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A nation must think before it acts.
Discussion of Chinese intentions inevitably draws attention to the pronounced buildup of naval weaponry in recent years, with each year bringing fresh confirmation of China’s ability to leapfrog existing assessments of the size of its navy. Thus, in April 2020, China constructed a second Type 075 warship, a class designed to compete in amphibious capability with the American Wasp class ships. Two more are anticipated, as are two more aircraft carriers. These are clearly designed to match American warships, and raise interest in China’s ability to sustain distant interest by sea, most obviously in the Indian Ocean, but also wherever Chinese geopolitical concerns may be favored by naval power projection. Areas where China has maritime interests include not only the South-West Pacific, where it has been actively developing alliance partnerships, much to the disquiet of Australia, but also the Caribbean. Moreover, Chinese maritime partners include Equatorial Guinea. So, the notion that China might automatically “limit” itself to dominating a “near China,” of the East and South China Seas is implausible. Even were that to be the goal, the need to prevent external intervention in that dominance, intervention most obviously by the American and Japanese navies, but also by that of Australia, would require a greater range of naval activity in terms of “access denial.” It was that principle that led the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the modern counterparts would be seeking to thwart the use of Guam and to block chokepoints of naval access.
This approach presupposes that the Chinese wish for war, which is highly unlikely, but any policy inherently requires planning for the possibility of conflict, and that is true of the Chinese as well as for their possible opponents. Of course, that brings with it the danger that preparing for conflict might actually help precipitate it.
In terms of planning, there are a host of imponderables, but this is scarcely new. It was true of the two world wars as the relevant weapons systems had not been tested hitherto. That puts a premium on wargaming, and that, eased by computer simulation, has been underway for years. Indeed, during the 2000s, the American navy planned accordingly, notably at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and advocated what in effect was an alternative strategic prioritization and different foreign policy. While the American government, army, air force, and marines were focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, the navy regarded this as at best a second-order priority (a view shared by Chinese policymakers), and, instead, urged the need to focus on the waters off East Asia. That underlay Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” and, as in so much else, and to a degree that neither man wishes to acknowledge, there is continuity between Obama and Trump, as there would have been between McCain/Romney and Hilary Clinton.
In part, this situation poses a major problem for Britain. For political “show” reasons, there is the deployment of naval assets off East Asia, but Britain can in practice contribute relatively little there, not least as America’s crucial regional partners are Japan, followed by Australia. Instead, the value of “Europe,” that most curious, indeed in many respects implausible of military units, is in the wider geopolitics posed by China. For the Chinese challenge is not simply a matter of a certain (and growing) number of naval units, combined with the formidable access-denial capability produced by land-based missiles. Instead, China became more threatening essentially because of the collapse of the strategic nexus that had enabled the West to win the Cold War on the cheap: the Sino-American axis. It was that axis, negotiated by Kissinger and sold by Nixon, with the Americans and Chinese each profiting from the weakness of the other, that enabled the Americans to exit the Vietnam War with a strategic triumph, not that public history will permit such a presentation. Indeed, by the end of the 1970s, the Chinese and the Vietnamese were at war.
The condition of Western strategic mastery was Sino-Soviet division, and this to a degree that triumphalist voices ignored in the 1990s. As a result, the key strategic disaster of the early 2000s was not al-Qaeda, but, rather the Sino-Russia reconciliation. That was the major Western failure of the 2000s, one that was neglected due to the particular focus on the conflicts of the period.
That is germane to the military situation today for the challenge posed by China is made much stronger by that added by Russia. Indeed, that element is more significant than the specifics of particular weapon systems, for example new-model Chinese fighters and tanks. Any military focus on China is challenged by the need also to address Russian prospects, and vice-versa. That also explains the issue of Britain’s role, and, indeed, that of “Europe” as a whole. Despite the claims of some British navalists, the major value of Britain in any confrontation with China, or deterrence toward it, is not going to be provided by the dispatch of HMS Elizabeth to the South China Sea. Indeed, as one former First Sea Lord put it to me, it would be “every submarine’s dream” to sink that carrier, which would indeed be vulnerable. The value of Britain, instead, is to be part of the deterrence to Russia. That, indeed, provides a threat in the Atlantic that would be part of, but different to, any long-range Chinese military commitment, one made costly through the risk incurred through the distance of the presence. Thus, there is a new version of the military challenge of the Cold War, one best countered by the submarine skills of that period than by the attempt to force an equation of power toward China based on what Britain (and the United States) have in the form of a count of carriers.
Of course, a full-spectrum Chinese challenge includes hybrid warfare in its various forms, including cyber-warfare, the encouragement of dissidence, and a range of unconventional and/or irregular forms of conflict. The nature of the current world economic crisis, the foolish consequence of the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, will help China far more than any individual weapons program. The increase in unemployment will be only one of the more obvious crises of hope, and this offers much to China, a power with a range of strategic means. Thus, for China, many opportunities are in prospect.
The Western strategy, transposed from that of the 1950s, was containment, but the present situation offers China the possibility of leapfrogging containment, rather as the Soviet Union was to do with Egypt, Cuba, Ethiopia, et al. This forces Western powers to consider the possibility of China exploiting developments that might not otherwise seem to be anything to do with that country.
In these circumstances, the prime strategic deterrent to China would be better relations between the West and Russia. That appears unlikely given the shared interests of China and Russia in revisionism, but, at the same time, there is an uneasiness in their relationship.
The alternative idea, of a reliance alone on the strengthening of the West underrates the tensions within the West, and, indeed, within individual countries. Consistency in alliance is scarcely an easy remedy given the divisions within Europe and the extent to which American policy is so obviously dependent on electoral results. The divisions within Europe are such that it is easier to propose an approach toward Russia, via NATO, rather than China, for which there is no comparable mechanism. That suggests that the burden of defense against China is likely to depend on America’s existing Pacific system. Its resilience in the face of China’s ambitions is uncertain.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.