Keeping Up with China's PLAN
China has also expanded defense cooperation with Southeast Asian countries. In 2015 China and Malaysia held their first joint military exercise, and in 2017 they established a high-level defense committee to expand cooperation. In 2017 China and ASEAN agreed to hold their first region-wide naval exercise. Chinese-led naval exercises pale in comparison to the size and sophistication of U.S.-led exercises, but they are part of a larger trend of region-wide security cooperation with China.
The only steadfast U.S. ally in East Asia is Japan; it is the only country that has resisted the pull of Chinese power and more closely aligned with the United States. But given the contrasting long-term trajectories in Chinese and Japanese demography, economics and military spending, Japan cannot contribute to balancing Chinese power.
Faced with China’s challenge to U.S. alliances and naval superiority in East Asian seas, the U.S. Navy seeks greater cooperation with Japan, India and Australia in its “Indo-Pacific strategy.” Japan, India and Australia cannot help balance Chinese naval power, but the U.S. Navy requires access to air and naval facilities far from China’s mainland and secure from Chinese missiles and submarines. It is expanding the range of its aircraft to enable naval operations far from the South China Sea. U.S. defense strategy is adjusting to the rise of the Chinese navy.
TRENDS IN U.S. politics and economics suggest that America’s decline in the maritime balance of power will deepen over the next decade. The U.S. Navy is committed in two years to operating 60 percent of its ships in East Asia, but this will be 60 percent of a shrinking fleet. Moreover, the Navy is already significantly stressed by its current responsibilities in East Asia, and requires more ships to sustain its current level of operations. It has established an independent agency to monitor the fleet’s training, readiness and standards, and has imposed regulations to ensure that sailors get sufficient rest.
Over the next decades, to meet the Chinese navy’s challenge to U.S. regional security, the U.S. Navy will have to concentrate 70 to 80 percent of a smaller fleet to East Asia, so that it will not be able to sustain a significant naval presence in the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. The new U.S.-China balance of power will challenge American security interests and regional stability, not just in East Asia, but throughout the world.
China faces severe economic difficulties that will challenge its ability to sustain its rise. Its economic growth has declined from 10 percent per year to less than 7 percent per year. It has yet to reform the party-controlled financial system, and its national debt is approaching 300 percent of GDP and continuing to grow. At the recent Nineteenth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping called for greater party control over the economy and strengthening of state-owned enterprises. Rather than enhancing the role of market, China is retreating from the market economy.
But China will not have a crash landing. The Chinese Communist Party will prop up the banks and the state-owned industries. The decline of the Chinese economy will be a protracted process. Over the next ten to twenty years, China will continue to increase naval spending and strengthen its capabilities vis-à-vis the United States. The United States cannot count on China’s increasingly dysfunctional economic system to rescue U.S. security in East Asia.
Without a radical and improbable restructuring of the U.S. federal budget or defense budget, current trends in the East Asian balance of power will continue and the United States’ ability to contend with the Chinese navy will diminish. In these circumstances, proposals for how to deter China, contain China or balance the rise of China and how to strengthen U.S. alliances are illusionary. Rather than hold on to outdated notions of U.S. preeminence, the United States will have to adjust to the new balance of power in East Asia.
Robert S. Ross is a professor of political science at Boston College and an associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University. His research focuses on Chinese security policy and East Asian security, including the rise of China, Chinese use of force and U.S.-China relations.