(Last of 3 Parts)
As China continues with its policy of expansionism in the region, combining military intimidation and economic inducements toward its neighbors, we publish in 3 parts an instructive interview by the Sankei Shimbun’s Washington bureau chief, Yoshinari Kurose, with Dr. Toshi Yoshihara.
Yoshihara is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent, non-profit think tank based in Washington, DC. The center specializes in US defense planning, budget, and strategy.
China has already changed the status quo in the South China Sea. How can we tackle that? We cannot just get rid of them. In the short term, we cannot just ask them to leave and make those places as they were. What are the United States’ short-term or mid-term steps to tackle the South China Sea issue?
China’s assertiveness has already stimulated a series of regional realignments that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. The frontline states in maritime Asia are forging ties with the United States and, significantly, with each other to counter balance China. Washington must take advantage of these relationships and emerging network of ties. Such informal coalitions and formal alliances are a key competitive advantage of the United States, not least because China has few high-quality allies and friends.
Japan and Australia stand out as strategic anchors to the north and south respectively. Notably, Tokyo and Canberra are already drawing closer to each other on a range of security and defense arrangements. Military-to-military ties between the United States and Vietnam represent another useful barometer of the regional configuration of power. Significantly, both sides are arranging a U.S. carrier visit to Vietnam sometime next year.
Then there is India. New Delhi has adopted a more proactive stance dubbed an “Act East Policy” that would see an enhanced Indian role well east of the Indian Ocean. India increasingly sees Southeast Asia and the South China Sea as integral parts of its larger strategic environment. Our budding defense relationship with India is another indicator that regional players are responding to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.
This emerging network of relationships, some tied to the United States and some not, could potentially tighten around China’s maritime periphery. Diplomacy, coalition building, and alliance management are thus essential to U.S. strategy in Asia. Indeed, they will be key ingredients to American strategic success in the region, as they have been since the end of the World War II.
At the operational level, I have long argued that the United States and its allies and friends should turn the tables on China. Just as China has employed anti-access/area denial (A2AD) weaponry to put at risk U.S. forward posture in Asia, we too can play the same game. Given China’s geography, occupying as it does an interior position, Beijing is quite vulnerable to A2AD weaponry that could close off or disrupt access to the seas and airspace around the Chinese mainland. Imagine maritime Asia infested with A2AD systems. I would argue that the biggest loser in that imagined world is China.
Consider the first island chain running offshore along China’s long coastline from Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines to the Indonesian archipelago. This island chain forms a series of narrow seas and chokepoints. Chinese mariners, both commercial and military in character, must pass through these chokepoints to reach the open waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Then consider the deployment of A2AD systems, similar to those used by China, on these islands. It is not hard to imagine how such an outcome could erode China’s confidence that it can freely access the seas and airspace for both economic and military purposes.
Importantly, Chinese commentators have long identified this geographic reality as a major vulnerability. Indeed, this concern about being closed off to the global commons by hostile powers—a concern bordering on claustrophobia—constitutes a deeply embedded fear, a fear that should be exploited.
And, frontline states are doing just that with their own versions of A2AD. Japan expanded its submarine fleet and deployed anti-ship missile units to the Southwestern Islands. These developments have not been lost on the Chinese. Vietnam, too, possesses A2AD weapons that could threaten targets near and on Hainan Island. Australia has embarked on an ambitious submarine buildup.
Given these trends, some questions are worth considering. Will the proliferation of A2AD systems across maritime Asia bolster deterrence and ensure restraint? Will the potential emergence of “mutually assured denial”—a new kind of MAD—in Asia produce a net positive for regional security? Will a regional A2AD architecture influence Chinese behavior and Beijing’s worldview in a constructive direction? How might China respond that could worsen the security environment?
My view is that we would not like to live in an A2AD-proliferated environment. Even if deterrence held firm, this new form of MAD—creating as it does no-go zones and a no man’s sea—is not conducive to maintaining the open system so essential to the U.S.-led liberal international order. My hope is that China can be convinced that it, too, would be harmed in this hypothetical scenario and could thus be prodded to move in a different direction.
In the meantime, the United States and its allies and partners must do what they can to preserve their freedom of maneuver in maritime Asia even as the price of access grows.
One final thing, on Chinese naval capabilities, simply by comparing US carriers and Chinese carriers in terms of numbers and quality, still I think that China has a long way to go to compete with the US Navy. But in the future, they seem to be quite ambitious to become a sea power in the Asia-Pacific. What do you think is the prospect of the Chinese PLA Navy’s capabilities?
The regional naval balance of power is changing very rapidly. China already has the largest navy in Asia. According to some estimates, China will possess the largest navy in the world by 2020. That’s three years from now. By the end of the decade, the Chinese navy will also be the second most capable expeditionary force behind only the U.S. Navy.
Consider my estimate. In 2006, China had only seven surface combatants that could be considered modern. By 2016, the size of the surface fleet, which now includes destroyers, frigates, and corvettes, leapt to 67, nearly tenfold. By 2020, China could have as many as 90 modern surface combatants. This represents a profound change in the naval balance of power. As the familiar refrain goes, “quantity has a quality all its own.”
There is also an asymmetry between a local power and a global power. China is operating in its own backyard. It can devote the bulk of its forces in nearby waters. By contrast, the United States is a global power that must defend its interests spread across the world. The reality is that it can only devote a fraction of its forces to maritime Asia.
In aggregate, the U.S. Navy boasts more than 270 ships today. But, given maintenance cycles and deployment schedules, only a third of the total force is available for worldwide contingencies. Importantly, only a portion of that available fleet—about sixty percent under the pivot—is assigned to Asian waters. This casts our combat capabilities in the vast Indo-Pacific region in a whole new light, doesn’t it?
To compound such pressures inherent to a global power, the U.S. Navy must operate across great distances, complicating its ability to concentrate forces in a timely matter and sustaining operations over long periods.
The Chinese navy is also improving in quality. They are learning and they are learning methodically. The naval service has been conducting anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean on an uninterrupted basis for almost 10 years. There is no question that these and other expeditions in the western Pacific have earned the Chinese navy a great deal of tactical proficiency.
And, the Chinese navy is not alone. China’s air force and missile force provide shore-based support to its sister service from the mainland. The combination of naval, air, and missile prowess is a potent force.
Finally, powerful incentives are driving China to sea. Since the reform and opening era that began in the late 1970s, the Chinese economic miracle has produced a profound social-economic transformation along the coast. China’s most important political, economic, and cultural centers are now concentrated on the seaboard. The three economic centers of gravity are the Bohai Economic Rim, centered on Tianjin and Beijing; the Yangtze River Delta Economic Region centered on Shanghai; and the Pearl River Delta Economic Region clustered around Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Not surprisingly, expanding the maritime defense perimeter to protect China’s long coastline has emerged as a strategic priority.
So what is the United States going to do? President [Donald] Trump is saying that the navy is going to have 350 ships, and Senator [John] McCain saying it is just not enough.
The naval buildup cannot happen soon enough. Unfortunately, even if the resources were available today to fund the buildup, it will take years for these ships to join the fleet.
This means that, in the meantime, we have to make adept use of our existing resources. One fruitful concept is competitive strategies. Competitive strategies require us to first acknowledge that there is indeed a competition. Competitive strategies then require that we pit our enduring strengths against the opponent’s inherent weaknesses. By doing so, we can change the terms of the competition in our favor.
The logic of competitive strategies, in part, is to impose disproportionate costs on the adversary. By pitting our strength against the opponent’s weakness, we could induce the other side to devote substantial resources to fixing its weakness. And, because it is a built-in weakness, attempts to fix it may be prohibitive or fruitless. Every yuan China spends on fixing a particular weakness is one fewer yuan China can spend on its own strengths.
In my view, competitive strategies allow the United States to steer the competition in directions that are favorable to us. Competitive strategies would help us stay in the game over the longer term.
So if you were to point out China’s weakness, what would be their vulnerability?
An apparent structural weakness is anti-submarine warfare (ASW), although the Chinese recognize this and are attempting to remedy this vulnerability. Nevertheless, the United States and its allies, particularly Japan and Australia, should continue to invest in an unrivaled submarine fleet. If China chooses to compete in this area, then every yuan it spends on ASW is one fewer yuan it can devote to its missile force. The goal is force more difficult resource trade-offs on the Chinese. If the Chinese choose not to compete in ASW, then the allies could further extend their competitive advantage in undersea warfare.
I noted earlier that China’s surface fleet is growing rapidly. Over time, this capital-intensive fleet could become a vulnerability to Beijing. Just as China has deployed A2AD systems to hold our fleet at risk, U.S. and allied A2AD weaponry could do the same to China.
China is not ten feet tall. It has vulnerabilities and weaknesses that we should seek to better understand and exploit. Indeed, we should explore non-military vulnerabilities and develop a broader set of tools of statecraft to compete more effectively. The goal is to maximize our competitive edge, allowing us to stay in the game over the long haul.