U.S. encirclement of China

By Jonathan Power

Not since early Cold War days when the US and NATO effectively
encircled the Soviet Union, feeding Stalin’s paranoia, has America
moved to be so profoundly counterproductive. It is now beginning to
encircle China- at least that is how China is seeing it.

Of course “encircling” is a bit of an exaggerated notion since the
Soviet Union was too large ever to be totally encircled. Likewise
today China is content with the state of affairs on its long Russian,
Mongolian and North Korean borders. But “encircling” does suggest a

Why of all people is President Barack Obama initiating this? We may
not know the answer to that but we do know what he is doing.

It is true that in the last few years China, in Washington’s eyes, has
slapped the Americans a few more times than necessary. The US
regularly (but mistakenly) sells arms to Taiwan but although the
rhetoric was always strong nothing substantial was done until two
years ago when China announced sanctions against US companies with
ties to Taiwan. Also that year China angrily protested US-South Korean
naval exercises and the detention by Japan of the captain of a Chinese
fishing boat. Public opinion in China appeared to be very angry. China
also went to war with the Nobel Peace Prize committee for awarding it
to the democracy activist, Liu Xiaobo, imposing economic santions on
Norway. “The peaceful rise” of China seemed to be over, said
influential members of the Obama administration especially in the
military- as if such incidents hadn’t happened before.

So in 2010 Obama initiated what has been called a “pivot” to Asia, a
shift in strategy aimed at bolstering the US’s defence ties with
countries near China and expanding the US naval presence.

According to Professor Robert Ross, an associate of Harvard’s centre
for Chinese studies, writing in the current issue of “Foreign
Affairs”, “This shift was based on a fundamental misreading of China’s
leadership. Beijing’s tough diplomacy stemmed not from confidence in
its might – but from a deep sense of insecurity born of several
nerve-racking years of financial crisis and social unrest.” China’s
leaders decided to sustain their popular legitimacy by appeasing an
increasingly nationalistic public with symbolic gestures of force.

“Instead of inflating estimates of Chinese power”, Ross writes, “and
abandoning its long-standing policy of diplomatic engagement, the US
should recognize China’s underlying weakness and its own enduring
strengths.” Not least the US has greatly overestimated China’s
military capabilities.

Under the great reformer, Deng Xiaoping, who brought capitalism to
China the Chinese defence budget went down. Only later once economic
growth began its stratospheric rate of increase did defence spending
go up. The military’s resources have been boosted. Yet this must be
kept in perspective. Over the last 10 years the military has not
deployed any new ships or aircraft that significantly enhanced its
ability to challenge US maritime superiority. China’s main tool is a
fleet of diesel submarines that have been in service since the mid

Even its newly acquired first aircraft carrier – a refurbished
rather small ex-Russian vessel, will not be greatly effective for a
long time. China has just begun constructing guided-missile
destroyers, but these will pale into comparison with the American
Aegis-class destroyer fleet. According to the Pentagon less than 30%
of China’s naval surface, air and air defence forces and only 55% of
its submarine fleet could be considered modern. There is no challenge
there for America.

China is not an expansionist power. There is no excuse for invading
Tibet or threatening Taiwan but this is not what we mean by
expansionism. The Chinese, fairly or unfairly, regard these as old
Chinese territories. As to its claims to more parts of the South China
Sea than the Law of the Sea allows, much of it can be put down to
in-fighting between various parts of the Chinese bureaucracy and lack
of politiburo involvement. It could be assuaged by persuading China to
take the disputes to the International Court of Justice – as Nigeria
did (and gracefully lost) with its dispute with Cameroon over the
oil-rich Bokassa peninsular.

The US has reinforced its presence in Indo-China, carrying out for the
first time joint naval training. In South Korea the winding down of
the US military presence and military exercises has been reversed. The
US has directly inserted the US into the legally complex disputes in
the island territorial disputes between China, Vietnam and the
Philippines. It has set up a base in Australia.

Already we can see why China feels itself provoked and is prone to
retaliate. For example, it is no longer working with Washington to
persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear bomb program.

Obama should stop this “encirclement” before it goes too far. As
Winston Churchill said, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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