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The U.S. Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific Region: China – The “Other” Major Pacific Power

Part 2

Volumes have been written about the rise of China, and we won’t even begin to attempt to replicate the scholarly work and analysis that has gone into enhancing our understanding of China’s rise. Suffice it to say that China’s stunning economic rise has happened much faster than most predicted. Further, China’s economic growth has had beneficial spillover effects for the entire Asia-Pacific region. And to be sure, in spite of some speed bumps along the way, due to globalization and a host of other factors, China’s economy and that of the United States have become more intertwined over the years.

Additionally, China’s new President, Xi Jinping, as well as her Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, have been vocal in speaking to the need to reform China’s society where, as Andrew Jacobs noted in his article, “In China, New Premier Says He Seeks a Just Society,” in the March 18, 2013 New York Times, “Li Keqiang laid out a vision on Sunday of a more equitable society in which environmental protection trumps unbridled growth and government officials put the people’s welfare before their own financial interests.” Many China watchers take comments like these, as well as others, by China’s new leaders, as indications that China will be internally-focused in the short term, looking to tend to significant domestic concerns.

On March 5, at the opening of the National People’s Congress, Beijing announced its official 2013 defense budget: roughly $114.3 billion, a 10.7 percent increase over the previous year and in nominal terms, nearly four times the official budget a decade ago. This level of spending is enough to make China a force in its neighborhood, but not one to engage in combat overseas.

This is one of the reasons that the intelligence community’s comprehensive view of the world we will inhabit in 2030, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, noted, among other findings, “China will not challenge the United States’ preeminence or the international order.” And many China scholars have pointed out, while China’s military spending, buoyed by its rapid economic growth, has increased substantially, there are limits to what China can do. As Andrew Erickson and Adam Liff noted in their article, “A Player, But No Superpower,” in the March 7, 2013 issue of ForeignPolicy.com:

On March 5, at the opening of the National People’s Congress, Beijing announced its official 2013 defense budget: roughly $114.3 billion, a 10.7 percent increase over the previous year and in nominal terms, nearly four times the official budget a decade ago. This level of spending is enough to make China a force in its neighborhood, but not one to engage in combat overseas.

Vietnam

Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, commander, U.S. Pacific Command, meets with Director General of the Institute for Defense Strategy, Lt Gen Nguyen Chien during his first visit to Hanoi, Vietnam, Dec. 10, 2013. China’s rise has resulted in strange bedfellows. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Sabrina Black

Erickson and Liff go on to make additional points in their article, and they note that since the early 1990s China has been forthright about its reasons for strengthening its armed forces, and that the primary focus for the country’s military is in the “Near Seas” (the Yellow, East China, and South China Seas). But what their article doesn’t state is that the United States’ longstanding – and growing – equities in the Asia-Pacific region mean that the United States, and especially the U.S. Navy, must operate in China’s “neighborhood.” And clearly, China’s interest in the region, and those of the United States, are not always aligned.

 

The Rhetoric Has Not Been Positive

Those who would question the United States rebalance to the Asia-Pacific or pivot to the Pacific and suggest that the United States might be overreacting to the growth of China might have a more powerful case if it weren’t for some of the strong rhetoric coming from China’s new leaders that has accompanied China’s impressive economic and military growth.  And this starts at the top with China’s President, Xi Jinping. As Jeremy Page noted in his article, “For Xi, a ‘China Dream’ of Military Power,” in the March 13, 3013 Wall Street Journal:

Soon after taking over as Communist Party and military chief, Xi Jinping launched a series of speeches referring to “the China Dream.” It was music to the ears of Col. Liu Mingfu of the People’s Liberation Army. Three years ago, the former professor at its National Defense University wrote a book of the same name, arguing that China should surpass the U.S. as the world’s top military power and predicting a marathon contest for global dominion.

The “China Dream” has become Mr. Xi’s signature. Officially defined as the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, it in some ways echoes previous leaders dating back to the Qing Dynasty’s collapse in 1912. But Mr. Xi is making it his idea by giving it a striking military flavor. “This dream can be said to be the dream of a strong nation. And for the military, it is a dream of a strong military,” Mr. Xi told sailors in December on board the Haikou, a guided-missile destroyer that has patrolled disputed waters in the South China Sea. “To achieve the great revival of the Chinese nation we must ensure there is unison between a prosperous country and a strong military.”

Qingdao (DDG 113)

A Chinese variant Harbin Z-9 flies around the Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) destroyer Qingdao (DDG 113) during a search and rescue exercise (SAREX) off the coast of Hawaii, Sept. 9, 2013. As China’s military strengthens, it is likely to embrace a more expansive worldview. U.S. Navy photo

And these strong words from President Xi Jinping have led many diplomats, party insiders, and analysts to conclude that China will be embracing a more hawkish worldview and this, in turn, will usher in a prolonged period of tension between China and its neighbors and lead to increased tension with the United States. Indeed, as the New York Times reported in an article in March 2013, “China’s new foreign policy team, announced at a news conference Saturday, includes officials whose records suggest the government will concentrate on consolidating what it considers the country’s rightful place at the center of Asia.”

 

China’s Neighbors Are Worried

This strong position by China’s new leaders has not been lost on China’s neighbors. These neighbors include nations such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia, with whom the United States is formally allied, as well as a growing number of nations such as Singapore, Indonesia, India, and others, with whom we have increasingly close ties. Indeed, one need look no further than the cover story in the Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013 New York Times Magazine entitled, “A Game of Shark and Minnow,” which talks about China’s unrelenting drive to control the South China Sea to understand the fears of regional nations.

The Obama Administration’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific or pivot to the Pacific is designed to reassure allies and partners and not to provoke China. The deciding factor will be China’s reaction to this pivot.

And worrisome is the fact that this strong rhetoric has been accompanied by threatening military actions. As Wendell Minnick put it in his “Responding to Beijing: Asian Markets Strengthen as China Turns Bully,” in the Feb. 11, 2013 issue of Defense News:

Only ten years ago, no oracle could have predicted the aggressive Chinese territorial claims over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and the totality of its claims over the area the size of India, the South China Sea.

Chinese fishing boats, maritime surveillance vessels, naval vessels and military surveillance aircraft have backed up those bold assertions with aggressive maritime and aerial encroachment in areas that have traditionally been judged non-contested.

USS George Washington (CVN 73)

The U.S. Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73), steams alongside the Royal Malaysian Navy offshore patrol vessel KD Pahang (172), guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam (CG 54), and guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG 85) during a training exercise, Oct. 25, 2013. George Washington and its embarked air wing, Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5, provide a combat-ready force that protects and defends the collective maritime interest of the U.S. and its allies and partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Liam Kennedy

Clearly, none of this has to lead to conflict between China and the United States, and as many commentators have noted, the Obama Administration’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific or pivot to the Pacific is designed to reassure allies and partners and not to provoke China. The deciding factor will be China’s reaction to this pivot. As Curt Campbell, the outgoing U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs noted in an interview in Asahi Shimbun, “As Washington implements its ‘rebalance to Asia’ strategy, it will be important for China to accept the enduring and strong role of the United States in the region.”

With this as a “geopolitical backdrop” to explain some of the reasons for the nation’s – and the Navy’s – Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific or Pivot to the Pacific, in the next post we’ll look into some of China’s growing military capabilities that are, in turn, driving the kinds of platforms, systems, sensors and weapons the nation will need to bring to the fore as it pivots to the Pacific.  Make no mistake, the United States does not intend to shrink from its status as a Pacific power. As a former Secretary of Defense put it in a major speech in Singapore, “The United States is a Pacific power, with a capital ‘P.’”

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Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...