Global Policy Forum

US Perceptions of a Chinese Threat


By George Friedman

May 31, 2006

The U.S. Department of Defense released its annual report on China's military last week. The Pentagon reported that China is moving forward rapidly with an offensive capability in the Pacific. The capability would not, according to the report, rely on the construction of a massive fleet to counter U.S. naval power, but rather on development and deployment of anti-ship missiles and maritime strike aircraft, some obtained from Russia. According to the Pentagon report, the Chinese are rapidly developing the ability to strike far into the Pacific -- as far as the Marianas and Guam, which houses a major U.S. naval base.

Whether the Chinese actually are constructing this force is less important than that the United States believes the Chinese are doing this. This analysis is not confined to the Defense Department but has been the view of much of the U.S. intelligence community. There is, therefore, a consensus in Washington that the Chinese are moving far beyond defensive capabilities or deterrence: They are moving toward a strike capability against the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

If this analysis is correct, then the reason for U.S. concern is obvious. Ever since World War II, the United States has dominated all of the world's oceans. Following that war, the Japanese and German navies were gone. The British and French did not have the economic ability or political will to maintain a global naval force. The Soviets had a relatively small navy, concerned primarily with coastal defense. The only power with a global navy was the United States -- and the U.S. Navy's power was so overwhelming that no combination of navies could challenge its maritime hegemony.

In an odd way, this extraordinary geopolitical reality has been taken for granted by many. No naval force in history has been as powerful as the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Navy does not have the ability to be everywhere at all times -- but it does have the ability to be in multiple places at the same time, and to move about without concerns of being challenged. This means, quite simply, that the United States can invade other countries, anywhere in the world, but other countries cannot invade the United States. Whatever the outcome of the invasion once ashore, the United States has conducted the Iraq, Kosovo, Somali, Gulf and Vietnamese wars without ever having to fight to protect lines of supply and communications. It has been able to impose naval blockades at will, without having to fight sea battles to achieve them. It is this single fact that, more than any other, has shaped global history since 1945.

Following the Soviet Strategy?

The Soviets fully understood the implications of U.S. naval power. They recognized that, in the event of a war in Europe, the United States would have to convoy massive reinforcements across the Atlantic. If the Soviets could cut that line of supply, Europe would be isolated. The Soviets had ambitious goals for naval construction, designed to challenge the United States in the Atlantic. But naval construction is fiendishly expensive. The Soviets simply couldn't afford the cost of building a fleet to challenge the U.S. Navy, while also building a ground force to protect their vast periphery from NATO and China.

Instead of trying to challenge the United States in surface warfare, using aircraft carriers, the Soviets settled for a strategy that relied on attack submarines and maritime bombers, like the Backfire. The Soviet view was that they did not have to take control of the Atlantic themselves; rather, if they could deny the United States access to the Atlantic, they would have achieved their goal. The plan was to attack the convoys and their escorts, using attack submarines and missiles launched from Backfire bombers that would come down into the Atlantic through the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap. The American counter was a strong anti-submarine warfare capability, coupled with the Aegis anti-missile system. Who would have won the confrontation is an interesting question to argue. The war everyone planned for never happened.

Today, it appears to be the Pentagon's view that China is following the Soviet model. The Chinese will not be able to float a significant surface challenge to the U.S. Seventh Fleet for at least a generation -- if then. It is not just a question of money or even technology; it also is a question of training an entirely new navy in extraordinarily complex doctrines. The United States has been operating carrier battle groups since before World War II. The Chinese have never waged carrier warfare or even had a significant surface navy, for that matter -- certainly not since being defeated by Japan in 1895.

The Americans think that the Chinese counter to U.S. capabilities, like the Soviet counter, will not be to force a naval battle. Rather, China would use submarines and, particularly, anti-ship missiles to engage the U.S. Navy. In other words, the Chinese are not interested in seizing control of the Pacific from the Americans. What they want to do is force the U.S. fleet out of the Western Pacific by threatening it with ground- and air-launched missiles that are sufficiently fast and agile to defeat U.S. fleet defenses.

Such a strategy presents a huge problem for the United States. The cost of threatening a fleet is lower than the cost of protecting one. The acquisition of high-speed, maneuverable missiles would cost less than purchasing defense systems. The cost of a carrier battle group makes its loss devastating. Therefore, the United States cannot afford to readily expose the fleet to danger. Thus, given the central role that control of the seas plays in U.S. grand strategy, the United States inevitably must interpret the rapid acquisition of anti-ship technologies as a serious threat to American geopolitical interests.

Planning for the Worst

The question to begin with, then, is why China is pursuing this strategy. The usual answer has to do with Taiwan, but China has far more important issues to deal with than Taiwan. Since 1975, China has become a major trading country. It imports massive amounts of raw materials and exports huge amounts of manufactured goods, particularly to the United States. China certainly wants to continue this trade; in fact, it urgently needs to. At the same time, China is acutely aware that its economy depends on maritime trade -- and that its maritime trade must pass through waters controlled entirely by the U.S. Navy.

China, like all countries, has a nightmare scenario that it guards against. If the United States' dread is being denied access to the Western Pacific and all that implies, the Chinese nightmare is an American blockade. The bulk of China's exports go out through major ports like Hong Kong and Shanghai. >From the Chinese point of view, the Americans are nothing if not predictable. The first American response to a serious political problem is usually economic sanctions, and these frequently are enforced by naval interdiction. Given the imbalance of naval power in the South China Sea (and the East China Sea as well), the United States could impose a blockade on China at will.

Now, the Chinese cannot believe that the United States currently is planning such a blockade. At the same time, the consequences of such a blockade would be so devastating that China must plan out the counter to it, under the doctrine of hoping for the best and planning for the worst. Chinese military planners cannot assume that the United States will always pursue accommodating policies toward Beijing. Therefore, China must have some means of deterring an American move in this direction. The U.S. Navy must not be allowed to approach China's shores. Therefore, Chinese war gamers obviously have decided that engagement at great distance will provide forces with sufficient space and time to engage an approaching American fleet.

Simply building this capability does not mean that Taiwan is threatened with invasion. For an invasion to take place, the Chinese would need more than a sea-lane denial strategy. They would need an amphibious capability that could itself cross the Taiwan Strait, withstanding Taiwanese anti-ship systems. The Chinese are far from having that system. They could bombard Taiwan with missiles, nuclear and otherwise. They could attack shipping to and from Taiwan, thereby isolating her. But China does not appear to be building an amphibious force capable of landing and supporting the multiple divisions that would be needed to deal with Taiwan.

In our view, the Chinese are constructing the force that the Pentagon report describes. But we are in a classic situation: The steps that China is taking for what it sees as a defensive contingency must -- again, under the worst-case doctrine -- be seen by the United States as a threat to a fundamental national interest, control of the sea. The steps the United States already has taken in maintaining its control must, under the same doctrine, be viewed by China as holding Chinese maritime movements hostage. This is not a matter of the need for closer understanding. Both sides understand the situation perfectly: Regardless of current intent, intentions change. It is the capability, not the intention, that must be focused on in the long run.

Therefore, China's actions and America's interpretation of those actions must be taken extremely seriously over the long run. The United States is capable of threatening fundamental Chinese interests, and China is developing the capability to threaten fundamental American interests. Whatever the subjective intention of either side at this moment is immaterial. The intentions ten years from now are unpredictable.

As the Pentagon report also notes, China is turning to the Russians for technology. The Russian military might have decayed, but its weapons systems remain top-notch. The Chinese are acquiring Russian missile and aircraft technology, and they want more. The Russians, looking for every opportunity to challenge the United States, are supplying it. Now, the Chinese do not want to take this arrangement to the point that China's trade relations with the United States would be threatened, but at the same time, trade is trade and national security is national security. China is walking a fine line in challenging the United States, but it feels it will be able to pull it off -- and so far it has been right.

U.S. Defense Policy: Full Circle

The United States is now back to where it was before the 9/11 attacks. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came into office with two views. The first was that China was the major challenge to the United States. The second was that the development of high-tech weaponry was essential to the United States. With this report, the opening views of the administration are turning into the closing views. China is again emerging as the primary challenge; the only solution to the Chinese challenge is in technology.

It should be added that the key to this competition will be space. For the Chinese, the challenge will not be solely in hitting targets at long range, but in seeing them. For that, space-based systems are essential. For the United States, the ability to see Chinese launch facilities is essential to suppressing fire, and space-based systems provide that ability. The control of the sea will involve agile missiles and space-based systems. China's moves into space follow logically from their strategic position. The protection of space-based systems from attack will be essential to both sides.

It is interesting to note that all of this renders the U.S.-jihadist dynamic moot. If the Pentagon believes what it has written, then the question of Afghanistan, Iraq and the rest is now passé. Al Qaeda has failed to topple any Muslim regimes, and there is no threat of the caliphate being reborn. The only interesting question in the region is whether Iran will move into an alignment with Russia, China or both.

There is an old saw that generals prepare for the last war. The old saw is frequently true. There is a belief that the future of war is asymmetric warfare, terrorism and counterinsurgency. These will always be there, but it is hard to see, from its report on China, that the Pentagon believes this is the future of war. The Chinese challenge in the Pacific dwarfs the remote odds that an Islamic, land-based empire could pose a threat to U.S. interests. China cannot be dealt with through asymmetric warfare. The Pentagon is saying that the emerging threat is from a peer -- a nuclear power challenging U.S. command of the sea.

Each side is defensive at the moment. Each side sees a long-term possibility of a threat. Each side is moving to deflect that threat. This is the moment at which conflicts are incubated.

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