Geoff Dyer, The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China—and How America Can Win (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 320 pp., $26.95.
Robert D. Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (New York: Random House, 2014), 256 pp., $26.00.
FEARS OF CHINA’S RISE ARE GROWING. Only a decade ago, most experts insisted that the Chinese Communist Party’s overseas ambitions were limited to Taiwan. Now that Beijing has begun to adopt a more assertive posture abroad, the conventional wisdom has changed from dismissing the China threat to accepting it fatalistically. But must Washington and its Asian allies defer to Chinese expansionism? Can we really have jumped from one world to another so quickly?
Not a chance. Two new books provide a corrective to the lately fashionable gloom-and-doom analysis. Each is by a crack journalist. The first, Geoff Dyer’s The Contest of the Century, addresses the U.S.-Chinese relationship through the prism of China’s military, political, diplomatic and economic development. The second, Robert Kaplan’s Asia’s Cauldron, focuses on the competition between China and the states around the South China Sea—the central route for shipping between the Middle East and East Asia, and the site of disputed claims to resource-rich maritime territory.
Certainly the fresh attention to China’s aspirations is a good thing. As late as 2006 the defense correspondent Fred Kaplan (no relation to Robert) was belittling the Pentagon’s attention to Chinese military modernization in its annual congressionally mandated report on the subject. In an article called “The China Syndrome,” Kaplan wrote:
“At present,” the report states, “China’s conceptfor sea-denial appears limited to sea-control in water surrounding Taiwan and its immediate periphery. If China were to shift to a broader ‘sea-control’ strategy”—in other words, if it were seeking a military presence farther away from its shores—“the principal indicators would include development of an aircraft carrier, development of robust, deep-water anti-submarine-warfare capabilities, development of a true area anti-aircraft warfare capability, acquisition of large numbers of nuclear attack submarines,” etc., etc. The point is: The Chinese aren’t doing—they’re not even close to doing—any of those things [Kaplan’s italics].
Just eight years later, the Chinese have made substantial progress on all of these fronts, and Beijing has embarked on a path of military-backed assertiveness across the region that has already provoked shifts in U.S. military operations. In January 2013, the U.S. chief of naval operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, admitted that China’s new capabilities have caused the U.S. Navy to change its deployment patterns “inside the first island chain” (China’s term for the major archipelagoes from Japan and Taiwan to the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia that form the outer boundary of the East and South China Seas). Last November, China tried to unilaterally impose an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering airspace over Japanese and South Korean territory just before an East Asia tour by Vice President Joe Biden. Before Biden departed, the United States defied the ADIZ with an unannounced transit of two unarmed B-52s, and while the vice president was on his first stop in Tokyo he assured his hosts that the United States would go further and directly confront Beijing on the issue. During his subsequent stop in Beijing, however, Biden failed even to mention the ADIZ in public. We need to confront Chinese assertiveness with a stalwart refusal to bend, but we are in danger of conceding too much and disheartening our allies. Our lack of firmness may convince Beijing that it can get away with pressing even harder.
While there’s plenty of room for debate about the scope of China’s blue-water ambition, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has now completed sea trials of, and deployed, its first aircraft carrier, with an estimated four to six additional hulls under construction, as Robert Kaplan notes. He stresses that in addition to focusing on its surface navy, China has been expanding its fleet of nuclear ballistic-missile and attack submarines capable of deploying into the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Dyer and Kaplan both point to China’s construction of a new submarine base in the South China Sea, and Kaplan also highlights China’s investment in aerial refueling to enable the projection of air power toward that sea’s southern reaches. He might also have mentioned China’s deployment of new Type 052D destroyers with state-of-the-art radars and a vertical launch system capable of firing advanced surface-to-air missiles against enemy aircraft, including anti-submarine-warfare aircraft, enabling the destroyers to defend other PLAN surface ships and submarines.
Dyer lucidly sets out the context in which these developments have been occurring. He traces the rise of the PLAN to China’s obsession with the late nineteenth-century American naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan. Mahan saw sea power in general, and the ability to exert control over commercial sea-lanes in particular, as essential to the well-being of trading states. “Neglected at home,” Dyer writes, “Mahan has become deeply fashionable over the last decade in Chinese intellectual circles, including translations of his books, academic articles on their importance, and conferences on his ideas.”
If the PLAN’s new aircraft carriers and destroyers are suited for engaging in Mahanian sea-control missions, this would be a step beyond the impressive suite of largely land- and air-based forces that China has acquired to keep adversaries from entering or operating within its near abroad. More than the carrier, these “anti-access/area-denial” (A2AD) capabilities (e.g., precise ballistic and cruise missiles, along with the complex of sensors and guidance technologies that allow them to find and prosecute moving targets) have implications for the U.S. position in the Asia-Pacific region because they raise doubts about our ability to protect our allies. Since the late 1940s, the United States has played a key role in tamping down potential conflicts between regional actors. In Dyer’s words, “America has defined its vital interest as preventing any one power from dominating the other main regions of the world and turning them into a private sphere of influence.”
For more than half a century the United States has guaranteed Taiwan’s independence, and our security commitment to Japan has made it possible for successive generations of Japanese leaders to maintain relatively modest defense investments. Thanks to China’s buildup of A2AD capabilities, Tokyo may now question whether Washington would send forces to protect Japan from Chinese aggression in the East China Sea, where China has been challenging Japan’s administrative control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The same question may apply equally to the Philippines, another U.S. treaty ally, which has recently succumbed to Chinese military-backed expansionism over disputed land features in the South China Sea.
HOW DID WE GET HERE? Here are three specific explanations. First, China’s military rise was difficult to see because it proceeded very slowly for a long time before suddenly yielding a spate of new capabilities, and these capabilities were not the ones most Americans would have expected. The high-tech electronic and sensor systems that form the backbone of China’s A2AD force took years, if not decades, to develop, and the shape of this new force may not have been observable until China actually began to test highly accurate missiles. Compounding the intelligence challenge, China did not pursue military modernization parallel to the U.S. model. As both Dyer and Kaplan note, Beijing didn’t try to build a navy like ours; rather, the PLAN has become a kind of anti–U.S. Navy, centered around submarines; small, fast attack craft armed with antiship cruise missiles; and, most recently, drones. China has adopted an asymmetric approach, using relatively cheap weapons to prevent very expensive American platforms like aircraft carriers from entering the theater. Dyer cites an estimate by U.S. Navy captain Henry Hendrix that puts the cost of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) carrier-killer missiles at $11 million each, compared with a $13.5 billion price tag on a new U.S. carrier.
To be sure, not everyone missed the flash. In 1992, Mark Stokes, a U.S. Air Force deputy attaché, traveled around the Chinese countryside and gathered evidence that, together with what he was reading in Chinese military journals, indicated a major investment in medium- and long-range missiles. But he was largely ignored. As Dyer recounts:
Back in 1992, plenty of people in the Pentagon dismissed the analysis of people such as Stokes, rejecting the idea that a country as poor as China would have such clear-cut military ambitions. Others argued that China’s ability to contest Asia’s seas with the U.S. was heavily constrained by its dependency on the global economy.
At the end of the 1990s, as Chinese defense budgets continued to increase by double digits, the evidence was getting harder to ignore, but then the September 11 attacks occurred, diverting U.S. attention from East Asia to Central Asia and the Middle East for the next decade. 9/11 is thus the second reason we are only just now confronting the seriousness of China’s challenge to the post–World War II order in Asia.
A third reason is that until recently, Chinese rhetoric and behavior worked to mask the ambition behind the PLA’s modernization. Dyer cites the work of journalist Joshua Kurlantzick, who chronicled how Beijing used China’s wealth and a carefully crafted image to embark on a “charm offensive” across the world from the mid-1990s through 2007. China often presented itself as the anti–United States, providing capital in the form of investments and loans with no requirements for good governance. Meanwhile, in discussions with the West, Chinese Communist Party leaders offered assurances that the PLA was not seeking an aircraft carrier, nor would it militarize space, while business delegations were wooed with promises of exposure to a gigantic market of potential Chinese customers—as long as they provided investment in China’s research-and-development sector and transferred critical know-how. Then, in January 2007, China tested an antisatellite missile, and in 2008 the global financial crisis supplied an opportunity for Beijing to trumpet its brand of state capitalism as an alternative to the faulty Western market-based system. Testing of China’s antiship ballistic missile, runway images of a Chinese “fifth generation” aircraft and sea trials of the first Chinese carrier coincided with or directly followed these events. By March 2009, as Dyer recounts, a flotilla of ten Chinese ships saw fit to confront the USNS Impeccable, an American naval survey vessel, in the northern part of the South China Sea.