Hamish McDonald
China’s slow boil in the Pacific

This has been an alarming month for those who think China is spoiling for a fight with the United States over dominance in Asia, or at least playing chicken with what it sees as a declining and reluctant great power.

Only a week after Barack Obama toured four allied or friendly nations to reassure them the US had their back if maritime territorial disputes with China got violent, and a week before south-east Asia’s nervous leaders held their yearly summit, a Chinese state oil company placed a giant oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam, protected by swarms of coastguard and naval ships.

After this caused anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam, with the loss of 21 lives, Chinese state-owned news media editorialised against the “unfounded nationalist” reaction by Vietnam, as well as the suit lodged earlier this year by the Philippines over China’s efforts to seize reefs on its side of the South China Sea.

“The South China Sea disputes should be settled in a peaceful manner, but that doesn’t mean China can’t resort to non-peaceful measures in the face of provocation from Vietnam and the Philippines,” the newspaper Global Times said. “Many people believe that a forced war would convince some countries of China’s sincerely peaceful intentions, but it is also highly likely that China’s strategy would face more uncertainties.”

While this Orwellian doublespeak (“War is Peace”) is almost self-parody, the ongoing disputes are being taken very seriously in Washington. There, for example, two strategic analysts at the Council on Foreign Relations, Elizabeth Economy and Michael Levi, have just argued the US needs to show a readiness to take “difficult action” in response, including naval support for Vietnam if negotiation fails.

Several years of rising Chinese “assertiveness”, which started with hubristic reaction to America’s Lehman Brothers crisis in 2008, has led international relations experts to dust off old texts on “power transitions” between new and status quo powers. One by the Chicago scholar A.F.K. Organski in 1960 could find only a single case of a status quo power amicably stepping aside for a new one: that of Britain conceding leadership to the US, helped by a common language and political culture. In most cases, Organski concluded, “one could almost say that the rise of such a challenger guarantees a major war”.

So is China the new post-Bismarckian Germany, a century on, challenging the dominant sea power of our age? On paper, the trajectories of military capability appear to be converging fast. China’s latest defence budget equivalent to $US132 billion, even if bumped up to the $US180 billion estimated by the Swedish research group SIPRI, is only a bit above one-third of the US baseline defence budget of $US495 billion (not counting additional war-fighting spending for Afghanistan). Yet it grows this year by 12.2 per cent, and looks like enjoying double-digit growth for years unless the Chinese economy hits a wall, while the US military faces a decade of capped budgets at current levels. The Americans are struggling to maintain a 300-ship navy, and may have to mothball one of the 11 aircraft carriers.

The Chinese still have some way to go in matching the Americans. The Chinese navy has 190 major combatant vessels, but many are old or noisy (in the case of submarines). Its single aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is a testbed, handicapped by the lack of a catapult launch system that would allow full use of fleet air power.

But in terms of purchasing power, China currently gets much more bang for the buck, at least in the domestic-sourced labour-intensive stages of building warships and combat aircraft. It also has a relatively cheap source of advanced weaponry from Russia, including quiet conventional submarines, supersonic anti-ship missiles, and a new air defence system called the S-400. At least in numbers of ships and planes, it may catch up with the US by the end of the decade.

That will be helped if Communist Party leader Xi Jinping succeeds in his announced campaign to restructure the 1.4 million-strong People’s Liberation Army away from its present land-force emphasis, focused on border defence and internal political control, to concentrate resources on the navy, air and missile forces.

Countering this will be the need to recruit and retain better-educated personnel to operate more sophisticated weapons and systems, instead of peasant soldiers. The cost of salaries and housing will steadily rise from the present one-third of defence spending towards half or more, Western analysts think.

The objective is not to replicate the global reach of US power, at least not in the foreseeable future. Newer and more capable aircraft carriers will probably be built within the next few years, but the Chinese navy will lack the layers of defence and surveillance capability that would allow it to sail far away from home waters into any conflict. Nor is anyone actually threatening to cut China’s supply lines of oil and other raw materials from distant sources, or block its export container ships.

The immediate aim most Western analysts see is to challenge America’s ability to operate its naval and air forces with relative impunity in the waters enclosed by the so-called “first island chain” (Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines). In the case of Beijing feeling a need to bring Taiwan under control, or secure island groups or maritime resource zones claimed by other states, this would make the US baulk at intervening or at least delay the arrival of forces so that China could achieve its objectives.

Recent soundings in Beijing and Shanghai think tanks by US Sinologists find most Chinese academic experts, civilian and military, well aware that Chinese forces still lag well behind in the technological quality to be confident of coming off best or even equal in an outright clash with the US or Japan.

However, there is a risk that China’s political and military leaders less exposed to independent information might hold exaggerated ideas about the capabilities of new weapons being acquired, without understanding that similar weapons held by the US and its close allies are backed by highly sophisticated information networks.

This is partly a result of the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs since the late 1980s, when the new emphasis on space-based and other remote systems drew a veil over what had been previously a fairly open calculus of weapons counting. Cyber warfare is another new dimension. Until there is a conflict, these capabilities are not revealed. Deterrence is reduced.

In addition, Chinese military writings display “almost unbelievable faith in their ability to control escalation and signal to adversaries in the course of crisis or combat,” says Peter Mattis, of the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank. “This suggests the PLA (and possibly some in the Chinese leadership) sees the use of force as a much cleaner tool than it really is and that, once begun, China can walk back fairly easily from shots fired. If this perspective shapes the military options presented to Xi Jinping and the rest of the standing committee, then Beijing may very well have a lower threshold of using force than we imagine.”

But so far, barring accidental clashes and low-level initiatives, China appears set on advancing its interests in surrounding seas by actions calibrated to be below the threshold that would easily justify US military power.

This incremental approach − variously called “whole of government short of war” or just “salami slicing” − involves the use of civilian actors, such as fishermen or hotheaded but admirable young patriots, or non-military agencies concerned with fishery protection, immigration, customs, or natural resource surveys.

Not just to the Chinese, US conventional power looks to some analysts as too powerful to use. It involves intervention up the “kill chain” of an opponent: to target detection, tracking and weapons-guidance systems, taking the US response deep into the territory of the opponent (such as China or Iran), with a consequently higher risk of escalation.

Much of this war-fighting capability seems included in what is termed the Air-Sea Battle Concept, and the US National Defence University’s T.X. Hemmes for one sees the concept scaring US allies without deterring China. Since most Air-Sea Battle technology is top secret, US officials are unable to discuss it with allies, who then assume it will be an immediate blinding attack on China behind its border.

Hemmes suggests a more credible strategy with less risk of escalation – and more avenues for de-escalation − would be based on sea control within the first island chain relying on submarines, mines, and some air element, but with no penetration of Chinese air space.

But that still leaves unchecked China’s low-level, incremental pushing of claims − the reclamations and building of platforms on reefs, the oil drilling and the close supervision of foreign fishing fleets.

While the US works on building a new network of strategic partners around Asia to counterbalance a wider reach of Chinese power − notably Japan, South Korea, Australia, India and the South-East Asian maritime nations − China is quietly helping itself to what it wants nearby.

It may come to a naval response, but two other strategies suggest themselves immediately. The disputant nations could play back China’s own tactics: encouraging waves of unarmed Vietnamese or Philippine activists, fishermen and others to front up to the Chinese and dare them to use force. Their governments could employ something China hates – international law – by joining Manila in its legal case at The Hague.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 31, 2014 as "Pacific boiling point".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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