Beijing Flexes Its Muscles – And Washington Better Get Ready
Eager to consolidate and extend its authoritarian control, Beijing brushed aside its international obligations last week and advanced plans to crush dissent in Hong Kong. Following the nearly unanimous approval of Beijing’s rubber-stamp faux-parliament, a standing committee will now draft the law that will attempt to progressively deprive the people of Hong Kong of their freedom.
The Chinese Communist Party's Hong Kong political power grab represents just the latest manifestation of what constitutes a clear decision by Beijing to adopt a more aggressive policy. The goal is to consolidate and extend the CCP's authoritarian control and undermine the interests of the U.S. and its regional partners. One can see this more aggressive strategy not only in Thursday's political decision with respect to Hong Kong but also in Beijing's recent and planned military actions.
With the world busy confronting the coronavirus, the CCP escalated its aggression in the South China Sea in recent months. Sending vessels to attack and bully others, China’s Coast Guard even rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the vicinity of the contested Paracel Islands.
And now, according to the Japan Times, Beijing is preparing for a “large-scale landing drill” this summer in the South China Sea that “will mobilize an unprecedented level of forces, including marines, landing ships, hovercrafts and helicopters.”
The drill may also include one or both of China’s aircraft carriers. In anticipation of their potential deployment, the Liaoning and Shandong carriers have been training in the Yellow Sea.
Some officials in the American, Japanese, and Taiwanese governments worry that the drill could represent a precursor to Chinese military action in the South China Sea, or military action against Taiwanese-controlled island of Pratas or Taiwan itself.
Pratas, also named Dongsha Island, lies roughly 200 miles southeast of Hong Kong and approximately half-way between Taiwan and Hainan. The strategically located island includes a small airfield utilized by the Taiwanese military. Some worry that a Chinese aircraft carrier strike group will pass through the Pratas islands on their way to the exercise.
In light of these reports, speculation has proliferated regarding the CCP’s intentions. It is possible that large-scale Chinese military aggression may not be imminent in any of these areas. The Chinese may just be conducting the kinds of exercises that the U.S. and its partners regularly conduct to maintain and improve readiness.
But motives and intentions in international relations can change quickly; it is best to focus on military capability, which takes time to create. And the drill this summer will provide the PLA valuable training and preparation directly applicable to a potential seizure of Pratas island or an invasion of Taiwan.
More broadly, it is clear that U.S. military supremacy in the Indo-Pacific has eroded and that the Chinese military has become more formidable. As the military balance of power has shifted both in reality and in Beijing’s perception, the CCP has acted more aggressively.
If the U.S. and its allies permit the balance of power to erode further, the CCP may eventually conclude that it could successfully – and with acceptable costs – employ military force to achieve its political objectives in the South China Sea and Taiwan. This puts a serious burden on the United States to take tangible and urgent steps.
The Trump administration seems to recognize the stakes, issuing a policy paper on May 20 entitled the “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China.” The document condemns Beijing’s “provocative and coercive military and paramilitary activities” in the South China Seas, the Taiwan Strait, and elsewhere.
And the Pentagon is undertaking its most significant military modernization effort in decades – focusing research and development efforts on artificial intelligence, biotechnology, autonomy, cyber, directed energy, hypersonics, space, and 5G.
But advanced technologies, systems, and weapons are not enough. The Department of Defense must also build the logistical infrastructure to employ and sustain these weapons. Yet projects related to overseas infrastructure and logistics sometimes struggle to garner sufficient political support.
Thankfully, momentum is building in both the House and Senate to ensure that the American troops in the Indo-Pacific have the infrastructure necessary to successfully employ these capabilities. On Thursday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) and Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI) confirmed that they would seek to use this year's annual defense policy bill to establish a Pacific Deterrence Initiative. Among other benefits, such an initiative would ensure that U.S. and partner forces in the Pacific have the "theater missile defense, expeditionary airfield and port infrastructure, fuel and munitions storage" capabilities they require.
But these steps take time.
More immediately, the U.S. must expedite and strengthen efforts to provide Taipei the capabilities it needs to deter a PLA attack. The Department of State’s decision to approve the sale of eighteen MK-48 advanced torpedoes is positive but insufficient.
Taiwan also wants to purchase ground-launched Harpoon anti-ship missiles and mobile launchers to strengthen coastal defenses. This capability – in sufficient quantities – could help make the CCP think twice about launching an attack. For this reason, Washington should approve this request without delay.
The CCP’s increasingly aggressive behavior is likely motivated, at least in part, by its belief that the regional military balance of power has shifted in Beijing’s direction. If this trend continues unabated, the CCP could soon decide that it can accomplish its political objectives in the South China Sea or Taiwan with military aggression.
In order to disabuse Beijing of this notion, Washington must work urgently and comprehensively with its regional partners to reestablish effective deterrence.
Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ (FDD) Center on Military and Political Power. Craig Singleton is an FDD adjunct fellow.