China’s Military Build-Up

If you haven’t come across Breakout, Reuters’ series on China’s evolving defense posture, treat yourself – it will be worth your time. The series – which will ultimately reach eight parts in total – is not a primer as much as it is a focus on eight different aspects of China’s rise, sort of like a Robert Kaplan book. My favorite piece so far, “The Chinese Navy Dismembers Japan,” focuses on Maneuver 5, a large-scale exercise involving much of the PLAN designed to simulate a showdown between the PLAN and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.

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The PLAN and Mahan

Alfred thayer mahan

China’s new strategist? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is no coincidence that the officers of the Chinese navy have taken to studying the writings of American naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, and in particular his 1890 opus, The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660-1773. That Mahan’s thesis – that countries with greater naval power will have greater global influence – strikes a chord with these officers is understandable: China’s navy has been the nation’s junior service since long before the revolution, and the Sino-sailors would probably like that to end. (The official name of the force alone is testament to the naval arm’s third-class status: “People’s Liberation Army Navy.” Cue sympathetic cringe.)

But there is more to this than inter-service rivalry. What makes their fascination important to note is that it reflects a much deeper change in China. Mahan’s focus on control of commerce by sea is cut to fit a nation that is increasingly dependent on inputs from abroad and manufactured exports. Consider the facts:

  • China’s most developed regions lie on or near the coast or its major riverine arteries. In an age of standoff weapons, defending those shores needs to take place far from shore.
  • Despite huge investments in domestic road, air, and rail transport, coastwise shipping still carries a huge percentage of China’s internal trade. Unlike the US, China faces other nations across its coastal seas, some of which are latently hostile;
  • Fishing and aquaculture are becoming more important to the nation’s effort to feed itself, but the defilement of coastal fisheries by pollution and toxic runoff has forced the nation’s fishing fleet to range well beyond coastal waters;
  • China can no longer feed itself, finding itself thus increasingly dependent on the flow of foodstuffs arriving by sea from Canada, Australia, Africa, and the U.S.
  • China is becoming increasingly dependent on energy from abroad. While a good portion of that is from Eurasia (think Iran and Iraq,) regional instability makes overland shipment impractical.
  • Many of China’s key industries are reliant on from inputs from abroad. Some comes by air, but minerals and commodities flow in by sea.

Look at that list carefully, and you realize that as the PRC emerges from its underdevelopment and its generation-long stint as the world’s factory floor, it has become something different. It is now looking more like the US in the late 19th century and Japan in the early-mid 20th century than many of us recognize. China is now a mercantilist economy.

Xi Jinping gets the implications. Zach Keck at The Diplomat quotes Chinese state media summarizing part of one of the president’s recent speeches in a tone that nearly apes Mahan word-for-word: “In the 21st Century, oceans and seas have and seas have an increasingly important role to play in a country’s economic development and opening up to the outside world.”

China has been – and remains – a continental power focused on its long land frontiers. It is across those borders that have come nearly all of its historic enemies, with the notable exception of the European powers during the declining days of the Qing empire. But that history is not destiny. China is more dependent on the outside world today than it ever has been, and that realization cannot but focus the minds of China’s leaders and defenders as they start to understand the new importance of coastal defense, sea frontiers, and protecting sea lines of communication (SLOCs).

Recognizing necessity, The PRC has set itself on the course to become a maritime power. The last Asian nation to set itself on a Mahanian course was Japan. Anyone interested in understanding where China and Asia are headed could do worse than read Mahan, if not his books, than his more readable journal articles.

India and Japan Grow Closer

The Expanding Indo-Japanese Partnership”
K.V. Kesavan

East-West Center
July 10, 2013

K.V. Kesavan of the Woodrow Wilson Center writes that the growing institutional ties between Japan and India lay the groundwork for closer economic, political and even military ties. No doubt China will be less than happy to hear it.

Why TPP is Not a Four-Letter Word

Strategic Implications of TPP: Answering the Critics”
Ellen Frost
East-West Center 

July 9, 2013

The East-West Center’s Ellen West explains how TPP is a good thing not only for Japan and Korea, but for the entire region. In so doing she explains – concisely – why we shouldn’t be worried about Beijing’s reaction to the treaty.

Chatham House on the Xi Administration

 

Xi Jinping - Caricature

Xi Jinping – Caricature (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

“The New Leadership in Beijing: Political and Economic Implications”
Kerry Brown
Chatham House
July 2013

If you have grown tired of reading analyses of Xi Jinping and his leadership program, you are not alone. The tea-leaf readers have been out in force this year, and anyone coming to the party at this point is somewhat late. But if you really care about what is going on in China, you are left with little choice but to keep reading. I do. Not necessarily because I expect a revelation with each new document, but because the better ones sharpen the definition of an incredibly fuzzy picture.

Many of my fellow China Condors and I are hoping to get some clarity about the next ten years following the coming plenum of the Party congress. The leaders have been chosen, the theory goes, and now it is time to lay out the policy platform that will guide the country over the next decade. There is much wishful thinking here: none of us are betting that we are going to be any clearer about the new leadership’s priorities then than we are now.

So we keep scouring the literature, and Kerry Brown’s paper is delightful in its brevity and clarity. Of all of his conclusions, the one that is likely to spark the most controversy (see the Eurasia Review link below) is this:

This is a leadership set up therefore for a domestic agenda and that will resist attempts to pull it more deeply into international affairs, which are seen as lying beyond what the elite define as in China’s national interests (preservation of stability, building up economic strength, safeguarding sovereignty), despite the very real pressures that will be put on it to that effect.

Comforting words, if true, particularly to China’s neighbors. Japan and the Philippines in particular are understandably worried about Chinese adventurism. Yet there is a limit implicit in Brown’s statement. The moment that China’s elite define the national interest as a plunge into international affairs – perhaps as a palliative to a restive populace, or in defense of the threatened assets of national enterprises – all bets are off.

A great read, and if you have read nothing else about the new leadership, Brown’s paper is an excellent précis of a vast and growing corpus of analysis.

Allies on the High Frontier

English: Backdropped by a blue and white part ...

The unpiloted Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) approaches the International Space Station. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Strategic Imperatives for US–Japan Outer Space Cooperation
Crystal Pryor
East-West Center

December 7, 2012

The irony of publishing an essay advocating closer cooperation between the U.S. and Japan in the military sphere on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor is palpable, to the point where you wonder if the wags at the East-West Center did this on purpose.

Regardless of intent, Crystal Pryor brings up an issue that is easy to forget in these fraught times in the East China Sea: space. China is on a tear in space, accelerating its manned orbital program and beginning the long effort that will take taikonauts to the Moon. And let’s not forget – China has proven it can take out just about any satellite it pleases.

Pryor calls for closer peaceful cooperation between the U.S. and Japan in space, and little wonder: experience on the International Space Station revealed some avenues for cooperation. But Japan could be forgiven for having a hidden agenda. Space, even unmanned, is increasingly important to national security and economic growth, and Japan cannot defend its orbital interests alone. Overt military cooperation with the U.S. in space would be an outright provocation. Civilian partnerships, though, could lead to deeper ties if events develop.

Japan’s problem, though, is that NASA is in a torpor. It will have to either rouse the beast, or it will need to find ways to build alliances with the growing bevy of private space companies. Near term, bet on the latter.

Does Thailand Want the US to Pivot?

Thailand guard

Thailand guard (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

“After Obama’s Visit: The US-Thailand Alliance and China”
Sasiwan Chingchit

East-West Center
December 4, 2012

The underlying assumption of U.S. President Barack Obama‘s strategy to shift the focus of the U.S. security establishment away from Southwest Asia and Europe to Southeast Asia is that the locals are going to be happy with the idea. A read of Sasiwan Chingchit’s essay, though, makes you wonder.

The author suggests that despite a long friendship with the U.S. that peaked in the early 1970s, Thai attentions and affections have since shifted north, to China. Little wonder: since China backed the Thai economy during the dark days of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the money has continued to flow from China and into the Thai economy in the form of loans, direct investment, and plume of tourists that grows by the year. That one Thai in five is ethnically Chinese probably doesn’t hurt. The message is clear: don’t think you’re going to swoop in here and turn us against our new benefactors to the north.

Chingchit makes a fair point, but the elephant in the room should be obvious to any Thai realist: what happens if the price of Chinese friendship gets a little too high?

Thailand is not alone in Southeast Asia in finding itself caught between two giants. On the one hand, relations with the rising China carry the promise of commercial and economic benefit. On the other, the U.S. presence in Asia stands as a guarantor that limits China’s ambitions to the commercial sphere. Having the U.S. and China at loggerheads on their behalf suits the smaller nations of Asia as the competition between two eligible bachelors suits the coquette.

What happens, then, when the U.S., tired of a low diplomatic return on its security investment, allows the pivot to become a dead letter and leaves Southeast Asia to manage its own fate? The last time the region was without a capable protector it fell under the shadow of Japan’s East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. It does not take a surfeit of imagination to see something altogether similar happening again.