Last week, Stratfor Global Intelligence published an assessment of the People’s Republic of China’s emerging strategy for dealing with the outside world. In sum, there are three basic tenets to the developing strategy:
- Paramount among them is the maintenance of domestic security.
- The PRC’s industrial base, by design produces more than its domestic economy can consume, so the PRC must export goods to the rest of the world while importing raw materials.
- The third strategic interest is in maintaining control over buffer states.
These are sequential interests; that is, each depends on the one prior, and internal security is, as Friedman writes, paramount. Internal security in a nation of vast wealth and wealth mobility differences between, in China’s case, the coastal regions and the interior depends on keeping the people employed. (On a related side note, it’s useful to recognize that these differences are exacerbated, among other things, by growing cultural differences between a coastal region that trades externally and so is exposed to the influences of the West and of the Republic of Korea and Japan on the one hand, and an impoverished interior, on the other, that still is “old-school” and is seen, also, as existing to supply those coastal regions with goods for export trade). Thus, a need not only for export customers exists, but relevant to this post, a need for ensuring China’s sea lane security. That third imperative is driven by a need to protect the population of core Chinese—Han China—which is concentrated in those coastal regions and the eastern third of China that is near those coastal regions. Among other buffer states, the PRC count Tibet, and they would like to count the Republic of China sitting off the southeastern coast on Taiwan (which, by the way, sits on the northern mouth of the South China Sea and the southern mouth of the East China Sea).
As alluded to above, sea lanes for trade are important to Chinese economic, and so domestic, security. Overland trade routes are both physically fraught with danger, given the terrain that must be crossed and the distances involved, and politically fraught: the countries that control that land aren’t entirely sympathetic to Chinese interests. Those sea lanes, though, must pass through the South or East China Sea.
Mainland China has historically had difficulty depending on others for its own sustenance, originating from China’s view that it sits at the center of Heaven and so has no need of outside cooperation—the cooperation should move in the other direction. This position has gone through a number of evolutions but remains essentially the same: we’ll go it alone, thank you very much; you’re welcome to come with us if you wish. The view of not depending on others also is smart: what others might give, they can also take away, and then where would a dependent state be? So China looks to securing, itself, its sea lanes, rather than depending on the British, and for the last 80 years, the US—to maintain freedom of the seas. China looks, though, not for freedom, but dominance over its seas as the optimal means of maintaining security.
Unable to engage the US Navy in a direct confrontation, though, China is developing other means of countering our Navy; although Friedman suggests that those alternate means are flawed.
While China has a robust land-based missile system, a land-based missile system is inherently vulnerable to strikes by cruise missiles, aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles currently in development and other types of attack. China’s ability to fight a sustained battle is limited. Moreover, a missile strategy works only with an effective reconnaissance capability. You can’t destroy a ship if you don’t know where it is. This in turn necessitates space-based systems able to identify U.S. ships and a tightly integrated fire-control system.
Friedman is right that this alone is insufficient, and he points out that China also is looking for sea ports in friendly (or at least “tradable with”) nations that are on the other end of some of those sea lanes. China is paying, for instance, for most of or the construction of a sea port in Gwadar, Pakistan, as well as looking for similar accesses to ports in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and elsewhere. But having anchorages on either end of the sea lane doesn’t address the security of the lanes themselves.
It’s easy enough, the thinking goes, to effect a blockade of China by sitting on the outside edge of the two Seas, but until those anti-shipping missile sites have been taken out, even at that range, the blockading ships would be at risk. (I discount the reduction in risk from the ships being mobile targets: even given the relatively slow flights of cruise missiles, ships are even slower; besides, en route and target area guidance systems—even on board ones—aren’t that hard to do anymore.)
For our part, the US is in the beginning stages of implementing a major strategic change and moving to emphasize the Pacific, and in particular the PRC, and deemphasizing Europe and the Atlantic. DoD is intending to realign our military so that, for instance, 60% of our Naval assets will be focused on the Pacific and China, vice the current 52%.
But what does this mean in practical terms? DoD, under President Obama’s instruction, is reducing its ship total from 285 as of last September to 220 by 2020, including a reduction from 11 carriers to 8, 53 attack submarines to 40, and eliminating altogether our guided missile submarines. Worse, the average age of our Navy’s ships will be allowed to increase from its current 14 years to 19. From a back of the envelope estimate, that “increase” of 52% to 60% of the Navy’s assets concentrating on the Pacific results in an actual reduction from 148 ships to 132.
It also ignores another part of the equation: while we’re busily becoming a threat (in Chinese eyes) to China’s nearby sea lanes, what about China’s more distant sea lanes—the ones that pass through the Indian Ocean, the North and South Atlantic, the Panama Canal? And what about our own, more nearby sea lanes—those traversing the same North and South Atlantic Oceans and the Panama Canal? And the Indian Ocean, which is important to us not only for commerce, but to support our allies and friends in the Middle East, western Asia, eastern Africa? And to get to our allies and friends that form the rim of the South China Sea and to support our own Navy operating in theater?
So the question for the Chinese, and for our administration, comes down to this: in the event of a conflict between the PRC and the US that gets serious enough that we’d need to consider a blockade, what happens next?
China will look at the conflict between us and northern Korea and between us and Iran over whether either of those two should possess nuclear weapons (and in one case, then destroy, utterly, a life-long ally of ours), and it will decide to press ahead with its actions and run a US blockade, at gunpoint, if needs be—even with their inferior navy. Indeed, given our administration’s repeatedly demonstrated penchant for shaking its finger very firmly at our adversaries and then accommodating them, on what basis would China take our Navy’s still superior capability seriously? When have northern Korea or Iran—or Israel recently—taken our capabilities seriously? What is the value of military superiority, or capability of any sort, when there is no will to use it, and China, northern Korea, Iran, and now Israel know that?