The new era of military competition in the Pacific will become the defining geopolitical contest of the 21st century
Yalong Bay is where the two sides of China’s rise now intersect: its deeply connected economy and its deep-seated instinct to challenge America – globalisation China and great-power China vying for a spot on the beach. Celebrating their success in the China market, the Syngenta employees at the Sheraton all wore T-shirts emblazoned with the English-language slogan for their event: “Step Up Together”. Yet right next door to their party was one of the most striking symbols of China’s great-power ambitions. Ideally situated for quick access to the busy sea lanes of the South China Sea, the base in Hainan is one of the principal platforms for an old-fashioned form of projecting national power: a navy that can operate well beyond a country’s coastal waters. For the past couple of decades, such power politics seemed to have been made irrelevant by the frictionless, flat world of globalisation. Yalong Bay demonstrates a different reality. It is one of the launch pads for what will be a central geopolitical tussle of the 21st century: the new era of military competition in the Pacific Ocean between China and the US.
Asia’s seas have become the principal arteries of the global economy yet two very different visions of Asia’s future are now in play. Since the defeat of Japan in 1945 – and especially since the end of the cold war – the US Navy has treated the Pacific almost as a private lake. It has used that power to implement an international system in its own image, a rules-based order of free trade, freedom of navigation and, when possible, democratic government. That Pax Americana was cemented when the US and China resumed relations in 1972. The four decades since Richard Nixon met Mao Zedong have been the most stable and prosperous in Asia’s modern history. Under the agreement, the US endorsed China’s return to the family of nations and China implicitly accepted American military dominance in Asia.
For the past 20 years China has been undergoing a rapid military build-up, and the navy has been given pride of place. More important, China has been investing in its navy in a very specific way. American strategists sometimes talk about a Chinese “anti-navy” – a series of warships, silent submarines and precision missiles, some based on land, some at sea, which are specifically designed to keep an opposing navy as far away as possible from the mainland. The implication of the investment plan is that China is trying to prevent the US Navy from operating in large areas of the western Pacific. According to Dennis Blair, the former Pacific commander who was head of the US intelligence services early in the Obama administration: “Ninety per cent of their time is spent on thinking about new and interesting ways to sink our ships and shoot down our planes.”
China’s new navy is both an expression of power and a means to a diplomatic end. By weakening the US naval presence in the western Pacific, China hopes gradually to undermine America’s alliances with other Asian countries, notably South Korea, the Philippines and maybe even Japan. If US influence declines, China would be in a position to assume quietly a leadership position in Asia, giving it much greater sway over the rules and practices in the global economy. Through its navy, China hopes to reshape the balance of power in Asia. The naval competition in the western Pacific will set the tone for a large part of global politics in the coming decades.
China’s turn to the seas is rooted in history and geography in a manner that transcends its current political system. It was from the sea that China was harassed during its “century of humiliation” at the hands of the west. China was one of the most prominent victims of 19th-century gunboat diplomacy, when Britain, France and other colonial powers used their naval supremacy to exercise control over Shanghai and a dozen other ports around the country. The instinct to control the surrounding seas is partly rooted in the widespread desire never to leave China so vulnerable again. “Ignoring the oceans is a historical error we committed,” says Yang Yong, a Chinese historian. “And now even in the future we will pay a price for this error.”
This besiegement looks even worse on a map. Chinese talk about the “first island chain”, a perimeter that stretches along the western Pacific from Japan in the northeast, through Taiwan, to the Philippines in the south – all allies or friends of the US. This is both a geographical barrier, in that it creates a series of channels that a superior opponent could block in order to bottle up the Chinese navy, and a political barrier controlled by countries close to Washington. Chinese strategists talk about “breaking through the thistles”: the development of a naval capability that will allow it to operate outside the first island chain.
Anxieties about history and geography have meshed with broader concerns about economic security. One of the key turning points in China’s push to the high seas took place when it started to import oil for the first time, in 1993. By 2010, China had become the second-biggest consumer of oil, half of which is now imported. New great powers often fret that rivals could damage their economy with a blockade. For every 10 barrels of oil that China imports, more than eight travel by ship through the Strait of Malacca, the narrow sea channel between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, which is patrolled by US ships. Fifteenth-century Venetians used to warn, “Whoever is the Lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.” Hu Jintao echoed these sentiments when he warned in a 2003 speech that “certain major powers” are bent on controlling this crucial sea lane. Until now, China’s maritime security has been guaranteed largely by the US Navy. But, like aspiring great powers before it, China has been forced to confront a central geopolitical dilemma: can it rely on a rival to protect the country’s economic lifeline?
In 2005, the American writer Robert Kaplan wrote a cover story for The Atlantic entitled “How We Would Fight China”. I can remember receiving a copy in my office in Shanghai and tossing it angrily on to a pile of papers, the plastic wrapper still on the magazine. This was the high point of the debacle in Iraq and the idea of talking up a war with China at that moment seemed the height of neoconservative conceit. But when I did eventually read Kaplan’s article, I began to realise that the question he raised was a crucial one. China does not have a grand imperial plan to invade its neighbours, in the way the Soviets did. But in any country with a rapidly growing military – one that is flexing its muscles and is involved in a score of unresolved territorial disputes – there is always the risk that its leaders might be tempted by some sort of military solution, the lure of a quick win that would reorder the regional balance. If China and its neighbours all believe that the US has a credible plan for a conflict, this both deters any eventual Chinese adventurism and reduces the risk that anxious Asians will start their own arms races with Beijing. Or, as TX Hammes, the American military historian, puts it: “We need to make sure no one in the Chinese military is whispering in their leaders’ ears: ‘If you listen to me, we can be in Paris in just two weeks.’”
The US has not lost an aircraft carrier since the Japanese sank the Hornet in 1942. Both practically and symbolically, the aircraft carrier has been central to American power projection over the six decades during which it has dominated the Pacific. But it is those same vessels that are now potentially under threat from China’s vast new array of missiles. The loss of a carrier would be a massive psychological blow to American prestige and credibility, a naval 9/11. The mere prospect that carriers might be vulnerable could be enough to restrict their use. Even if the US Navy commanders thought their carriers would probably survive in a conflict, they might be reluctant to take the risk. As a result, the US needs a Plan B.
In the bowels of the Pentagon, that new plan has been taking shape. It is not actually described as a plan – instead, Pentagon officials call it a new “concept” for fighting wars. But it does have a name, AirSea Battle, which echoes the military doctrine from the later stages of the cold war called AirLand Battle, when the massive build-up in Soviet troops appeared to give the USSR the capacity to over-run western Europe. Many of the details about AirSea Battle remain vague. But the few indications that have been made public suggest an approach that, if pushed too far, could be a manifesto for a new cold war.
One senior Pentagon official insisted to me, “This is not an anti-China battle plan.” But when the Pentagon starts to describe the threats it is facing – long-range, precision-strike missiles that can restrict the movements of its ships, advanced submarines and expertise in cyberwar – it becomes clear that AirSea Battle is primarily about China. The hypothetical threat that the Pentagon planners outline describes accurately the precise strategy that China has been developing to restrict US access to the western Pacific. No wonder US military officers sometimes refer to China as “Voldemort” – in the Pentagon’s new battle plan, China is the enemy whose name they dare not speak.
Ninetyper cent of China’s time is spent on thinking about new and interesting ways to sink our ships and shoot down our planes
Amid the military jargon there lies an idea that – if taken to its logical conclusion – is fraught with peril. In early 2012, the Pentagon released a document called “Joint Operational Access Concept” (known in the building as Joac). In the event of a conflict, the paper says, the US should “attack the enemy’s cyber and space” capabilities. At the same time, it should attack the enemy’s anti-access forces “in depth”. The clear implication of this advice is that, if war ever were to break out, the US should plan to launch extensive bombing raids across mainland China. China’s “anti-navy” of missile bases and surveillance equipment is based at facilities spread across the country, including in many built-up areas. The basic idea behind AirSea Battle leads to a fairly uncompromising conclusion that, in the early stages of a conflict with Beijing, the US should destroy dozens of military sites. It is the navy’s version of “shock and awe” for 21st-century Asia.
There are several reasons why this would be a dangerous way to think about a conflict with China. For a start, it is a recipe for rapid escalation. Given that two nuclear powers are involved, there should be big incentives to leave room for diplomats to try and find a way to resolve the situation. Yet, in calling for US forces to take out China’s missile batteries at an early stage, the Pentagon’s ideas could intensify any conflict quickly. The Chinese might well conclude that the US was also targeting its nuclear weapons.
Using AirSea Battle’s ideas against China is an all-or-nothing battle plan. If commanders quickly order bombing raids across China, there is little scope to create space for diplomacy. Short of complete Chinese capitulation, it is difficult to see how such a war would end.
AirSea Battle would be expensive, too. It would require the Pentagon to fast-track a lot of weapons projects, such as a new generation of stealth bomber, at a time when budgets are under pressure. It is not only the usual critics of the military-industrial complex who fear this is part of the hidden agenda of AirSea Battle. Towards the end of the cold war, the arms race ultimately bankrupted the Soviet Union before the pressures of defence spending began seriously to undermine the US. But if a deeper arms race were to develop between China and the US, it is not at all clear that Washington would be starting from a stronger financial footing.
Then there are the allies. Asian governments are keen on a US military that can push back against Chinese aggression and are eager to enlist US help in this regard. But some allies might balk at the prospect of a plan to attack deep into mainland China, especially if it involved launching bombing raids from their territory. Ben Schreer, an Australian military strategist, says AirSea Battle is suited to “a future Asian cold war scenario”. Rather than providing assurance, Washington’s new battle plan could easily rattle some of its friends and allies.
All these objections create one final problem with AirSea Battle: is such an approach politically viable? Given the risks, especially the chance of nuclear escalation, it is not at all clear that a US president would endorse a war plan that involved such a rolling bombing campaign. Successful deterrence relies on being able to demonstrate a military threat that is credible and realistic. Pentagon planners hope the Chinese military will be cowed by the mere thought of an American military strategy based on AirSea Battle. But, equally, the Chinese might come to see it as a one great big bluff.
At the very least, AirSea Battle concentrates the mind. It is prompting a much broader debate in the US about how to respond to the Chinese challenge. With its superiority now under threat, Washington faces a choice: it can try to retain its primacy at all costs or it can shift to a more defensive approach that is geared towards preventing another power from ever controlling the region. Deterrence is not always the same as dominance.
The US can use some of China’s own logic against it. Together with its allies, it can develop defensive arrangements that take advantage of the region’s geography and which would make it almost impossible for China to seize contested areas – and to hold on to those islands if it were to try. By making clear the high penalties that would be involved in any attempt to snatch disputed islands, it can ensure that China cannot change the region’s status quo. Such a goal would be both much cheaper to achieve and much less confrontational than planning for mainland air strikes.
The American naval historians Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes suggest that the US partly focuses on what they call “war limited by contingent” – smaller-scale operations which prevent dramatic escalation but make life difficult for the Chinese navy. They draw the analogy of Wellington’s campaign in Spain and Portugal in 1807-14, which in military terms was a sideshow to the broader conflict with France but which Napoleon complained gave him “an ulcer”. The geography along the first island chain provides many strategic locations which can be used to construct small-scale facilities with missile batteries that could create havoc for a rival navy. Submarines and mines would add to the deterrent effect against any land-grabs. “The ideas that China is pursuing about denying access can work both ways,” Holmes told me. “There are many ways to give China an ulcer, which could be one of the best ways of deterring aggression before it ever happens.”
For the more pessimistic observers, the US and China are doomed to repeat the intense security competition of the cold war. John Mearsheimer, the University of Chicago scholar, argues that the rivalry could be even more volatile than with the Soviet Union because there are more potential disputes. He also says he would not be surprised if China and Japan “start shooting at each other” at some stage over the next five years.
Such bleak outcomes are not inevitable, of course – powerful economic connections narrow the space for reckless behaviour. Yet a previous era of globalisation failed to prevent the UK and Germany from going to war. Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, is not alone in comparing the current situation in Asia to Europe in 1914. Asian militaries lack the meticulous war plans that helped push Europe into conflict then but the region offered a familiar mixture of nationalism and the potential for miscalculations that can spin out of control. The western Pacific may now be the cockpit of the world economy but it is also turning into one of its most dangerous flashpoints.
Geoff Dyer covers US foreign policy and is a former Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times.