How China Sees America's Moves in Asia: Worse Than Containment

"For American strategists, the realization that rivalry discourse has become conventional wisdom and even modish in China may prompt some due self-reflection." 

Editor’s Note: The following is part three of a new occasional series named “Dragon Eye” which seeks insight and analysis from Chinese writings on world affairs. Part one of the series, “What Does China Really Think About the Ukraine Crisis?” can be found here. Part two of the series, “The World’s Most Dangerous Rivalry: China and Japan” can be found here.

As President Obama prepares to embark once more on a trip to the Middle Kingdom, it will be worthwhile to reflect on the condition of this all-important bilateral relationship. Specialists and senior diplomats are fond of discussing the tremendous breadth of U.S.-Chinese interactions, most of which are not in the military sphere and are generally positive. This is, needless to say, the most massive trading relationship on the globe, after all. Then, there are American NBA teams playing exhibition games in China and getting plenty of attention from an adoring Chinese fan base. Less glamorous, but likely of much greater significance is the very extensive set of scientific collaborations that has been initiated in the domain of green energy.

And yet, we should all be amply disturbed by the obviously unstable military competition now coming into full view in U.S.-Chinese relations. It’s all well and good to describe the relations as having cooperative and competitive dynamics—akin to a couple of scrappy boys on the playground, right? Wrong. As these two “chums” are playing the “game” of geopolitics, one of them could easily brandish a switch-blade with untold consequences for international security. As the Ukraine crisis starkly revealed earlier this year, international politics is not a playground.

Putting U.S.-Chinese relations on a stronger foundation—a conspicuous failure of the current administration’s foreign policy—will require a more thorough understanding of Chinese strategy and especially perceptions. This is not a matter of more dialogue, or of closely reading China’s defense white paper. Nor is the anodyne and ambiguous terminology employed by diplomats particularly helpful. Understanding the perceptions of Chinese national-security elites requires a frequent “look under the hood” of U.S.-Chinese relations.

Here, a single, representative Chinese academic article is discussed in detail for its utility in gauging the state of contemporary U.S.-Chinese relations. The article entitled “On the U.S. Restriction of Chinese Sea Power in the Post-Cold War Era” was published as the lead article in the summer 2014 edition of the journal 东北亚论坛 [Northeast Asia Forum]. This is hardly China’s most significant foreign-policy publication, and its authors cannot be counted among Beijing’s foreign-policy elite.

And yet that may suggest its potential to cut through the cloud of opaque argumentation that often envelops the Chinese capital. Two of the three writers are from prominent military academies (army and air force), while the third is a researcher at the prestigious Zhejiang University. As the lead article in the journal, it must be assumed that the editorial staff regarded the article as innovative and significant, suggesting even that these authors could be representative of China’s future national-security decision makers.

The authors argue that the United States has become the most significant factor restricting the further development of Chinese sea power. They explain that sea power is at the core of American grand strategy and that China’s rapid rise is perceived in Washington to threaten the U.S. position of hegemonic leadership in the Western Pacific. These perceptions have given rise to “doubts and wariness” regarding China’s naval development.    

For these authors, China does not just confront “遏制” [containment] by the United States, but something perhaps even more bellicose: “围堵”[a condition of being under siege] or even “掣肘”[a condition of being held by the elbows]. For the purpose of restricting Chinese naval power in the eastern, southern and western flanks, Washington is said to be constructing a “超长防线”[super long line of defense] that stretches from the Aleutian Islands to the Persian Gulf.

As noted above, this analysis puts a focus on three different vectors of U.S. activity. In the South China Sea, it is observed that over the last few years, the United States has begun to “directly contain” Chinese sea-power development. In that regard, the recent deployment of the new littoral combat ship (LCS) to Singapore is seen as deliberately aimed at countering China. These analysts outline the importance of Washington’s so-called “双锚”[dual anchor] strategy that seeks to facilitate enhanced military cooperation between Australia and Japan. Another vector of U.S. strategy, according to this analysis, concerns Taiwan. The island is said to form a critical strategic linkage to the South China Sea and its role in U.S. strategy is said to be increasing.