The Buzz

China: Sharpening Swords for War?

From a realist’s geopolitical perspective, the United States needs to keep eyes on global hot spots with concentrations of power that could adversely affect American national interests.  Of the three geographic centers of global power today, two are engulfed in war while the third is on the war’s precipice.  In Europe, Russia has returned to its quest for global power with its steely paramilitary and military disembowelment of Ukraine.  Moscow’s aggression now looms over other states in Europe, especially the Baltic states and Poland.  In the Middle East, the Islamic State has lurched onto the international scene with a bloody rampage that has torn apart Syria and Iraq.  The Islamic State looks ready is to expand and spill more blood along the borders of Jordan and Turkey and in Kurdish areas in Iraq, notwithstanding the American and international coalition air campaign against the jihadists.

In Asia, China has not yet shed any blood in war.  But a read of Robert Haddick’s new book Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific painstakingly shows through his level-headed, scholarly, and realist analysis that Beijing is sharpening its swords for war while Washington is distracted by chaos elsewhere.  Haddick rightly judges that the United States “acting as an outside balancer, has played the central role in East Asia’s security, a responsibility that has boosted the prosperity of all.  But just like Europe a century ago, it is doubtful that Asia, left on its own, could shape a stable balance of power in the face of China’s dramatic rise.”

Haddick is deliberate and measured and “calls it as he sees it,” which is a tone to be welcomed in the often ideological debates on China’s future in international security.  Nevertheless, with his formidable political-military expertise Haddick makes a damning case that China is wielding astute diplomacy and building-up its military forces to exploit weaknesses in American military force projection capabilities into the Asian theater.  China has diplomatically labored to settle numerous land disputes with neighbors.  As Haddick tallies the diplomatic score, “Since 1998 China settled eleven lingering land border disputes with six of its neighbors, steps that removed security friction from potential overland threats.”  China’s $400 billion deal to buy gas from Russia signed in May 2014 and its economic development agreements signed with India in September 2014 bolster Haddick’s assessment that Beijing is shoring-up relations with land border states.

Settling border disputes allows Beijing to turn and focus its geopolitical attention to the sea.  China is using a paramilitary maritime force to place footholds on disputed islands and assert hegemony in the East and South China Seas.  Haddick observes a disturbing contrast in behavior.  While China has settled land disputes, “it has accelerated its demands for its maritime claims in the East and South China Seas.” China is playing a shrewd “salami tactics” game with assertive actions that taken in isolation fall short of cause for war, but collectively and over time significantly expand Chinese influence and coercion in Asia.

China couples its paramilitary maritime operations with a substantial build-up of military power for deterring and attacking American carrier battle groups.  Haddick’s book details that the Chinese are growing land-based and space-based systems for detecting and targeting American battle groups, as well as building surface ships and attack submarines for firing anti-ship cruise missiles.  All of these Chinese naval capabilities are designed to push American naval access beyond some 2,000 km from China’s coastline.  

Chinese military capabilities to deny the United States the ability to operate fixed-wing aircraft add to the formidable threats to American forces in the region.  As Haddick judges, “China’s Flanker fighter-bombers present a particular challenge to the United States and its allies because of their relatively long combat radius.  The Flanker variants have an unrefueled combat radius of at least 1,500 kilometers.  Five of the six U.S. air bases in the western Pacific (two in South Korea, three in Japan) lie within the combat radius of China’s Flankers.”  China’s increasingly sophisticated and thickening air defenses, moreover, significantly increases the potential costs for American aircraft to hold at risk military assets on the Chinese mainland.

The Chinese are unconstrained in building-up their ballistic and cruise missile capabilities as the United States is by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.  Washington and Moscow signed the INF Treaty that bans land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km.  China is churning out ballistic missiles and cruise missiles to increasingly hold at risk regional airbases that host American short-range fighters.  This is a particularly unnerving situation for the United States because Russia has been violating the terms of the INF Treaty by testing prohibited cruise missiles.

On top of conventional military capabilities to deny American military access, the Chinese are fielding unconventional capabilities to deter American military intervention.  They are broadening their anti-satellite and cyber warfare capabilities that could be harnessed to disable American command, control, communications, and intelligence.  The Chinese too are modernizing their strategic nuclear forces to include mobile land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles—the likes of which the United States does not have in its nuclear triad—and submarine-based nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.  

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