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The Chinese Dragon Does Not Wait for American Rearmament

From the series News from the Silk Road

According to The Washington Post, through the federal budget the White House has opened negotiations with the Senate that include long-term competition with China. The figures — $6 trillion, including infrastructure and family welfare plans — will vary in the negotiations, and will be centred on three directives.

One demand is common to various proposals of expenditure: they must have a positive impact on the American productivity vis-à-vis China on the open fronts of industrial, energy and technological restructuring, or on the efficiency of welfare systems. In the case of welfare, the competition is also vis-à-vis Europe. Another calculation, attributed to Biden’s administration and the Democrats, is the enlargement of the electoral coalition in view of the next mid-term elections. Finally, there is a need to direct military expenditure, within the framework of a greater increase in the other items of discretionary expenditure, not absorbed by the rate of interest on rising debt.

Floating political figures

The proposal contains an increase in military expenditure below inflation. The judgment of Anthony Cordesman, member of the Center for Studies (CSIS) in Strategic and International Washington, is ambivalent. Cordesman was an assistant to Senator John McCain in the Armed Forces Committee and has worked for the Pentagon. He writes that for the first time the Department of Defence is making expenditure requests and military plans aimed specifically at competition with the Chinese Dragon. However, tton this shoppinglist is accompanied bygeneric concepts, that tie anything in the budget proposal that can be tied in some way to the Pacific (and especially anything that floats) [and] meets a national need to compete with China [CSIS, June 2nd, 2021].

The controversy is aimed in particular at the US Navy’s attempt to use deterrence towards China (Pacific Defense Initiative) in order to argue for funds for other weapons. Let us consider, for example, the power-relations prediction for 2025 which the US Indo-Pacific Command linked with its expenditure requests. This prediction compares US capabilities in the theatre to the Chinese deployment as a whole. In this comparison, China would have three aircraft carriers, compared to one from the United States, 12 amphibious assault ships - the quasi-aircraft carriers- compared to 4 from the United States, 108 modern warships as against 12, and 64 modern submarines compared to 10.

The Admirals’ alarm, writes Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post, opens up a new age of bloated Pentagon budgets, all to be justified by the great Chinese threat [March 18th, 2021]. But the political fact, notes Cordesman, is also that the military commands of the first-world power are contending for funds in the confrontation with a Chinese military program which is already underway. Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO supreme commander, also made it a literary genre with 2034, a Novel of the Next World War [Penguin, 2021].

False alarms and real concerns about China

Ruan Zongze (Vice President of the Institute for International Studies of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [CIS] and a former embassy official in London and Washington) wrote in America in the Eyes of a Diplomat [Jiangsu People’s Publishing House, 2012] that the market for impressions on China was expanding in the United States, even before the election of Donald Trump. Books whose title contained the word China became best sellers, many think tanks created new research centres, old Kremlinologists and experts of Japan reinvented themselves. For Ruan, the Project 2049 Institute, based in Arlington, Virginia, and founded in 2008 by former US Air Force Colonel Randall Schriver, who was later Assistant Secretary of Defence for the Indo-Pacific in the Trump administration, was exemplary: 2049 is the centenary of China as a power.

Ruan investigates American psychologies. He notes that American exceptionalism is fragile, vulnerable to the inevitability of Chinese overtaking, a reality brought closer by the 2008 crisis. This is also due to the habit with which the United States regards the outside world as a virtual extension of itself, looking from the inside out; whereas China promotes reforms through openness, [...] looks from the outside inwards. American anxiety and a decline in confidence, therefore, magnify the extent of a hostile China’s strength and intentions. This allows for the political use of common sense, with the Chinese threat wielded in the domestic debate to collect votes and attack opponents, but also to encourage reforms.

Ruan insists, however, that among the political currents, a distinction must be made: the US Army and Congress are very distrustful, support prevention, containment of China, and exert a lot of pressure; but there are other, more balanced lines that express themselves, or can express themselves, in the executive.

Armed strategic composure

It can be noted that the pedagogy of the CIIS is aimed at China: Only by combining the two [tendencies] can we better understand the entire American policy and not make the mistake of the blind who get an idea of an elephant by touching only a part of it. Ruan’s synthesis is already known as the two hands to two hands: Sino-American relations will continue to be asymmetrical in the near future […]. The United States will probably follow the principle of the double-bet on two outcomes, cooperation and prevention. Therefore, both sides will tacitly maintain a form of ambivalence, cooperating where they can and fighting where they must.

In the Global Times, Ruan called on China to maintain strategic composure. Beijing should not chase the Congress-Pentagon combination in a rearmament race, but should instead proceed at its own pace in military modernisation. According to Sun Xihui, of the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, one of the main aspects of the US-China force gap will be the the quality and quantity of aircraft carrier combat groups [Global Times May 19th, 2021].

For Minnie Chan, a columnist on military issues for the South China Morning Post, Beijing plans to assemble at least six carrier strike groups by 2035 but will add more mini-aircraft carriers, similar to the Japanese helicopter carriers or the American amphibious assault ships [May 15th, 2021]. The issue is that of finding a more balanced combination of various types of ship, in an asymmetrical confrontation between the Chinese fleet and the global, bi-oceanic fleet of the United States.

China’s military program

According to Cordesman, US assessments can be summarised by the report delivered by the Pentagon to Congress in 2020: China has already achieved parity with — or even exceeded — the United States in several military modernization areas. In shipbuilding: China has approximately 350 ships and submarines, including more than 130 major surface combatants, compared to 293 American ships. In land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles: 1,250 missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres. In the air defence system: one of the world's est, largwith long-range surface-to-air systems, including Russian-built S-400s and S-300s.

According to the Pentagon, the Chinese Navy is gradually replacing its ships in favour of more modern and versatile devices, largely equipped with anti-ship, anti-aircraft systems, etc. Together, China’s Air Force and Navy are the number one regional force and the third most powerful globally, with over 2,500 aircraft. Then there are the missile and strategic forces, while the PRC’s space enterprise continues to mature rapidly. Little attention had been paid to submarines: China maintains about 70 of these, but the submarine fleet is managed through replacements, by increasing cruise and anti-ship equipment and its strategic component - which forms the nuclear triad along with groundlaunched ballistic missiles and the new Air Force H-6N long-range strategic bomber.

Silk Road and island chains

Over the next decade, China will double its nuclear stockpile. The PLA is developing options for dissuasion, deterrence or large-scale intervention, as would be the case in Taiwan. The anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities are concentrated within the first island chain, which connects Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines to the nine-dash line in the South China Sea; but China is gearing up to conduct offensives within the second chain (which includes Guam), in the Pacific and Indian oceans, and even aiming at global projection, along lines that the Maritime Silk Road is helping to design. Here its projection capabilities are modest but growing [Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2020 Annual Report to Congress]. The Pentagon states that in addition to the Djibouti base, Beijing is also looking for other facilities. Cordesman sees this as a strategic use of the Silk Road. The Chinese Dragon is gazing at distant oceans, but must also keep its claws sunk firmly in neighbouring seas.

According to the Financial Times, other powers’ patrols in the South China Sea have a relevance which is increased by the limits of the American fleet, in a vast area where US ships are largely outnumbered by Chinese ships. However, at the political level, the European powers have sent out ambiguous signals.

Diplomacy and frigates

HMS Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s new aircraft carrier, has headed to Asia in the largest show of naval power since the Falklands War, according to The New York Times. It is accompanied by an aero-naval group that includes the Dutch frigate Evertsen. A French amphibious assault helicopter carrier, the Tonnerre, will join them in the Indo-Pacific. Finally, the German frigate Bayern will set sail in August.

The Financial Times notes that the British aircraft carrier will avoid the Taiwan Strait when sailing between the South China Sea and Japan. And the German frigate will visit Shanghai first, a move that seems to seek Beijing’s pre-emptive acquiescence. The risk is that Beijing may conclude the real lesson to be drawn from such carefully calibrated deployments is that the UK and other European powers would actually stand aside — if China were ever to attempt a blockade of Taiwan. In reality, neither Washington, Beijing, Taipei nor London could be sure how such an unprecedented international crisis would unfold [June 1st 2021].

Two observations should be made. European, and particularly German, gunboat diplomacy also seems to want to preserve a margin of distinction from the United States and its relationship with Beijing. This was also the case with the CAI in the political and commercial field and recently at the G7 summit. Philip Stephens writes that the United States and the EU agree on the fact that relations with China are both competitive, adversarial and collaborative; what’s missing is a consensus on where the balance should be struck [Financial Times, May 6th, 2021].

The second observation concerns the naval blockade of Taiwan, which has become a commonly considered incident in the scenarios and hypotheses of the crisis of the world order. Besides the precedent crises in this strait, managed with psychological attention, the Chinese debate advances other historical analogies. 1962 was the year of Cuba’s missile crisis, which Beijing also compares to the 1969 clashes on the Ussuri River. 1898 was the year of the Spanish-American War, which began in Cuba but extended to the Philippines: it was a partial war, but it is considered the baptism of American imperialism as a world power.

Lotta Comunista, June 2021