues to awake. 100 years from now, they will have so much talent, innovation, and goods/services to offer us all. We all need to find a way to embrace that future....

Stephen Aguilar-Millan said...

Dear Bill,

Without a doubt, you are right to point out that China will present a number of interesting opportunities in the coming decades. The challenge to 'the West' will be how to engage those opportunities to the mutual benefit of everyone.

What I am currently doing is flexing out a few arguments that I am looking to develop in a book that I intend to write this winter. At present I am developing a base hypothesis, which is, as yet, not fully formulated.

Many thanks for your comment.

Best wishes,