James Holmes

Red Star Over the Atlantic?

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James Holmes

Red Star Over the Atlantic?

Could Chinese naval vessels soon be on patrol in the Atlantic Ocean?

Writing at World Politics Review, my NWC colleague Nikolas Gvosdev urges the United States to think ahead in case China establishes a global presence, but to do so without succumbing to the kind of action-reaction dynamic that typified Cold War competition. Not every Chinese move warrants an American reply. This is sound advice.

Nick mentions Wen Jiabao’s much-discussed stopover in the Azore Islands, which could represent the prelude to a Chinese naval presence in the Atlantic. As the U.S. Air Force radically scales back its presence in the islands, Beijing could fill the void.

Maybe. There’s no ruling out unwise policy. China has blundered repeatedly in the East China and South China seas over the past few years, creating needless problems for itself. But on the positive side of the ledger, its leadership has been admirably circumspect about taking on extraregional commitments. Its reach has not exceeded its military grasp. Apart from the counterpiracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, it has kept its forces concentrated in East Asian waters and China proper.

But suppose Beijing does multiply its out-of-area commitments. Rather than fret about an extraregional China, I say bring it on.

The more burdens Beijing shoulders outside the Far East, the more it must disperse finite physical power—diluting the military assets it can apply to any given contingency without leaving commitments elsewhere uncovered. It will have less military might to spare for adventures like grabbing parts of Southeast Asian states’ exclusive economic zones or mounting a challenge to the forward American presence in the Western Pacific.

China, it seems, may soon discover the joys of juggling competing demands on scarce resources and policy energy. Asia is a far less permissive setting than the Americas. Consequently, Beijing may also discover that multitasking is even harder for a global power that inhabits a tough neighborhood, has abundant unfinished business close to home, and has courted few partners and allies to help advance its interests.

Strategic thinkers have struggled with questions of concentration and dispersal since time immemorial. Carl von Clausewitz counsels that the best policy is to be very strong, both in general and at the decisive time and place. Easier said than done. Setting priorities becomes nightmarish when national interests are at stake in many places at the same time.

Welcome to the club, China.