China: Competitor or Adversary?

China:  Competitor or Adversary?
Li Gang/Xinhua via AP
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"Chinese leaders have characterized modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as essential to achieving great power status and what Chinese President Xi Jinping calls the “China Dream” of national rejuvenation. They portray a strong military as critical to advancing Chinese interests, preventing other countries from taking steps that would damage those interests, and ensuring that China can defend itself and its sovereignty claims."[1]  Accordingly, China is investing heavily in modernizing its military including the PLA(N), China’s Navy, the Coast Guard, and the Maritime Militia.  China’s “little blue men,”[2] the Maritime Militia functions as a 3rd naval force to carry out a national policy to dominate the region at sea.  Yes, China has three overlapping and complementary navies.  China’s recent behavior is to promote its national interest by intimidating everyone in the region including the U. S.

The U. S. Navy’s presence in East Asia has a long history dating back to the early 1800’s.  This presence is essential for promoting national strategic policy, assisting allies to whom we have treaty obligations, and most importantly protecting freedom of the seas for ourselves including vital international commerce.  Trillions of dollars of the world’s commerce transit the waters of the western Pacific including the East and South China Seas, waters whose control is now hotly contested.  The region also boasts massive oil and gas reserves.  Competition to gain control over and exploit those precious resources has heated up in recent years and created an explosive and contentious situation.  As the economic powerhouse of Asia, China seeks to rule the roost dictating terms in the region, many times flouting international law, and behaving contrary to accepted norms of civilized behavior.  To counter the malign influences of China, a robust U. S. Navy presence in the region is an absolute necessity.

China apologists say that they have regional interests and not to worry.  The following are questions about China’s international reach in military terms:

  • Should the U. S. worry about their control of the Panama Canal (controlled through a Hong Kong Billionaire with strong ties to Beijing)? 19% of the cargo going through the canal originates from or is destined for China.  67% of the cargo transiting the canal is U.S. cargo.  Also, the canal is a critical military passage between the Atlantic and Pacific.  Any oceanic transit without the use of the canal adds almost 8000 miles, ~15-18 days, and increases transportation costs dramatically.
  • How should the U. S. view their fielding of the Type 094A ballistic missile submarine with sea-launched ballistic missiles with 11,200 km range, deploying their ballistic missile submarines to the Indian Ocean, and deploying mobile launchers to the Russian border with the Dongfeng-41 with a 15,000 km range? These actions enable their ICBM’s to reach into virtually the entire U.S.  China recently successfully tested long-range ICBMs with 10 MIRV warheads.
  • Why have they developed and successfully tested sophisticated satellite-killing weapons including directed energy weapons, satellite jammers and ICBM/kinetic kill vehicles such as the SC-19/KT-2? These assets directly threaten the U. S. for we have by far the most satellites in orbit providing support for critical communications including military command and control, global positioning, intelligence gathering, and critical weather information gathering necessary for military operations.
  • Why do they have two nuclear-powered SSNs with four more under construction? Nuclear powered SSN’s are primarily for offensive operations against surface ships.  Only the U. S. Navy has the numbers of surface ships advanced enough to be considered a threat to what the Chinese consider their waterways.  The U. S. Navy mission of ensuring freedom of navigation for international commerce is not a threat to China but isn’t it apparent that is not how they see it?
  • Why have they hacked into U.S. government systems such as the Office of Personnel Management, where they stole the security information of 22 million government workers? The damage done by this dastardly theft of sensitive U.S. government information has never been fully divulged.    
  • Why do they steal intellectual property from the U. S. and others? The 2016 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission reports, “China appears to be conducting a campaign of commercial espionage against U.S. companies involving a combination of cyber espionage and human infiltration to systematically penetrate the information systems of U.S. companies to steal their intellectual property, devalue them, and acquire them at dramatically reduced prices.”  This sophisticated industrial espionage constantly attacks private sector industries including defense industries to steal advanced technology.  One senior U.S. official stated that any technical advance made by the U.S. is safe from Chinese theft for a maximum of 18 months. 
  • Why is China rapidly modernizing their anti-ship ballistic and cruise missile force including over-the-horizon capability? The DF-21D has a range of 1500 km and is viewed as potentially lethal against U.S. surface ships including our aircraft carriers.  The sole use of these weapons is for attacking U.S. warships.  Why have they adopted an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy for all their coastlines and are rapidly arming?[3]
  • Why is China using a white-hulled strategy in area waters, using law enforcement vessels to impose its will over international waters to expand its economic zone?[4] Without any significant U.S. objections to date, China is changing strategic expectations in international waters to the detriment of our own policy of support for freedom of navigation and commerce and an even more serious detriment to our regional allies.
  • Why has China opened its first overseas military facility in Djibouti and is planning to open other sites like this in the Indian Ocean in the next decade? Since 2014 why has China dramatically increased its presence in the Indian Ocean such as port visits in Sri Lanka where it has gained the rights to berth its ships?  What is the maritime Silk Road?  It is not a secret but perhaps not well known that China seeks to open a commerce route to the Mediterranean.  China employs loan policies to expand its influence in the region.  It loans money at generous terms for development.  If a location with a port has trouble with repayment, China graciously eases repayment terms in exchange for port visit rights or berths for its vessels.  This technique is being widely used and will greatly increase Chinese presence and influence in the coming years.  China’s 5 year plan (2016-2020) does not hide the fact but lays out plainly their intent to gain access to up to 18 ports including but not limited to Chongjin port (North Korea), Moresby port (Papua New Guinea), Sihanoukville port (Cambodia), Koh Lanta port (Thailand), Sittwe port (Myanmar), Dhaka port (Bangladesh), Gwadar port (Pakistan), Hambantota port (Sri Lanka), Maldives, Seychelles, Djibouti port (Djibouti), Lagos port (Nigeria), Mombasa port (Kenya), Dar-es-Salaam port (Tanzania), Luanda port (Angola) and the Walvis Bay port (Namibia).[5]
  • Why has China militarized islands in the South China Sea in international waters and is continuing to strengthen those islands in open defiance of an international court ruling? China has added more than 3200 acres at just the Spratley site and has four runway sites that will eventually be long enough to support any Chinese aircraft.  China has recently built huge hangers at Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief reefs.  These hangers are large enough to store China’s largest military aircraft.  It now appears those islands are being militarized.
  • Why has China developed the world’s fastest supercomputers and is investing heavily in developing quantum computers? If China develops a quantum computer before the U.S. or our allies do, it will represent a significant computer security and command and control threat to the United States and will dramatically undermine our military superiority overnight.
  • Why did China in 2013 change its published naval strategy from regional to international?[6]
    • Adoption of a two-layered strategy: “Near-Seas Defense, Far-Seas Operations
    • Enhancing “active defense” to distance potential enemy operations from China’s shores
    • Unprecedented stressing of the need to engage in “strategic prepositioning,” i.e. having more military assets forward deployed
    • Increased emphasis on Military Operations Other than War and international maritime contributions far from China
  • Why did China increase their military budget 9.8% per year during the period 2006-2015? During the same period, the U.S. defense budget adjusted for inflation is basically flat.
  • Why has China developed radar systems that can detect our stealth aircraft including the newest, the F-35? China is developing several advanced aircraft the J-11D, the J-20, and the J-31.[7]  Copying Russian and U.S. aircraft has been long a standard practice of China.  Its newer aircraft are intended to be near-peer competitors for the F-22 and the F-35.  The PLAAF is the largest air force in Asia and the second largest in the world with over 2800 aircraft including 2100 combat aircraft.

These are just some of the questions which could be asked about Chinese military intentions.

China’s is arguably the second strongest Navy in the world.  Its investing significantly in its Navy could only be to challenge the United States and our interests not only in East Asia but around the world.  To assume their intentions are benign would be to ignore history, especially the history of communist regimes.  U.S. international strategy depends on our ability to project power from the sea anywhere in the world and to keep international sea lanes for commerce open.  Both of those policy objectives are threatened by China’s actions to become a world maritime power.  In addition, as the now dominant sea power in East Asia, China is able to bully its neighbors, take unilateral action to expand its influence over the sea lanes, occupy and build infrastructure in contravention to international law with no consequences, and as a result has in effect established itself as the regional hegemon for East Asia to the detriment of our allies.

Dr. Ross Babbage, writing for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments says, “The United States and its closest relevant allies urgently need a new approach. They should develop a coherent strategy to induce Chinese compliance with international law and deter further adventurism.”[8]  Diplomatic, economic, financial, and partnership efforts with our allies in East Asia to counter China’s aims for dominance should be urgently undertaken.  However, these measures will only go so far.  If the U.S. is not seen as the “strong horse” willing to take action to defend our interests, the world is doomed to face a rising totalitarian regime, a regional hegemon whose goals are inimical to freedom and peace. Therefore, it is necessary to build more ships, aircraft and other forces NOW to have the forces available to oppose Chinese aggression in the future.  USPACOM has only 80 ships assigned, and those ships are responsible for an area of approximately half the earth’s surface and more than half of its population with 36 countries represented.  China can oppose U.S. forces that are attempting to carry out national policy in the region with over 400 ships, and they are continually building more ships.  No amount of technical superiority which the U.S. still thinly enjoys will be able to overcome this huge disparity in numbers unless we act to effectively counterbalance the threat.

Notes:

[1] Department of Defense Report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016

[2] Andrew Erickson, associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College and well-known authority on Chinese naval and maritime affairs…..describes the Chinese naval militia, forces he’s dubbed “little blue men” — a reference to the “little green men” employed by Russia in Crimea and the Ukraine to insinuate military forces into a region without clear identification.  As reported in The National Interest, The Pentagon’s 2016 China Military Report:  What You Need to Know

[3] James Holmes, Professor of Strategy, United States Navy War College, interview, 14 February 2016

[4] James Holmes, Professor of Strategy, United States Navy War College, interview, 14 February 2016.

[5] The Sunday Guardian, China Eyes 18 Overseas Naval Bases, 5 February 2017

[6] Office of Naval Intelligence Report, The PLA Navy, New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century, 2016 and China’s Blueprint for Sea Power, Dr. Andrew S. Erickson, United States Navy War College, China Brief 16, Volume 11.

[7] Information on these and other aircraft, and other specific weapons systems mentioned throughout the article come from a variety of open sources including the DOD 2016 China Military Report, the Heritage Foundation 2016 Index of Military Strength, and the other government and defense related publications such as Real Clear Defense, the National Interest, and the United States Naval Institute.

[8] Center for Budgetary and International Assessments report, Dr. Ross Babbage, August 2016.

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