China May Be Rising, But America Is Not in Retreat

October 20, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaUnited StatesForeign PolicyDefenseCold War

China May Be Rising, But America Is Not in Retreat

Cold War–era Asia was a dangerous and often bloody place. But its alignments were predictable and its problems readily identifiable. No longer.


STILL, CHINA is thinking ahead and seeks to leverage its newfound economic power through the ambitious economic integration project, “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR). The overland portion will start in Xi’an and extend to Rotterdam, connecting Europe, Central Asia, Iran, Turkey and Russia, through multiple roads, railways, modernized ports and pipelines. The maritime complement will originate in Fuzhou, pass through the Straits of Malacca to Nairobi and Athens, and end in Venice. Beijing has earmarked $1 trillion to implement this initiative, which covers sixty-five countries, and seeks simultaneously to develop China’s interior and West, reduce its dependence on sea-lanes, and integrate the Chinese and Eurasian economies. Similar goals underlie other projects. Beijing has allocated $46 billion for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which will commence in Kasghar, traverse Pakistan from north to south and extend to Gwadar port (on Baluchistan’s coast), which China has been expanding and modernizing. Likewise, China has built pipelines—one for oil, another for gas—extending 2,400 kilometers from the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone in Rakhine State in western Myanmar, to Kunming in Yunnan province. Beijing also hopes to construct a deepwater port in Kyaukphyu, overlooking the Bay of Bengal.

The Russian Far East will also likely be pulled toward China economically, as well as politically. This 2.4-million-square-mile (nearly a quarter of America’s land area), resource-rich region shares a 2,600-mile border with China and is remote from Russia’s western centers of power. The adjoining three Chinese provinces (Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang) alone contain 109 million people. That compares to approximately 6.2 million individuals in the Russian Far East, about two million fewer than in 1991, with emigration accounting for a large chunk. Russian strategists understand the vulnerabilities presented by this mix of geography and demography. So does the Kremlin, which, amidst an increasing Chinese economic presence, has been providing Russians inducements, including land rights and even outright grants, to move east.

Even as Moscow looks to Chinese investment to develop its eastern extremity, it has positioned substantial forces in the Eastern Military District—the Thirty-Sixth Army, the Twenty-Ninth Army, the Thirty-Fifth Army and the Fifth Army, moving west to east. The September 2014 “Vostok” (east) maneuvers in the Eastern Military District, Russia’s largest, involved one hundred thousand troops. Of course, not all of these forces are deployed solely with China in mind; nevertheless, notwithstanding the Sino-Russian strategic partnership and convergent views on important international issues, Russia has been careful to hedge its bets and secure its vast eastern frontier.

China has also been spreading its influence on Russia’s southern flank. But in Central Asia, Russia remains a force to be reckoned with. Millions of Central Asian migrant laborers work in Russia and send remittances home. In 2014, before the plunge in oil prices took its toll, these remittances amounted to over $500 billion, accounting for between 16 and 52 percent of GDP in some countries. Moreover, Russia alone possesses the military means to project power into the region. It maintains bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Yet since the early 1990s, China has steadily undercut Russia’s position in this region, which Moscow annexed in the mid-nineteenth century and later incorporated into the Soviet Union. Since the collapse of the USSR, China’s economic presence in Russia’s historic backyard has soared. China replaced Russia as the key trade partner in the region as of 2009, with trade reaching $50 billion by 2014, compared to $35 billion for Russia. Since the five Central Asian states gained independence at the end of 1991, their trade with China has increased one hundredfold in dollar terms. The data on investment highlights this same Chinese ascendency. As recently as 2001, China had virtually no investment in Central Asia; by 2013 it had invested $50 billion, followed by a multibillion-dollar deal with Kazakhstan in 2015. Pipelines built and financed by Beijing that originate in Turkmenistan will convey up to fifty-five billion cubic meters of natural gas eastward, about one-third of China’s total consumption. This energy project will also liberate Turkmenistan from its once-total dependence on the pipelines of Gazprom, Russia’s energy behemoth. Russia remains Kazakhstan’s major route for oil exports via the 1,500-kilometer Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which runs west through Kazakh and Russian territory, terminating at the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. Still, the 2,600-kilometer Atyrau-Alashankou pipeline connecting Kazakhstan’s Atyrau field (on the Caspian Sea’s north shore) to Xinjiang could convey as much as four hundred thousand barrels a day to China.

The Russia-China “strategic partnership” gets considerable coverage, but given Russia’s various problems—an economy tethered to energy prices, a shrinking and aging population, and a public health crisis that corrodes its human capital—it will not be an effective partner in counterbalancing America and its allies in the long run. Russia, for its part, does not relish the prospect of becoming Beijing’s adjutant in a Pax Sinica, a sentiment evident in “Russia Strategy: 2020,” a 2012 study by a group of Russian experts, which rules out a lasting China-Russia alliance. As the balance of power continues to shift in the China’s favor, Russia may well hedge further and look to the West, making its current estrangement from Europe and the United States a passing phase.


CHINA’S GROWING power and assertiveness will trigger other new Asian alignments—ones starkly different than those of the Cold War—and changes in its strategic landscape. One of them will result from the slow change in the minimalist defense policy of Japan, which for a generation following World War II could count comfortably on America’s capacity to defend it against all major powers. Any dramatic changes in Tokyo’s national-security strategy spurred by China’s rise will perforce spark controversy and encounter resistance within Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pushed through legislation that permits Japan to participate in collective self-defense in its neighborhood (in particular, defending American forces that come under attack) and perhaps beyond.

In 2014, Tokyo ended the ban on military exports, which originated in 1967. In February 2016, Japan and the Philippines signed a defense-cooperation agreement. The lease by the Philippines of Japanese TC-90 maritime surveillance aircraft represented the first step in arms sales.

Japan has also deepened its ties with Vietnam, which, too, looks askance at China and has been embroiled with Beijing on disputes over the South China Sea. Since the early 1990s, Japan has expanded trade with Vietnam and increased its economic aid. The two states signed a security-cooperation accord in 2006, which was upgraded in 2014 to an “Extensive Strategic Partnership,” and commenced annual defense consultations in 2011. In 2016, Japan decided to supply Hanoi with used maritime patrol vessels. Vietnam, in turn, agreed to allow ships from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (the euphemism for its navy) to make port calls at Cam Ranh Bay.

These and other steps have already provoked opposition from Japan’s political class and citizenry. The crux is whether domestic opposition will be trumped by national-security exigencies created by the shift in the U.S.-China balance of power. Japan’s changing defense policy has already produced disquiet in certain regional capitals, particularly Beijing and Seoul. Tokyo will have to strike a balance between ensuring adequate deterrence against its adversaries, on the one hand, and reassuring its neighbors and building the domestic consensus required to beef up its military capacity, on the other.

The proposition that Japan’s defense posture and national-security strategy will remain frozen in place because of the potency of post–World War II pacifism amounts to oversimplification. Dramatic defense-policy changes have occurred repeatedly since the Tokugawa era, with external challenges playing a major role in initiating them. Given the size of its economy and its technological capabilities, a Japan that casts off minimalism could reshape Asia’s strategic landscape.

In the early 1990s, Asia’s other giant awoke from a twenty-five-year slumber. India, now poised to surpass China in population, has become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. As the pace of China’s economic expansion started to slow in 2014, India pulled even, recording a 7.4 percent growth rate. During the Cold War, the relationship between India and the United States was often distant, even frosty at times; in the post–Cold War years, Washington and New Delhi have steadily increased their military cooperation. The United States has since entered the Indian arms market, which the USSR virtually monopolized. During his 2010 visit to India, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would sign a nearly $5 billion defense deal with India. By 2014, India had become the second largest buyer of American weaponry, trailing only Saudi Arabia. Additional deals will doubtlessly materialize, given New Delhi’s plan to spend $100 billion on weaponry over the coming decade. On another front, Washington has gone from slapping economic sanctions on India—punishment for becoming a nuclear power in 1999—to accepting its nuclear status and even, under the 1-2-3 Agreement, supplying its civilian nuclear sector. In June 2016, President Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed to move ahead with the construction of six nuclear reactors in India by Westinghouse Electric.