Sino-American relations have evolved drastically over the last several decades. The rise of China has created fears and concerns within certain sectors of the US defense establishment. The question that is asked time and time again is whether or not China poses a threat to American’s regional interests in East Asia. This paper seeks to summarize the main arguments, place them in context, and attempt to answer whether or not China is indeed a threat to the United States, a threat that could use military force to change the prevailing status quo in East Asia.
The United States has economic and political relationships in East Asia, in particular with South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and to a lesser extent, the Philippines. These post-World War Two arrangements are now viewed as critical to the security and economic well-being of the United States. China has undergone a period of rapid economic growth, a growth that now has China increasingly looking beyond its own borders for resources and economic prosperity. Like the United States, China also needs additional natural resources to fuel its growth and wishes to seek out new trade partners and relationships in East Asia and beyond. In order to satisfy its economic growth, China must become a player on the world stage, but does becoming a global actor put China directly at odds with the United States and its own security and economic interests?
Many would argue that China does in fact seek to become a regional hegemon and that China would like to be the most influential actor in Asia. China also seeks to resolve their own territory disputes, mainly with Taiwan, which the PRC government feels should be integrated back into China. What we must now turn our attention to is whether there are any signs that China actually wishes to challenge the American presence in East Asia and the Pacific Ocean using military force.
Deng Xiaoping promised to modernize the Chinese military in the 1970s (Dreyer, 104) after realizing that his country was lagging behind the military power of Russia and America. In order to maintain China’s own internal security, if nothing else, they had to overhaul their military and re-think their military doctrine. Previously, China has always intended on “luring the enemy deep into Chinese territory in order to fight a prolonged war of attrition using guerrilla as well as regular forces” (Dreyer, 106). This strategy was abandoned because of “Deng Xiaoping’s judgment…small- and medium-sized local conflicts, not general or total wars, were the most likely threats that China would encounter in a world no longer characterized by intense competition between two superpowers.” Xiaoping also believed that the threats facing China in the future would be, “local conflicts as sudden, intense, and destructive” (Fravel, 126). This new doctrine called for China to be able to fight local wars under modern high-tech conditions, a doctrinal belief that was only reinforced by China’s analysis of the 1991 Gulf War.
China’s military objectives now became territorial integrity, national unification, maritime security, and regional stability. It is important to note that national unification is a specific reference to absorbing Taiwan and rolling it back into being a part of the People’s Republic of China. In order to achieve these four military objectives, China has pursued a military doctrine called Anti-Access and Access Denial. Area Denial means denying the enemy (the unstated adversary certainly being the US) freedom of movement in certain regions during a time of war. Rather than outmatch US military might, Area Denial would simply harass and slow down military forces while Anti-Access is, “any action by an opponent that has the effect of slowing the deployment of friendly forces into a theater, preventing them from operating from certain locations within that theater, or causing them to operate from distances farther from the locus of conflict than they would normally prefer” (Cliff, 12).
Tactics employed to support the Anti-Access/Area Denial strategy could include attacks on American logistics lines, mining harbors, using covert operatives to sabotage military facilities, bombing airfields, electronic jamming, computer network attacks, and ballistic missile strikes. Taking lessons learned from US military actions in the Gulf War, China has reached the conclusion that in order to challenge the United State’s technological and military superiority, “the PLA has focused on devising strategies that maximize China’s relative strengths and that create opportunities to exploit adversary weaknesses” (Cliff, xv). In short, China seeks to gain an asymmetrical advantage over relative US military strength.
The point of Anti-Access/Area-Denial is not to match the US military soldier for soldier, or fighter jet for fighter jet, but rather to conduct a spoiler campaign that would slow down and delay United States military deployments into the Pacific theater. If China decided to take back Taiwan by force, they could launch this spoiler attack in the opening salvo of the conflict. By disabling American airfields and logistic hubs with a combined attack consisting of cyber-warfare, Special Operations “decapitation” strikes, and ballistic missile attacks, China could stall the forward momentum of US forces. These attacks would probably focus on US bases in Okinawa, South Korea, and elsewhere in the Pacific, perhaps as far out as Guam and Hawaii. This could potentially keep America out of the fight and render them combat-ineffective until China had reached the decisive point of their mission to capture Taiwan, in this case an amphibious landing on Taiwanese shores.
China has developed offensive as well as defense capabilities to further this strategy. The offensive components include, “Russian Su-27 or China’s J-10 that entered into serial production in 2006, as well as short-range ballistic missiles and land-attack cruise missiles, all of which can be used to destroy targets beyond China’s borders” (Fravel 133). They even have advanced anti-aircraft systems purchased from Russia for defensive purposes
Chinese military planners also intend to destroy US carrier groups if it comes to open conflict in the future. Understanding that aircraft carriers are perhaps the most important tool in the US military arsenal for military power projection, China plans to use swarm attacks to take out the carriers: “Massed attacks using air- and sea-launched cruise missiles can be used to overwhelm an aircraft carrier’s defenses…” (Cliff, xvii). These swarming attacks would overwhelm the carrier’s defensive measures by providing more incoming fire then it could respond to or shoot down.
Another form of asymmetrical attack that China has invested in is computer network attacks, or cyber-warfare. These are considered to be so-called soft kill attacks, which would target computer systems that are used to control and coordinate the increasingly network-centric US military. Chinese computer hackers could target the computer networks not only in Guam, Hawaii, South Korea, Japan, but also inside the United States itself. This tactic supports the Anti-Access strategy because “PLA analysts believe that attacks against information systems can delay the deployment of U.S. military forces by disrupting communications or denying the U.S. military access to information on enemy whereabouts” (Cliff, xvi). Offensive computer network attacks would therefore delay or prevent the deployment of American forces into the Pacific theater during a time of war
Aside from the development of military capabilities alone, it is also important to look at the politics of the region. Both the United States and the Soviet Union developed the capability to annihilate each other, but never actually resorted to the use of nuclear weapons. The development of a capability does not imply that either China or the United States seeks war, or any antagonistic relationship with each other.
The danger of war comes into existence only if there is a shake up in China’s domestic political situation. Neo-liberal political theory holds that nations like China and America are too economically inter-dependent on each other to go to war. However, war becomes a possibility if China’s economy slows down and elites stoke the flames of nationalism and the notion of an external enemy, Taiwan in this case, in order to secure legitimacy in the face of slowed economic growth. If Chinese elites, “become convinced that relatively limited military capabilities and coercive tactics might allow for the politically effective use of force against Taiwan…” (Christensen, 10) then the prospect of war become much more likely.
Within power transition theory, the smaller rising power is usually the one that initiates a conflict in order to shake up the geo-political status quo. Christensen believes that there are four circumstances under which China would threaten the United States with military force. First, if Chinese policy makers feel they have no choice but to attack Taiwan and that the US wants to avoid war more than it wants risk open war with China. Second, if China thinks their Anti-Access/Area-Denial strategy will keep the US out of the region or inflict enough US casualties that it will make war too cost prohibitive for America. Third, if the PRC government sees America tied down in another military engagement and thinks they can re-take Taiwan while the US military is distracted elsewhere and finally, if China can force a schism between America and their allies in the Pacific and East Asia (Christensen, 14).
The last point is one that must be taken into special consideration. War is not simply a contest of military wills, but also takes place in the political, economic, and diplomatic spheres as well. China could create rifts between the US and allies in the region, or exploit ones that already exist. By doing this, China could offer incentives (carrots and sticks) to US allies in places like Guam or South Korea to deprive the United States of strategic military bases that would be used in a potential conflict with China. Such a situation is not hypothetical as, “the United States lost access to important bases in the Philippines and Panama because of domestic political opposition to its presence” (Cliff, 10), not to mention the fact that Turkey also denied the US permission to use their country as a staging ground for military forces in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Again, it must be understood that China does not need to win a decisive, strategic defeat to the entire US military. Rather, China simply has to, “accomplish its military-political objectives while preventing the United States from accomplishing some or all of its own political and military objectives” (Cliff, 112). In other words, China simply has to stall the US military via their Anti-Access/Area Denial strategy until Chinese forces have captured Taiwan. At this point it would be unlikely for the United States to attempt to dislodge China from the island; the damage would be done and the costs of reversing the course of the war would be too steep.
While China has clearly developed the capabilities to challenge the US military in a potential future war, as noted previously, the development of a capability does not necessarily signal the intent to use that capability. Before concluding, we must therefore determine if China actually intends to use these capabilities. Does China truly intend to use military force against the United States?
China’s official policy is unification with Taiwan, and the PRC government has been pushing various territory disputes in the South China Sea, however, it is highly questionable if China is actually expansionist in nature. “China’s strategic goals are keyed to the defense of a continental power with growing maritime interests as well as to Taiwan’s unification and are largely conservative, not expansionist” (Fravel 126), and we currently see no indication that China intends to expand their territory by invading the Korean peninsula or the Philippines. There is also no indication that China intends on attacking US territory, but rather seeks to defend their own regional interests.
China does not appear to intend on taking Taiwan by military force, but is clearly developing the ability to do so if the regional dynamics shift at some point in the future. Likewise, the United States, “has both a moral and material interest in a world in which democratic nations can survive and thrive” (Cliff, congressional testimony). Abandoning Taiwan to a Chinese military attack would signal to allies in the region that America will not defend them, including Japan. While unlikely at this time, China can threaten American regional interests in East Asia if, and when, shifting circumstances occur in China’s domestic politics as well as changes in international politics occur.
Christensen, Thomas. “Posing Problems without Catching up: China’s Rise and Challenges for U.S. Security Policy.” International Security. MIT, 2001.
Cliff, Roger. “Entering the Dragon’s Liar.” Rand Corporation, 2007.
Cliff, Roger. “Testimony before the U.S.China Economic and Security Review Commission Hearing on China’s Military Modernization and its Implications for the United States.” Washington DC, 30 January 2014. Congressional testimony.
Dreyer, June. “The Modernization of China’s Military.” China’s political system: modernization and tradition. Longman, 2010.
Fravel, Taylor. “China’s Search for Military Power.” The Washington Quarterly, 2008.
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