Beijing’s assertiveness on the China sea tests US resolve to remain a Pacific power
Beijing’s assertiveness on the South China Sea seems, above all else, a test of America’s resolve to stay a Pacific power.
Chinese leaders see their country’s rise to wealth and power as signifying the transformation of the world order: the tilting of global gravity away from the Atlantic toward the Pacific.
President Xi Jinping wants President Barack Obama to acknowledge China’s arrival as a great power—with a rightful role in “shaping new global rules and norms.”
In China-US relations, he wants to build “strategic reassurance”; respect for each other’s “core interests”; and recognition of each other’s “spheres of influence.” ”
A recession of US influence
These negotiating demands will mean—unavoidably—some cutback in US influence: some recession in the activist strategy the US has followed in the West Pacific since the 1890s.
At that time, the geopolitician Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan and his disciples (who included Theodore Roosevelt, then Under-Secretary of the Navy) began to regard the projection of US sea-power as a kind of “forward defense”—as well as an expression of America’s “Manifest Destiny” as a global power.
Mahan argued that while America’s Atlantic coast was protected by its French and British allies, the Asian mainland and the islands enclosing the China Sea were occupied by peoples alien to the Americans. So that it is an invasion from the Pacific that would threaten the US.
Through Roosevelt’s influence (he became president in 1901-09), the US Navy acquired way stations in the immensities of the Pacific and, through the 1898 war Washington forced on Madrid, Manila Bay as its East Asian base.
And, sure enough, Mahan’s apocalyptic vision of danger rising from the Pacific became a reality four decades later. In 1941, a beleaguered Japan struck pre-emptively at Pearl Harbor.
East Asian hegemony
Since Japan’s defeat, the US has kept alliances and bases all along the China Sea coast to prevent a continental power—whether China or the USSR—from breaking out to the West Pacific and the world ocean.
And, ironically, it is the regional stability generated by the US hegemony that enabled China—no less than East Asia’s “tiger” economies—to grow at unprecedented rates.
After surpassing Germany as the largest exporter in October 2009, China overtook Japan to become the second-largest economy in middle 2010. Now only the US is ahead in GDP terms—and even that may change by 2025.
Strengths and weaknesses
How America the hegemonic power and China the revisionist power resolve their conflicts will determine the course of regional history during this next generation.
Militarily, Washington still outspends all the great powers put together. China’s military budget for 2014 is 12.2% more than it declared for 2013. Experts believe its expenditure is higher than the declared total.
Since China still spends only 2.5% of its GDP on its military, against4.5% by the US, the Chinese won’t go bankrupt, as the Russians did, trying to compete against the Americans.
Ominously, China’s top generals are beginning to express their views on political issues. The Brookings Institute think tank notes a profound “lack of coordination between the foreign ministry and the military.”
In its search for friends, Beijing is devising a “March West” strategy to counter Washington’s “pivot to Asia.” Beijing aims to fill the power vacuum Washington leaves behind as it disengages from the Middle East.
Economically, China is virtually allied with the US. Their two-way trade exceeds 400 billion dollars, and China is the biggest US creditor.
By 2030, China will be importing 75% of its oil. But the US is increasingly oil-independent, because of new shale oil and gas fields. China has just surpassed the US as the largest oil importer.
Then, too, China’s labor pool is drying up, so that wages are rising rapidly—hurting its export competitiveness.
In the US, joblessness is projected to continue for another decade or so. Economic stresses will tend to turn Americans inward—against immigrants, foreign commitments and foreign trade—and make policy compromises between its political parties even more difficult.
Meanwhile income inequality is devastating America’s cherished egalitarian myth.
In January 2014, half of all Americans thought their country’s system of democracy either needed “a lot of changes” or a complete overhaul.
In its people’s view, China’s political culture too needs improvement. The rising middle class is beginning to challenge authoritarian rule at local-government level.
“Between 2006 and 2010,” The New Yorker notes, “the number of strikes and riots and what Chinese officials call ‘mass incidents’ doubled to 180,000 a year.”
Build-up of forces
China’s muscle still comes disproportionately from its 1.4 million ground troops–the world’s biggest. Xi Jinping’s reforms are preparing it to fight the sea-air battle it must win against the US-Japan combine. By 2020, the PLA will have ballistic missiles, stealth jets and the nuclei of carrier battle groups.
Immediately, Beijing aims to prevent the defection of Taiwan and deter US intervention in any confrontation with its estranged island. In 1996, the US sent two carrier battle groups off the island during a Taiwan Straits crisis.
A 2009 study by the think tank RAND judged the US no longer able to defend Taiwan from Chinese attack by 2020.
Over the longer term, China seeks to break its encirclement by the US and its allies and dominate its surrounding sea.
Meanwhile, Washington has been building an Asia-Pacific strongpoint on its island-territory of Guam—as the focal point of all US efforts to project power in the Western Pacific and as far away as the Indian Ocean.
From Guam, in the Marianas, it is only two days’ sailing to Manila Bay for an American carrier battle-group.
“Part 2: Looking for a new great power relationship” will come out tomorrow.