Can China Handle America’s Return?

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Can China Handle America’s Return?

The United States’ decision to “pivot” back to the Asia-Pacific is welcome among its allies. But what about its most assertive rising power?

Talks last week between Michèle Flournoy, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, and China’s Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the People’s Liberation Army general staff, were heavy on feel-good bromides about mutual interests and peaceful cooperation in the western Pacific. However, they predictably left the issues most roiling this critically important region unresolved.

Similar high-level talks, including those held last month between Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao during the APEC summit in Hawaii, are all part of a series of top-level discussions that have been taking place over the past year that have in part been aimed at mollifying a somewhat volatile Beijing in the face of America’s return to the Pacific.

Made possible by the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States’ strategic shift has come not a moment too soon for Washington's friends and allies in the region. These countries have long sought greater U.S. political support and military presence in the face of China’s aggressive employment of its growing power.

While U.S. focus has necessarily been on Southwest Asia, Beijing has been using its rapidly growing military to back up tendentious claims on energy fields hundreds of miles from its coast beneath the South China Sea. China’s attempt to mark claims lying within the Philippine and Vietnamese exclusive economic zones has sparked small-scale naval confrontations. Tensions continue to run high. China also maintains claims in the waters abutting Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

In flagrant breaches of international protocol, Chinese naval flotillas appeared unannounced near Japanese territorial waters several times over the past couple of years, unsettling Tokyo. Taiwan, a U.S. treaty partner, has also suffered from lack of attention in the security realm. The China lobby has thus far prevented the U.S. government from providing Taipei with new, sorely needed F-16 fighters. Instead, older models will be updated. Disappointingly, U.S. efforts to get Beijing to stand down the thousands of missiles pointed at Taiwan have met with little success. South Korea, another U.S. treaty partner, is both unnerved by North Korea’s continued bellicosity and frustrated by Beijing’s unwillingness to bring Kim Jong-il's regime to heel.

Though ostensibly employed to secure the transport of vitally needed energy resources, China’s “String of Pearls” strategy has still unnerved countries in the Pacific Rim. Beijing has established naval bases or secured docking and landing rights for its navy and air force in Sudan, Kenya, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Burma. Accompanying the securing of such far-flung ports is China’s push to field a true “blue water” navy capable of operating thousands of miles from home.

Since the turn of the century, China has ramped up production of oceangoing warships including amphibious assault ships and nuclear-powered submarines, to replace what had been a fleet comprised primarily of coastal patrol vessels and short-range diesel-electric subs. China recently began sea trials of its first aircraft carrier, a refurbished Soviet model, and is developing its own indigenously designed and built carriers. Of particular concern is China’s DF-21D ballistic missile program, which could target aircraft carriers and other large ships. This satellite-guided weapon was clearly developed with deterring the U.S. Navy in mind.

It has long been argued that Beijing’s military buildup – heavily focused on long-range naval and air assets – is driven by its heavy dependency on sea-lanes of communication, especially for the supply of desperately needed energy resources. That seems understandable. But caution is warranted in light of China’s bellicose display of its expanding military power and its unwillingness to comport itself responsibly by displaying greater transparency in its regional intentions and weapons development programs.

As then-Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said in a speech delivered at China’s Renmin University in July: “Historically as nations develop they often invest in their armed forces and this region is no exception. But with greater military power must come greater responsibility, greater cooperation, and just as important, greater transparency. Without these things the expansion of military power in your region rather than making it more secure and stable, could have the opposite effect.”

U.S. military forces have already begun the long, challenging re-orientation to the sea, especially the Marine Corps and the Navy’s Special Warfare units. But it will take several years before vital maritime and amphibious skills are re-learned and applied after a decade of ground combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. America’s economic woes and diminished defense budget will make this task all the more difficult.

The United States’ geographic re-orientation, or so-called pivot, comes precisely as severe military and defense cutbacks are expected in Washington. Just last week, $600 billion in cuts over the next ten years became a possibility when the Congressional budgetary super committee failed to reach a compromise. Future years’ defense budgets can be expected to remain on the chopping block for some time unless the U.S. Congress acts decisively.

Whether China is considered the United States’ critical trading partner, a strategic competitor or a potential enemy, the reduced U.S. presence in the Pacific didn’t result in needed stability or the spread of democratic values and human liberties. Its return to the Orient, therefore, should be seen as a welcome development.

James Colbert is Policy Director at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and Deputy Editor of The Journal of International Security Affairs.