China and the US compete at sea

By Jonathan Power

Beijing, April 1st 2014

Both Russia and China feel themselves under threat from the US – and their people are clearly behind their governments on this.

Not without reason. Nato has pushed itself up to Russia’s borders. China feels encircled by US naval deployments armed with nuclear weapons in the East China and South China seas together with the US’s wide network of defence relationships with China’s neighbours. If it came to war the US could incinerate many Chinese cities before China realized it was under attack and could launch its own modest armoury of nuclear missiles.

China may be a capitalist state now but many of its views are still hostage to old time Marxist views which leads many to think that the West seeks to exploit the rest of the world. This leads them to conclude that as China rises the US will feel compelled to resist- ironically a conclusion which many conservative Western analysts share.

The balance of power is beginning to shift in China’s favour. It has been able to redeploy forces, once in the north aimed at Russia, to other parts of China. It is increasing its defence budget rapidly, albeit from a low base. However, it spends only 2% of its national income on defence as against the US’s 4.7% and its spending is only one fifth of America’s.

China may not be able to project much long distance naval power but it can nearer home with its growing fleet of quiet submarines and surface ships. These will stymie some of America’s power at a time of a fall in US military spending. In the jargon this means “sea denial” rather than “sea control”.

It is unlikely in the foreseeable future that China will be able to threaten its immediate neighbours. Nevertheless, China has or will soon have enough naval strength to remind the US that any serious conflict could quickly lead to all out war.

Clearly the US should do all it can to avoid conflict at sea. There are no US interests in the Western Pacific that would make it worth it. Nor does the US have military primacy vis a vis China. Even without its (small) armoury of long distance nuclear missiles China has a convincing enough deterrent at sea. Already there is an effective military balance.

Why should America need its bygone primacy at sea? It doesn’t. Why would China seek to become the hegemon of East Asia? It knows it can’t.

The US may not have primacy any longer but it will long be powerful enough put a halt to a desire for hegemony on China’s part, although there is little or no evidence that China has such ambition. At most China wants to see the Monroe Doctrine lite.

All of the Western countries and China’s neighbours have much more valuable economic interests in China than the West did with Russia during Cold War years or Europe did with Germany in the years leading up to the First and Second World Wars. They cannot afford for these economic and financial links to unwind without causing severe damage to their own economies. The same goes for China. A good part of China’s savings are held in the US and Europe.

America has no choice but to learn to treat China as a political equal- a policy it should have also implemented with Russia when the Cold War ended. The US has to accept that its authority in east Asia is going to be less than it used to be. President Barack Obama needs to stamp on those who argue that maintaining and improving their country’s superior military position towards the China is a principle political objective. The attempt to fashion a “pivot to Asia” with a new base in northern Australia and plans to beef up the military presence in east Asia was not a clever idea.

Since the end of the last decade a dangerous and self-defeating consensus seems to be emerging in the US that China is becoming the biggest threat to the US’s international position. But there are great dangers in this. Creeping tit for tat rivalry would be self-destructive for both sides. If political relations descended into some sort of Cold War neither side would benefit. In a Cold War environment a hot war is always a possibility.

One can see some of the pitfalls ahead – a Taiwan that becomes more assertive about its independence, a ratcheting up of China’s demand for control of the disputed small rocky islands in the Chinese seas, intrusive US naval exercises or disputes with Japan over maritime jurisdiction.

It takes two to tango. Both sides have a responsibility not take the first step. Deep in its culture China has the belief that harmony is a great virtue. Both sides need to pay heed to that.

Copyright: Jonathan Power 2014

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