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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Opinion: The Chinese Military Challenge

August 21, 2010

The PLA is seeking to push U.S. forces out of Asian waters.
The Wall Street Journal
August 19, 2010

The Pentagon's annual report on China's military
power finally surfaced Monday, five months
overdue. Considering that the report tells us
little that we didn't already know -- not least,
that China is rapidly modernizing and expanding
its arsenal of missiles, ships and aircraft --
we'll put the delay down to the Obama
Administration's reluctance to offend Beijing's
sensitivities. That may be the most alarming fact of all.

A shift is afoot in the People's Liberation
Army's attitude toward the U.S. in Asia. As
recently as a few years ago, Chinese officials
acknowledged that the American military is a
stabilizing force in the region. But while
China's civilian leaders still want to enhance
military-to-military ties, Chinese officers have
become increasingly confrontational, in written statements and deeds.

Exhibit A is the PLA's challenge to the U.S.
Navy's right to operate in international waters
near China's coast. In response to the
announcement this month of new exercises in the
Yellow Sea involving the aircraft carrier USS
George Washington -- something the Navy has been
doing for decades -- Rear Admiral Yang Yi told an
Australian journalist that this was "some kind of
challenge and humiliation to China's national
interest and the feelings of the Chinese people."
After similar protests last month the Pentagon
caved, opting to deploy the Washington and its
battle group on the other side of the Korean peninsula.

Beijing has also decided to enforce its claim to
almost the entire South China Sea as its
"historical waters," identifying this as a "core
interest" on a par with Taiwan and Tibet. Early
last year, Chinese patrol vessels and trawlers
mounted a coordinated effort to intimidate an
unarmed U.S. Navy surveillance ship. China has
been equipping its fisheries service with ex-Navy
ships to enforce a summer fishing ban in the
South China Sea. In June, one such ship was
involved in a confrontation with the Indonesian navy off the Natuna Islands.

China's broader strategic goal is to keep the
U.S. from operating freely in the waters bounded
by Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia.
Beijing's strategy, known as "access denial,"
involves fielding a large submarine force,
developing cruise and ballistic missiles that
could take out an American aircraft carrier, and
deploying antisatellite weapons that can disrupt
U.S. communications. These and other forms of
"asymmetric" military capabilities are intended
to prevent the U.S. Navy from gaining access to
these waters in the event that, say, China
decides to bully Taiwan into accepting reunification on Beijing's terms.

Underlying this assertiveness is an assumption
that the day the PLA can take on the U.S. may not
be far off. While the U.S. retains a
technological edge, China has noticed that the
U.S. Navy now fields fewer than 300 ships, or
half of its numbers after the Reagan arms
build-up, and that it is likely to suffer from
further budget cutting under Defense Secretary
Robert Gates, who in May warned that the Navy
would "have to accept some hard fiscal
realities." Much the same goes for the Air Force,
which is flying decades-old bombers, fighter jets
and refueling tankers as modernization programs
are drastically scaled back (as with the F-22) or
endlessly delayed (as with the KC-X tanker).

Little wonder, then, that China's neighbors are
increasingly nervous. Chinese assertiveness has
so far created a diplomatic boon for Washington,
with Seoul tightening its military alliance with
the U.S., Japan backing down from its attempt to
renege on an agreement to move a U.S. military
base in Okinawa, and even Vietnam drawing closer
to the U.S. But that will only last as long as
the U.S. is seen as a credible guarantor of
stability, which is ultimately a function of military strength.

For now, the greatest risk is of Chinese
miscalculation, particularly over Taiwan. Chinese
missiles have become accurate enough to make
precision strikes, leaving the island's airfields
particularly vulnerable. A RAND study last year
suggested that in a war the Taiwanese air force
would be quickly overwhelmed by Chinese fighters.
With air superiority lost, an invasion might
begin before U.S. reinforcements could even
arrive. Such belief is how nations blunder into war.

President Obama began his presidency trying to
placate Beijing. He could put relations on a
better footing, and diminish the risk of future
confrontations, by leaving China's generals in no
doubt that the U.S. has the will and wherewithal
to defend its friends and interests in the region against all challengers.
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