Why the Pentagon Fears China's Growing Military Might
Speaking about Chinese challenges to the international norms in the South China Sea, Mattis said the U.S. has "a deep and abiding commitment to reinforcing the rules-based international order.
Political tea-leaf reading aside, China is remaining very much in the U.S. military radar for issues in the Western Pacific.
Any doubt of U.S. continued concerns over China were dispelled earlier this month – first with comments by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis June 3 during the Shangri-La Dialogue at the International Institute for Strategic Studies' annual Asia security conference in Singapore.
Speaking about Chinese challenges to the international norms in the South China Sea, Mattis said the U.S. has "a deep and abiding commitment to reinforcing the rules-based international order. These efforts grew out of lessons learned the hard way, from economic depression and catastrophic wars.”
"The order is based on principles that were embraced by nations trying to create a better world,” he said.
Essential to that rule-based order, and essential to economic health globally, according to Mattis, is freedom of navigation in the region, which must be protected.
“Because of its growing economic power, China occupies a position of influence in the Pacific," Mattis said. "We welcome China's economic development. However, we can also anticipate economic and political friction between the United States and China."
While competition between the United States and China is bound to occur, he said, "conflict is not inevitable."
However, taking aim at Chinese reclamation, island-building and militarization of the waters in the Western Pacific, he said, "We oppose countries militarizing artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law. We cannot and will not accept unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo. We will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and demonstrate resolve through operational presence in the South China Sea and beyond. Our operations throughout the region are an expression of our willingness to defend both our interests and the freedoms enshrined in international law."
China's claim in the South China Sea needs to be handled peacefully and through negotiations, not by island-building and placing weaponry on the resulting dry land, Mattis said.
"We seek a constructive, results-oriented relationship with China," he said. "We believe the United States can engage China diplomatically and economically.”
The Pentagon followed up Mattis’ comments last week with its “Annual Report to Congress Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017,” in which the Defense Department notes the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) morphing strategy and steps taken in the past year to achieve some of its goals.
“In 2015, the PLA National Defense University published the latest version of ‘Science of Strategy,’ an overview of the PLA’s concept of military strategy,” the report notes. “The new version not only shares broad similarities with other recent authoritative publications, but it also highlights the PLA’s growing emphasis on the importance of the maritime domain, the PLAAF’s (PLA Air Force) shift towards more offensive operations, long-distance mobility operations of the PLA Army (PLAA), space and cyber operations, and the need for China’s military to be capable of securing growing overseas national interests.”
Last year, the Pentagon notes, the PLA certified the Zhurihe Opposing Force, a special unit used to simulate live opposition in major training events – a major augmentation of the sophistication levels of its exercises.
Furthermore, the Pentagon reports, “In May 2016, a large PLAN (PLA Navy) task force conducted an extensive deployment through the South China Sea, eastern Indian Ocean, and Western Pacific Ocean. The force conducted island assault training in the Spratly Islands and maritime interdiction training in the Indian Ocean before linking up to conduct an opposition-force exercise in the Philippine Sea. The deployment demonstrated the PLAN’s growing capability to coordinate operations involving disparate subordinate elements over a wide area.”
In August, the PLAN conducted an opposition-force exercise in the Sea of Japan between a distant-seas task group and another task group returning from the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise., the Pentagon says. PLAN Aviation bombers flew through the Sea of Japan for the first time as part of this training.
In September, PLAAF bombers, fighters, and early warning aircraft flew through the Bashi Channel into the Philippine Sea, the Pentagon points out “marking China’s first fighter deployment to the area. Less than two weeks later, the PLAAF deployed more than 40 aircraft to the East China Sea and through the Miyako Strait into the Philippine Sea in its most complex long-distance strike training to date.”
The Pentagon says, “China is expanding its access to foreign ports to pre-position the necessary logistics support to regularize and sustain deployments in the “far seas,” waters as distant as the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, and Atlantic Ocean. In February 2016, China began construction of a military base in Djibouti and probably will complete it within the next year. China claims this facility is designed “to help the navy and army further participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations (PKO), carry out escort missions in the waters near Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, and provide humanitarian assistance.” This initiative, along with regular naval vessel visits to foreign ports, both reflects and amplifies China’s growing influence, extending the reach of its armed forces.”