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.
The Chinese are resolved to never again be intimidated by American conventional and strategic forces as they were during the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. While that crisis in the minds of American—if they even know about it—was a mere footnote in American security policy history, it was a watershed event for the Chinese. Haddick judges that “China’s military modernization program, begun in earnest after PLA planners carefully studied the results of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, has been specifically designed to exploit vulnerabilities in U.S. force structure, doctrine, and planning. Assumptions that U.S. commanders had long taken for granted will no longer be operative by the end of the decade.” Americans—with our sweeping demands to watch the globe to protect interests—are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition with Chinese who have a tighter basket of security interests upon which they can focus their strategic energies.
Haddick persuasively rejects an “offshore balancing” strategy for the United States in the Pacific and strenuously argues for a “forward presence.” In his analysis, “Offshore balancing would not only increase the likelihood that the United States would have to return during a conflict to restore stability (because without a U.S. forward presence, the likelihood of major power conflict rises), the strategy ensures that the U.S. would have to do so under very unfavorable circumstances.” Haddick hastens to add that “The U.S. forward presence strategy in the Asia-Pacific region is not charity work. The United States has performed this task for seven decades in order to protect U.S. security, to avert more costly great-power wars that would inevitably involve the United States, and to bolster America’s standard of living by promoting the security and growth of its trading partners in the region.”
Haddick’s assessment of how the American military would fare in battle against this tsunami of growing Chinese military capabilities is devastating. His analysis should break all the china (pun intended) of American military services whose procurement priorities focus on fighting the last wars. As Haddick captures the problem, “Simply put, military doctrine, long-ingrained service cultures, and defense acquisition practices have resulted in U.S. military forces that are far too heavily weighted toward short-range weapons systems unsuited for the vast operational distances in East Asia.” The navy is fixated on increasingly vulnerable aircraft carriers. The air force is preoccupied with short-range and exorbitantly expensive short-range fighters. The marines are struggling to find the means to mount amphibious assaults in an era in which cruise missiles can sink marines afloat long before they get anywhere close to a beach. And the army is largely AWOL in thinking about the future of warfare in Asia.
American policymakers and military planners need to rapidly and drastically rethink strategy for Asia, as well as the national means needed to fulfill it. Haddick calls for “a broad range of persuasive and dissuasive capabilities—diplomatic, economic, and military (irregular and conventional)—designed to convince China’s leaders that they will achieve no gains in the region from coercion. The strategy will do this by threatening to impose costs, creating resistance to coercive Chinese gains, and holding at risk assets and conditions valued by China’s leaders.” Haddick stresses that his recommended strategy relies on a hefty mix of long-range striking platforms and differs markedly from the navy-air force “Air-Sea Battle” concept because his does not call for first-strikes on China’s reconnaissance and command systems. Nor does Haddick expect American forward bases to be useful after war breaks out or American surface ships to operate for sustained periods within Chinese ballistic missile ranges.
Fire on the War provides superb political-military analysis unencumbered by the interests of the armed services, national security bureaucracies, and defense industries. It is an insightful and constructive contribution to better inform American decision-making, policy, military procurement, and, yes indeed, war planning for China. This book should be placed on the top of the reading stacks for anyone, from informed citizens, to students, faculty, military commanders, and policy makers, who want to get smart fast on the acute challenges for American security policy in Asia. Above all, Robert Haddick provides a great public and national service by warning those of us distracted by global crises in Europe and the Middle East of China’s strategically impressive and ominous sharpening of political and military swords in Asia.