Beijing’s initiative on the South China Sea has alternative tactical objectives, as the classic strategist Sun Tzu teaches. For Southeast Asians, the most critical is Beijing’s move to alter the balance of forces on the coastal and maritime regions of East Asia.
Beijing regards domination of the China Sea as not just an economic but also a military necessity.
It wants control of the China Sea—initially, to protect its 18,000-kilometer coastline from seaborne attack; and, eventually, to project Chinese power beyond even the West Pacific to the world ocean.
Beijing is building on the China Sea what it wants the world to accept as the new reality: China’s emergence as a first-rank power and its ultimate ownership of East Asia’s maritime heartland.
From ‘people’s war’ To ‘far-sea defense’
The Maoist strategy of ‘people’s war’ made a virtue of China’s incapacity to fight a conventional war. It conceded China’s vulnerable coastal cities to a technologically superior enemy. Instead the numerically superior PLA would lure a hostile force into China’s limitless interior—where it could be harassed endlessly by mobile guerrillas.
By contrast, ‘far-sea defense’ aims to protect China’s coastal cities that are booming thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s economic and political reforms.
This changed military doctrine—equivalent to the ‘forward defense’ strategy Washington has followed in the Pacific since the 1890s—makes control of the China Sea—and even of the West Pacific beyond the Philippines, Taiwan, Okinawa and Japan—an imperative for Beijing.
China’s first step
China’s first step must be to gain tactical superiority on the first island-chain enclosing the China Sea. To manage this, Beijing must stretch the outward reach of its coastal air force all along its exposed sea-front—from which (in Xinhua’s reckoning) 470 foreign invasions and intrusions have come since 1840, when the British grabbed Hong Kong.
Airstrips built up from reefs and shoals can extend decisively the flying time of interceptor aircraft that now must refuel while airborne. The military think tank IHS Jane’s says dredging could create even full-blown harbors large enough for warships.
To counter this initiative, there’s not much the loose Allied coalition could do. Any forceful intervention entails high risks for small gains. Yet inaction will perpetuate Beijing’s land grabs all along its still-disputed frontiers.
‘Natural’ spheres of influence?
Asean still cannot speak to Beijing with one voice, though Indonesia’s populist President Joko Widodo has begun to echo the Philippine alarm. United Nations support—assuming it is forthcoming—can be no more than rhetorical. And the second-largest economy—given its global penetration—seems proof against sanctions.
Beijing disdains to hide its goals and expectations. In conversations with US President Obama, President Xi Jinping posits that every great power has ‘core interests’ and natural ‘spheres of influence’ that other great powers must respect.
For Southeast Asians, such stark declarations are disturbing, because of their historical antecedents.
As the American historian Laura Lee Junker notes, “Traditional Chinese cosmology viewed the empire as the center of the universe and all non-Chinese peoples as ‘barbarians’ in a fitting ‘tributary’ relationship to the Chinese empire.”
Asia-Pacific cold war
Is there an Asia-Pacific “Cold War” in our future?
A cold spell in China-American relations does seem a strong possibility. I think it reasonable to assume China will become stronger proportionate to the United States.
Some Sinologists predict Chinese society is close to an implosion from unmet middle-class grievances. Even outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in 2012 warned that corruption, if “left unchecked, could terminate the political regime.” But most analysts expect China to reach superpower status safely by 2025.
A Harvard study group led by the Australian diplomat Kevin Rudd agrees China’s GDP would surpass America’s sometime in the 2020s. But it emphasizes the US will continue to be the Number One military and technological power.
Specifically Taipei will become more and more vulnerable to Beijing‘s pressures. A study by the think tank RAND found Washington unable to defend the island by 2020.
Beijing also seems close to claiming that, for the new countries, its authoritarian development model—which at its best combines the dynamism of the market system with the long-term stability of state direction and control—is a workable alternative to America’s “winner-takes-all” capitalism.
An American recession?
Is an American recession from its forward positions in East Asia unavoidable?
Washington has been downsizing its military presence in South Korea, Japan and Okinawa since 2010. Simultaneously, it has been building up a naval, aerial and missile strongpoint on its Philippine Sea island of Guam in the Marianas—in the second island chain from the Chinese coast. From there it is less than two days’ sailing to the China Sea for a carrier fleet.
Already Guam’s Anderson Air Force base is reputed to be the most commanding platform in the world for projecting American military power.
An Asian World Bank-IMF?
Chinese-American rivalry is heating up also in its financial and development aspects.
China is capitalizing a $100 B development bank and emergency reserve fund the BRICS group of powers are building, to compete with the western-oriented World Bank-IMF. The bank will be based in Shanghai; its first president will be an Indian.
Beijing’s master plan to tighten its linkages with East
Asia’s middle powers goes further. It also intends to build a network of high-speed rail systems to link up peninsular Southeast Asia—from Myanmar and Thailand down to Malaysia and Singapore. This network will converge regional finance, commerce, industry and culture on Kunming in Yunnan province, as mainland Southeast Asia’s de facto capital.
China is also founding the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which the US and Japan has opposed, but most of their close friends are joining, including all the countries of Asean and most of the countries of Europe.
Asean arms race
As we may expect, the China Sea tensions have set off an arms race in East Asia. Our region now accounts for half of all arms imports.
Singapore was first to declare for the US: it built deep-water berths for aircraft carriers forced to move out of Subic Bay in 1991. Spooked by Beijing’s aggressiveness, Manila seems receptive to renewed US basing proposals.
Vietnam—like the Philippines a front-line state in the South China Sea dispute—has nearly doubled its military budget. Most of the Asean powers—except our impoverished motherland—have submarine fleets in various stages of readiness.
Tokyo—under hawkish Premier Shinzo Abe—seems to be using its own East China Sea dispute with Beijing to stimulate a nationalist resurgence. In 2014, Japan’s military was seeking its biggest-ever defense budget.
Not only is Japan rebuilding its military long hobbled by its “no-war” constitution. It is also offering defense aid to its neighbors and broadening its security cooperation with Washington.
Australia has given up its early alternative of ‘armed neutrality’ and accepted a token US force in its northern state of Darwin.
A multilateral power balance
Ideally, Asean policy (as that of Australia) should be to avoid having to choose between the US and China. They will want the great powers to get along. But China’s brusque aggressiveness on the South China Sea has forced the littoral states to choose sides early on—just as neutralist Finland, spooked by Putin Moscow’s aggressiveness in Ukraine—is on the brink of joining NATO.
Even so, our middle powers should benefit from the construction of a multilateral power balance in the Western Pacific.
Greater engagement in the region of the European Union, India, central Asia and even the Pacific Basin states of Latin America will do much to moderate big-power rivalries. It should give the two great powers the breathing spell (in Kevin Rudd’s words),“to renegotiate the boundaries of their influence and power, and develop a shared understanding of their global roles and responsibilities.”