China's Near-Seas Challenges

January 13, 2014 Topic: DefenseGreat PowersSecurity Regions: China

China's Near-Seas Challenges

Mini Teaser: A threat to stability—for now.

by Author(s): Andrew S. Erickson

These events demand American reflection on the unintended consequences that the use of force can have. As a prominent Chinese policy expert once told this author, “The problem with you Americans is that you go off and hit someone but then forget that you did it. Later, you wonder why they remain reluctant to become close friends with you.” In this sense, China’s ASBM development constitutes in part a reaction to actual U.S. force deployments in the 1990s. A negative reaction, to be sure, but hardly surprising.

BROAD-BASED CHINESE ASBM development since then suggests that China will continue to make great progress on the infrastructure supporting these missiles. China enjoys a formidable science and technology base, and can be expected to devote considerable resources and expertise to “keep out” weapons development. An emerging network of air- and space-based sensors promises to radically improve PLA targeting. The DF-21D’s C4ISR infrastructure is already sufficient to support basic carrier-targeting capabilities.

Beijing is likely seeking to influence strategic communications regarding ASBMs, with its exact motives unclear. However, it seems most likely that China’s significant and growing ASBM capability could be part of a larger pattern in which Beijing is becoming increasingly “translucent” (if still not fully transparent) regarding selected capabilities in order to enhance deterrence.

China must have conducted a rigorous program of tests sufficient to demonstrate that the DF-21D is mature enough for initial production, deployment and employment. This has likely entailed a variety of flight tests, albeit not yet fully integrated over water—perhaps because of a desire to avoid embarrassing failures. Moreover, manifold challenges may limit the ASBM’s tactical and strategic utility. Data fusion, bureaucratic coordination and “jointness” remain key limitations.

For the first time since the 1920s, the United States thus faces a direct threat to the platform that has represented the core of its power projection: the aircraft carrier group. Already, U.S. decision makers must face the possibility that China might decide to use ASBMs in the unfortunate event of conflict, and that they might be able to strike and disable one or more aircraft carriers.

When it comes to targeting a carrier, there will not be a sharp red line between initial operational capability and full operational capability. This is part of a larger analytical challenge in which Chinese “hardware” continues to improve dramatically, but the caliber of the “software” supporting and connecting it remains uncertain and untested in war.

China’s present focus on developing potent capabilities to use—or, preferably, to threaten the use of—military force to resolve disputes in its favor in the near seas jeopardizes stability and important international norms in a critical area of the global commons. Beijing seeks not a global Soviet-style military presence, but rather to carve out the near seas and the airspace above them as a zone within which existing global legal, security and resource-management norms are subordinated to Chinese interests. That would be a loss for the world: these are the same standards that ensure the global system operates openly and effectively, for the security and prosperity of all. Beijing wants to use this zone to address China’s historical grievances and rise again as a great power that commands its neighbors’ deference.

While Beijing emphasizes cooperation, it continues to insist on acknowledgment of its sovereignty as a precondition for joint resource development in disputed areas. China’s rapid, broad-based development of maritime law enforcement (MLE) forces, now coalescing as a unified coast guard, is giving it a broad spectrum of regional coverage, signaling and escalation options. As the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff demonstrated, the Philippines was handicapped in its interaction with China by not having an equivalent to China’s MLE vessels that it could deploy. Indeed, the United States itself faces a challenge in responding to China’s assertiveness with civilian “white hulls,” as the majority of its forces in the region are naval “gray hulls.” This leaves Washington with difficult alternatives: Should it risk escalating an already-sensitive situation, or appear acquiescent to bullying behavior? Facilitating development of China’s neighbors’ MLE forces could help limit Chinese coercion while reducing the risk of escalation.

While substantial Sino-American cooperation is already possible—and in most cases highly desirable—regarding many global issues, particularly those involving commerce and nontraditional security threats, there is at present regrettably little hope of reaching an effective, durable understanding on traditional security issues in China’s immediate backyard.

GROWING CHALLENGES stand in the way of China fulfilling its objectives in the near seas and shifting emphasis to safeguarding growing overseas interests and resource imports through “far seas” operations. First, China insists on preconditions involving recognition of its sovereignty over disputed claims that its neighbors are unlikely to accept. It is difficult to see how Beijing can hope to realize its objectives anytime soon over its neighbors’ growing opposition and Washington’s continued commitment to preserving regional peace. Second, overseas objectives lack strategic coherence, limiting support for military approaches. This is especially true as the U.S. provides substantial global-commons security gratis.

Even larger factors are in play, however. More basic Chinese security achievements could come undone. While China’s continental neighbors remain reluctant to disrupt its borders, even cross-Strait integration—however unlikely to happen rapidly—portends complex historical-political questions that could convulse Chinese society. Then there is the continued question of stability in China’s hinterlands, particularly given increasing cross-border trade and international religious and ethnocultural currents. Yet even in China’s core homeland territory, a wide range of domestic challenges could rapidly rise to the fore. China faces profound environmental damage, resource constraints, worsening health problems, corruption and income inequality—all issues that greatly concern even the most nationalistic Han citizens. Chinese leaders themselves acknowledge these problems’ existence and importance.

Yet the tools available to meet these challenges may be increasingly limited. As the work of American political scientist Robert Gilpin demonstrates, great powers typically follow an “S-curved” growth trajectory. Initially, national consolidation and infrastructure construction, combined with competitive labor costs, unleash rapid economic development. The resulting increases in economic, military and political power facilitate domestic consensus and international influence. Eventually, however, internal inefficiencies and external overextension slow growth. It is fashionable to trace such patterns in American power, but observers are only just beginning to appreciate how this type of analysis might apply to China. While Beijing—to its credit—has studiously avoided Moscow’s Cold War military overstretch, domestically it faces rent-seeking behavior, aging, rising labor costs and growing welfare demands.

Moreover, unlike other nations, China is already facing such headwinds long before it has achieved high per capita income, comprehensive welfare programs or an innovative, high-efficiency economy that can absorb rapid cost increases generated by temporary or permanent resource scarcity. Demographics represent one of China’s most intractable growth challenges: three decades of a largely enforced one-child policy combined with one of history’s largest, most dramatic urbanization efforts make it virtually impossible for China’s already-low birthrate to recover. That leaves transition to a consumption-driven economy as one of the few conceivable ways to sustain rapid growth. Achieving this new growth model will require significant economic reforms, however, and it remains to be seen how politically entrenched vested interests can be made to yield.

WITH THESE gathering challenges come both risks and opportunities. One risk is that Beijing will seek to compensate for waning economic achievements by bolstering its one other major source of popular legitimacy: nationalism. While China’s leaders are unlikely to seek diversionary war, fanning historical grievances and pursuing diversionary tension vis-à-vis its near-seas claims may be a real temptation. Efforts at deterrence themselves, however envisioned, can have significant strategic consequences; “defensiveness” is in the eye of the beholder. Disturbingly, authoritative PLA sources reveal overconfidence in China’s ability to control escalation. Close encounters between Chinese and foreign military platforms could readily produce an accident, yielding at best a crisis harming all parties involved. That is one of the reasons why Washington must continue to play its role of maintaining its presence and preserving the peace.

From the perspective of the United States and many of China’s neighbors, Beijing has voiced concerns about regional tensions but maintained that it is always other parties that must make concessions to reduce them. China’s leaders are motivated at least in part by genuine domestic pressure, which is fueled in turn by China’s meteoric rise and corresponding expectations. Why agree to something today when you will be much stronger tomorrow? Chinese citizens and officials alike show signs of expecting treatment based not only on how strong their nation is today, but also on how strong it is projected to be in the future. Yet no economy is permanently immune to the business cycle, and rare is the straight-line projection that is proven in practice. No matter how capably managed, China cannot defy the laws of economics.

An abnormally weak China became vulnerable to invasion and humiliation two centuries ago, and it is understandable that its people have spent decades ensuring that this unjust history can never be repeated. From now on, however, achieving the great-power status to which China understandably aspires will hinge largely on what it provides the world, not what it demands from it. Receiving the recognition China craves requires embracing reciprocity and a “responsible stakeholder” mentality. A popular movie says this better than any demarche: with great power comes great responsibility. There are direct implications for China’s fulfillment of its hierarchy of priorities: absent military contests with other nations, defense of Chinese citizens, assets and imports from substate malefactors and natural disasters is readily achievable and affordable. Other nations might even be willing to help toward this end as Beijing might desire.

Image: Pullquote: Allowing Beijing to use force, or even the threat of force, to alter the regional status quo would have a number of pernicious effects.Essay Types: Essay