The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) hosted a two-day forum about China, its socioeconomic state, and its role in world affairs. One of the main areas of interest and concern is whether China’s economic and military rise threatens America’s national interests. VOC invited three experts, Dr. Yu Maochun, professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, Dr. Christopher Ford, Chief Investigative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, and Dr. Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, to discuss whether they thought China is going to challenge American interests in the region–all three said yes.
Dr. Maochun started off by saying that U.S. interests in Asia are maintaining peace and security in the region. Whether we like it or not, the United States has been acting in a world’s policeman capacity for the better part of the 20th century. In Asia, the enforcement of that role hasn’t been unilateral, but a complex web of alliances that keep the region stable. Dr. Maochun listed the Japan-South Korea-American alliance as the one that best captures this web. China’s goal is to disrupt this multilateral arrangement.
So far, China has succeeded in muddying the relationship between Japan and South Korea, who just recently held “two-plus-two” talks with their respective foreign and defense ministers for the first time in five years.
Yet, it’s not just these two countries; China is hard on all of the U.S.’s east Asian allies, said Dr. Maochun, especially Japan and the Philippines.
Concerning global commerce, freedom of navigation is key. That is a national security priority for the U.S. in the region. Now, China isn’t going to reach parity with the United States militarily. That would take decades. The U.S. has the largest navy in the world, unrivaled when it comes to our aircraft carrier fleet, and better technological advancements in weaponry. China is instead looking for unconventional ways to disrupt U.S. capabilities. One of them is having the ability to shoot down high-altitude satellites, which the American military is dependent on for its operations. Russia isn’t too far behind on having that same capability as well. Yet, Maochun added that the Chinese are eons ahead when it comes to cyber warfare.
Dr. Ford went further into the psyche of the Chinese state, warning that a rather virulent jingoistic nationalism is inherent within the minds of the country’s governing body regarding the advancement of their global return agenda. He noted that the Chinese Communist Party seeks to return to the prestige the country once had, ending the period, where they feel, was dotted by having their power and global standing being taken away. This “status centrality,” as Ford said, is coupled with the notion that the country really isn’t accustomed to the dynamics and dialogue associated with international affairs. In doing so, that means China could be characterized as a wealthy, but cranky neighbor.
Now, there isn’t a detailed white paper on this agenda. It’s not locked in a safety deposit box somewhere in Beijing, as Ford noted in his remarks. Instead, it’s a vague amalgam of concepts rather than a concrete plan. One that’s partially outlined from China’s history, especially the Zhou Dynasty, where the country was ruled by an oligarchic/meritocratic, scholarly class. Some historians have described it as China’s golden age. In its drive for acceptance–and the craving of status–China remains uncertain about it capabilities in dealing with their domestic and international woes. The fact that China warns foreigners from insulting the Chinese state in any way, shape, or form seems to be a symptom of that insecurity.
Regarding Cold War dynamics, Ford noted that China doesn’t want Soviet-style world domination, but possibly a neo-imperialist attitude towards its smaller neighboring states. Dr. Maochun noted that China has six of seven maritime neighbors–and has had disputes with all of them.
Ford ended by saying that if we accept a Marxist-Leninist marketplace, an oligarchic meritocracy, and the Communist Party being the mouthpiece for international relations, then the chances that the U.S. and China come into conflict could increase.
Dr. Auslin mentioned how there’s been maneuvering from Washington and Beijing that has made the possibility of conflict more likely than they did 15 years ago. He added that the China-U.S. debate is part of the larger debate regarding the breakdown of the international system from the post-World War II era: is it breaking down or is China causing it to breakdown? Moreover, is the United States in decline and how that will impact the international system?
Circling back to China, Auslin recollected a flight he took to China with a senior State Department official, who had worked on integrating China into the arena of world affairs for decades, noting that the country had morphed into an aggrieve, coercive, and adventurous character. They’re richer, more powerful, and yet they’re not us, or everything we thought they would become once they sharked their way up the diplomatic food chain.
There’s also the fear that both nations could shatter their mirror image of themselves. That is to say one day both countries might not see each other as necessary for one’s shared economic interest, but as enemies–and begin to act toward one another in that way.
The first vestiges of this can be seen in the South China Sea. Auslin warned that both nations were backing themselves in a corner, where the possibility to extricate themselves could be next to impossible. As Dr. Maochun noted about the freedom to navigate freely is in America’s national security priority, the South China Sea sees $5 trillion in trade pass through its waterways annually.
Over the past couple of years, China has built several man-made islands near the Spratly archipelago to prevent any challenges to China’s sovereignty in the region (via the Diplomat):
The United States and China are hurtling toward a showdown over Freedom of Navigation in the the South China Sea. The U.S. Navy is poised to sail near seven artificial islands China constructed in the Spratly archipelago over the past two years as a means to challenge any excessive or illegitimate Chinese sovereignty claims there. In Beijing, meanwhile, opposition to U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) around the artificial islands is hardening, as evidenced by the threat China’s state-run Xinhua news agency issued last week:
[America’s] provocative attempts to infringe on China’s South China Sea sovereignty are sabotaging regional peace and stability and militarizing the waters…China will never tolerate any military provocation or infringement on sovereignty from the United States or any other country, just as the United States refused to 53 years ago [during the Cuban Missile Crisis].
The commentary is troubling for several reasons. First, it continues a trend of increasingly confrontational and escalatory language. In May, Beijing was describing U.S. FONOPS around the artificial islands as “dangerous and irresponsible”; now they are an intolerable provocation and infringement on sovereignty. Second, as it was written in a state-owned Party mouthpiece, the article carries greater weight than the occasional caustic threat from a retired PLA general. Third, the language serves to further box China’s leaders into more hardline positions, restricting their options for de-escalation and compromise. Finally, it represents how close the U.S. and China are to a crisis that could have and should have been avoided.
China recently shadowed the U.S.S. Lassen, which was conducting a FONOP patrol.
Auslin concluded his remarks by saying that China is facing real societal problems, and that the scrapping of the one-child policy is indicative of that observation. The days of easy economic growth are over, so how will the Chinese system compensate? We see China, through a variety of ways, as a threat. What will happen if we begin to see the beginnings of a weaker China? Given the feelings about the loss of status and prestige, will the U.S. use this situation to press its advantage, or will a China lash out for fear of looking weaker?
Auslin mentioned the Thucydides Trap, which Graham Allison wrote about in a lengthy article for The Atlantic in September, which he disagreed with–but was somewhat ominous concerning the historical trends in the hypothesis. For starters, it mentioned that in the past 16 times where a rising power challenged an established one, bloodshed occurred. Second, it reiterated some of the points Ford made about China’s nationalistic tendencies, which Allison noted bordered on hubris. Third, and possibly the most interesting (and disturbing) aspect of international relations theory, is total anarchy. Anything can happen, which is exemplified in the Germany-UK naval arms race in the early 20th century. In this case, King Edward VII was disconcerted that the United Kingdom was becoming more adversarial to his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm, which led to Eyre Crow drafting a memo about why the king’s notion of challenging Germany instead of America made more sense.
In short, Allison noted that Crowe cited Germany’s economy, which was larger, and the fact that the country will muster a navy as powerful as it could afford. That threatened the British Empire, who like the U.S. saw navigation as a key national security priority. King Edward eventually died; George V, President Teddy Roosevelt, and Kaiser Wilhelm attended his funeral, where the president failed to diffuse the situation. Wilhelm was committed to a strong German navy, but added that war with the UK was “unthinkable.”
“I adore England,” exclaimed the Kaiser. Well, that all ended with the Battle of the Jutland. The Allison makes a compelling argument that same situation could be happening between the U.S. and China:
When Barack Obama meets this week with Xi Jinping during the Chinese president’s first state visit to America, one item probably won’t be on their agenda: the possibility that the United States and China could find themselves at war in the next decade. In policy circles, this appears as unlikely as it would be unwise.
And yet 100 years on, World War I offers a sobering reminder of man’s capacity for folly.
Based on the current trajectory, war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than recognized at the moment.
More than 2,400 years ago, the Athenian historian Thucydides offered a powerful insight: “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” Others identified an array of contributing causes of the Peloponnesian War. But Thucydides went to the heart of the matter, focusing on the inexorable, structural stress caused by a rapid shift in the balance of power between two rivals. Note that Thucydides identified two key drivers of this dynamic: the rising power’s growing entitlement, sense of its importance, and demand for greater say and sway, on the one hand, and the fear, insecurity, and determination to defend the status quo this engenders in the established power, on the other.
Last November, in a seminal meeting of the entire Chinese political and foreign-policy establishment, including the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army, Xi provided a comprehensive overview of his vision of China’s role in the world. The display of self-confidence bordered on hubris. Xi began by offering an essentially Hegelian conception of the major historical trends toward multipolarity (i.e. not U.S. unipolarity) and the transformation of the international system (i.e. not the current U.S.-led system). In his words, a rejuvenated Chinese nation will build a “new type of international relations” through a “protracted” struggle over the nature of the international order. In the end, he assured his audience that “the growing trend toward a multipolar world will not change.”
Graham also noted that China has surpassed the United States by virtually every economic metric.
On the other hand, in terms of the military, Dr. Maochun did make something very clear: the U.S military is far superior, especially our navy. China's navy has some weapons system, but it's a hodgepodge of old and new technology that's mostly from other countries. Ninety percent of the technology in some of China's latest new armaments is from the United States. Moreover, the feared DF-21D anti-aircraft carrier missile isn't the best. Maochun noted that the Russians have a better one, it's easy to track its location, and the doctrine behind it is dangerously stupid.
It involves viewing the U.S. as casualty-adverse, which is possibly derived from the American intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s, where we did pull out after 18 soldiers were killed in the Battle of Mogadishu that was captured in the book and film Black Hawk Down. China's policy is two-fold, create weapons to show the U.S. that waging a war against them is unwinnable, while also having some weird confidence that if they're able to take out a few American carriers in the instance of a war–the U.S. would withdraw. The Japanese thought that when they launched their attack on Pearl Harbor. It ended with the U.S. engaging in nuclear warfare. In other words, very, very poorly. So, in many ways, the Chinese don't know what they're talking about regarding military policy.
Still, is China a threat? You bet.