China's New Military Strategy Is To Push The U. S. Out Of East Asia
At the turn of the 20th century, Germany, historically a great land power, decided to challenge Britain to a naval arms race. It didn't end well. Now another traditional land power, China, is eager to make its own naval challenge, this time against the U.S. The question is whether Washington can deter China's ambitions before they develop a deadly strategic momentum.
We write this after reading China's new military strategy, an English translation of which was published this week on the eve of the annual Shangri-La Defense conference in Singapore. "The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned," states the new strategy, "and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests."
Toward that goal, China promises "to seize the strategic initiative in military struggle, pro-actively plan for military struggle in all directions and domains, concentrate superior forces, and make integrated use of all operational means and methods."
The new doctrine comes as Beijing is claiming sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea while building artificial islands 600 miles from the Chinese mainland. On Friday came news that U.S. surveillance had spotted Chinese artillery on one of the artificial islands, within firing range of islands claimed by Vietnam.
None of this has gone unnoticed by China's neighbors, or Washington. This is the reality the Obama Administration was supposed to have recognized by its first-term "pivot" to Asia, which called for the Navy to deploy more than 50% of its ships to the Pacific while enhancing military partnerships with the likes of Australia and Singapore.
So far, however, the pivot has mainly been a feint. This year the Navy will deploy an average of 58 ships to the Western Pacific, according to Navy documents. The number is expected to increase to a mere 64 by 2020. The total size of the U.S. fleet-around 289 ships-is half of what it was at the end of the Cold War, and well below the Navy's operational requirement of 306 ships to meet its current strategic mission.
As for the Chinese, their new strategy calls for the navy to shift focus from "offshore waters defense" to "open seas protection"-that is, a blue-water navy. The Pentagon's Office of Naval Intelligence reports that China launched more ships in 2013-14 "than any other country." China's official military budget will grow by some 10% this year, to $144 billion, with much of the money going to a comprehensive naval modernization.
By 2020, ONI predicts, China will deploy as many as 78 submarines and more than 170 major surface combatants, most of modern design. Assuming most of these will be deployed in the Western Pacific, that means the U.S. will have 64 surface combatants and subs in the region compared to 248 for China.
For now, the U.S. Navy retains a decisive technological advantage. Navy officers also say they've been unimpressed by the seamanship of their Chinese counterparts in joint military exercises-one good reason the exercises are worth conducting, despite some Congressional skepticism.
Yet Beijing has also invested heavily in "asymmetric" military capabilities, such as ballistic missiles that could take out a U.S. carrier, which they can field in large numbers at low cost. And Beijing doesn't need to win the next Battle of Jutland to tilt naval power in East Asia in its favor. As a recent Congressional Research Service report notes, China wants "a force that can deter U.S. intervention in a conflict in China's near-seas region over Taiwan or some other issue, or failing that, delay the arrival or reduce the effectiveness of intervening U.S. forces."
The U. S. isn't yet losing the naval race with China, but it has allowed its naval power to decline enough that Beijing plausibly believes it can compete. In one of its more truculent sections, Beijing's military strategy accuses "external countries" of "meddling in South China Sea affairs," as if the U.S. and its regional partners are the aggressors. The inversion of moral causality is another tool in China's military playbook.
The Obama Administration showed the right instincts last week when it flew a Navy surveillance plane over China's new artificial islands. In a speech this week in Hawaii, Defense Secretary Ash Carter demanded "an immediate and lasting halt" to Beijing's island building, and he's looking at other ways to underline the illegitimacy of Beijing's claims. Sailing destroyers within the 12-mile radius of some of these islands would send the right message.
But the only way China is going to reconsider its long-term strategy is for the U.S. to convince Beijing that a naval race is unwinnable and not worth running. Republican presidential hopefuls in search of a serious deterrent to Chinese ambitions should start with a naval strategy. A substantially larger Navy should be a national priority and a plank of the GOP platform.