The intrusion of aircraft-carrier battle groups—one from the United States, asserting its “freedom of navigation doctrine,” and the other from China, backing up its ownership claims—has raised the alarm level in the South China Sea dispute.
The US strike group apparently intends to launch regular patrols of the strategic waterway, in the wake of the show of force by the Chinese navy.
This month, the Americans, along with their South Korean allies, will also stage an elaborate military exercise in the East China Sea that will engage stealth jet fighters and long-distance bombers, plus one nuclear submarine.
Similarly, the rhetoric of the dispute is hitting a higher pitch. President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State says bluntly that “Chinese access to the islands is not going to be allowed.”
We have yet to see how things develop between the superpowers after that gambit; but we may be sure Hugh White, a strategist at the Australian National University (Canberra), speaks for many East Asians when he says, “Australia cannot risk supporting America at the expense of its relationship with China.”
China is Australia’s biggest market by far— taking more than 30% of all its exports. Most of the region’s states are similarly situated. But the question is larger than one of shifting markets.
At bottom, it seems a question of whether or not the world has reached “the limits of American stamina” (in the words of the English historian Niall Ferguson), and arrived at the beginning of a post-western order, in which China might have a leadership role.
A new world order?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China had not only conceded Washington’s dominance of the post-Cold War world.
It in fact used the American peace to turn itself into the No. 2 economic power—surpassing successively Germany then Japan, and spreading its trade, investment and aid programs all over the globe.
So that Beijing’s claims for the superiority of its economic model—as against no-holds-barred capitalism—are now taken seriously in the new countries.
Measured liberalization of markets and other top-down reforms are an attractive recourse for authoritarian states, amid the worldwide surge of populism.
Shocked and awed
During much of China’s period of galloping growth (1980-2005), Beijing’s war doctrine continued to rely on a variety of “people’s war.” The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) was trained to lure an invading army deep into the immense Chinese mainland, where pinprick guerrilla attacks would reduce it to exhaustion.
This Maoist doctrine held until the successive Gulf wars “shocked and awed” PLA strategists into recognizing how technologically advanced their American rivals had become.
In the 1990s, Beijing began adapting to this revolution in military affairs, and preparing the PLA to fight a regional limited war under high-tech conditions.
The economic expansion set off by Deng Xiaoping’s political reforms enables robust military spending. It is expected, by 2020, to exceed that of all of Western Europe put together.
On the world ocean
This strategic shift set off qualitative changes in China’s war doctrine. It is steadily downsizing its land forces—while bolstering its naval and nuclear- missile capabilities.
Demobilization, streamlining and tightening of command structures have reduced the PLA’s land forces on active duty from 6.1 million in 1949 to 1.6 million.
Today’s emphasis is on building up naval power—not only to reflect China’s involvement in the world (It now imports 64.4% of its crude oil), but also to enable Beijing to project Chinese maritime power on every region of the world ocean.
Not since the epic voyages of the Ming dynasty navigator Zheng He (1405-35) has China been so assertive on issues involving its vulnerable seacoast. Historically, dynastic China had focused on threats from the nomads of the Inner Asian grasslands.
‘String of pearls’ strategy
The PLA Navy’s immediate concern is to establish a presence on the waterways linking the Western Pacific with the Arabian oil wells. Not since the voyages of the eunuch admiral Cheng He, in the early fifteenth century, has China been so venturesome.
Toward this goal, Beijing is acquiring naval way-stations on the Gulf of Thailand, the Andaman Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Pakistan coast and the Gulf itself—in what has been likened to a “string-of-pearls” strategy.
In February, China completed building its first overseas base—in the pocket-state of Djibouti in northeast Africa, on the entrance to the Red Sea.
Cooperation or competition?
Beijing has committed itself to building a world-class navy able to dominate coastal, regional and even hemispheric bodies of salt-water—just as the US has done. Will such a grand strategy bring Washington and Beijing head to head on the China Sea?
The Trump Administration promises a robust reply to Beijing’s island-building program. But between the two superpowers there are also grounds for cooperation as well as competition. Note how Beijing’s sudden decision to suspend coal imports from Pyongyang is being interpreted as a signal to Washington that cooperation on North Korea is possible.
For the Australian academic Hugh White, Trump’s “America First” doctrine means East Asia can expect no sustained US leadership in the long run. An economically protectionist America could also be nationalist and warlike. But perhaps the lessons of the last half-century have chastened American ambitions.
“We’re no longer in nation-building mode,” President Barack Obama said in 2015. “A military cannot create a political culture or build a society.”