The PRC Shapes the Pacific Future: Can the US and Its Allies Meet the Challenge?


2012-12-18 by Richard Weitz

Yesterday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, China experts Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell presented some of the themes in their new book entitled China’s Search for Security (Columbia University Press, 2012). Their articles in Foreign Affairs and The Washington Quarterly repeat the same things.

Nathan and Scobell argue that Chinese national security challenges and priorities can be understood in terms of “four rings” of decreasing relative importance.

The most important ring is the territory administered or claimed by China, such as the Chinese mainland, which contains several ethnic minorities of dubious loyalty to Beijing, as well as Taiwan and large swathes of the Pacific Ocean.

The second ring is includes China’s 14 land and eight maritime neighbors, with which China’s shares historically contested boundaries. China has frequently fought wars with these powerful countries, which include India, Japan, the Koreas, Russia, and Vietnam. PRC diplomats have had to devote enormous efforts to maintaining tolerable relations with these states, but strains persist even if in some cases they are latent.

US and China in competition and cooperation. In part it is a co-opetition game. Credit Image: Bigstock 

The third ring consists of six geopolitical regions around China that include these neighboring countries but also non-contingent states. The regions are Northeast Asia, Oceania, continental Southeast Asia, maritime Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Central Asia. The importance of these sub-systems means that Chinese diplomats often cannot achieve their goals through bilateral diplomacy but must dilute their influence through multilateral engagements.

The fourth ring includes the rest of the world, where China has been active only since the late 1990s, and most often for narrow economic purposes (trade, investment, natural resources, and diplomatic allies).

For now, the authors claim, China has adopted a primarily defensive posture to prevent threats in the later three circles from challenging Beijing’s control over the first circle. Regime primacy requires strong economic growth, which is best achieved in a secure international environment that creates a benign environment for China’s foreign trade and investment.

But the Nathan and Scobell make clear that Chinese policy makers see the United States as a major problem in all four circles.

In the first circle, the Chinese perceive that the United States is seeking to subvert their regime by supporting democracy, dissidents, independent civil society groups, private businesses, Taiwan, and those countries having territorial disputes with Beijing. Further out, the United States deploys powerful military forces, helps China’s neighbors pursue military buildups, threatens unfriendly regimes under the guise of promoting democracy and human rights, and is positioned to throttle China’s access to raw materials at any time by impeding China’s access to the world’s oceans.

In terms of military policy and capacity, the authors believe that the PLA presently can only challenge U.S. predominance in East Asia.

A main reason is that the PLA has many internal missions that act as a “domestic drag” on its external potential. China spends enormous amounts of money to keep large numbers of ground forces — some 70% of the PLA’s 2.25 million personnel–deployed near China’s major cities to serve as a backup force in case domestic instability exceeds the capacity of the paramilitary forces to contain. In addition, the PLA serves as a backup border security force for China’s almost 14,000 miles of land borders and 9,000 miles of coastline.

The PLA’s ‘‘Diversified Military Tasks” includes internal and border security, conquering Taiwan, enforcing China’s maritime claims, establishing defensive perimeters in the western Pacific, and ‘‘Military Operations Other Than War’’ (MOOTW) such as humanitarian assistance  and disaster relief missions.

In a landmark 2004 speech by Hu Jintao, China’s president and commander in chief, the PLA has what have come to be known as four  ‘‘New Historic Missions’’ were:

  • ‘guarantee’’ the ‘‘ruling position’’ of the Chinese Communist Party by working with other agencies such as the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security, and the PAP to maintain internal stability
  • safeguard China’s ‘‘national development’’ by protecting the national territory from external aggression by reinforcing border security, ensuring strategic “defense in depth” of China’s interior , and enforcing China’s maritime claims and 200-nautical-mile maritime Exclusive Economic Zone (here the PLA Navy backstops the Coast Guard, the State Fisheries Administration, the State Oceanographic Administration, and the Marine Surveillance Service)
  • protect China’s ‘‘national interests’’  through power projection,  ‘anti-access/area denial’’ (A2AD) strategies, and preemptive spoiler attacks against adversaries amassing forces near China’s borders (as in Korea in 1950)
  • preserve ‘‘world peace” by maintaining an effective nuclear deterrent against the United States and other countries, contributing to international peacekeeping missions, and addressing other non-traditional military threats.

Their historical and conceptual lenses mean that Chinese policy makers view the U.S. military presence in East Asia as unnatural and illegitimate.

They likewise perceive U.S. diplomacy as fundamentally hostile and imperialist. While China needs foreign capital and technology, its leaders see U.S. businesses as seen seeking to exploit China’s cheap human and natural resources. U.S. pressure on China to raise the value of its currency or limit its ties with Sudan, Zimbabwe, and other resource-rich countries is interpreted as attempts to constrain China’s economic development. Whereas Americans justify support to Taiwan as a way of helping a fellow democracy, Beijing considers such support as designed to keep China weak and divided.

“Whether they see the United States primarily through a culturist, Marxist, or realist lens, most Chinese strategists assume that a country as powerful as the United States will use its power to preserve and enhance its privileges and will treat efforts by other countries to protect their interests as threats to its own security,” they write.

“This assumption leads to a pessimistic conclusion: as China rises, the United States will resist.” 

From this perspective, it is only China’s economic and military capacity to harm the United States that compels Washington to work with China, and vice versa: “It is this mutual vulnerability that carries the best medium-term hope for cooperation. Fear of each other keeps alive the imperative to work together.”

The authors are nonetheless hopeful that in the long term Chinese policy makers will come to appreciate the value of the existing international system, and the U.S.-originated principles that underlie it, provided the United States offers China a larger role within the system while drawing clear red lines against China’s bad behavior and sustaining US military superiority in the Pacific, including in the contested maritime regions of the South and East China Seas.

In fact, this is the public strategy of the Obama administration.

The author’s worry that the administration has inadvertently communicates weaknesses to China. 

They have failed in its early efforts to avoid confronting China, which has since encouraged Beijing to adopt a more assertive foreign policy with respect to its contested maritime claims.

They also believe that the new Chinese leadership, while preoccupied with finding a non-Marxist source of legitimacy, will continue assertive efforts to advance Chinese national interests more directly.

In his critique of their presentation and book, Randy Schriver questioned whether the United States will spend enough to sustain military preponderance in the western Pacific. Although the Pentagon has pledged to keep 60% of its warships in the Pacific theater, Schriver noted that the absolute figure upon which this percentage is based matters—it would be easy to reach the 60% level simply by cutting back on U.S. forces in other regions.

Furthermore, Shriver faulted the Obama administration for not initiating new trade initiatives, noting that the recently adopted free trade agreements were all launched during the Bush presidency.

He also feared that the current emphasis on preserving stability was self-defeating.

A preoccupation with near-term stability risks long-term instability. In addition, accepting an authoritarian China forever means denying the Chinese people their legitimate rights and liberties. In previous administrations, including during the Clinton and Bush presidencies, U.S. policy makers had the stated goal of transforming China into a better country. Senior officials in the Clinton administration spoke of seeking China’s “peaceful evolution, while Robert Zoellick said that, “China needs a peaceful political transition to make its government responsible and accountable to its people.”

Finally, Schriver worried that Americans have a tendency to overemphasize common interests with China. Most often, we simply have “common aversions,” which are usually insufficient to sustain long-term policy cooperation.

For an approach, which can allow the US to innovate and shape ways to work with allies and contest the Chinese power game of “Go”, see the following:

Note:  Many of these themes will be examined in our book (by Robbin Laird, Ed Timperlake and Richard Weitz) Rebuilding American Military Power in the Pacific: A 21st Century Strategy to be published by Praeger Publishers next year.