Thursday, June 14, 2012

China Flexing Its Muscles in the South China Sea

In the early years of China's rise to economic and military prowess, the guiding principle for its government was Deng Xiaoping's maxim: "Hide Your Strength, Bide Your Time."

Now, more than three decades after paramount leader Deng launched his reforms, that policy has seemingly lapsed or simply become unworkable as China's military muscle becomes too expansive to conceal and its ambitions too pressing to postpone.

The current squabble with Southeast Asian nations over territorial claims in the energy-rich South China Sea is a prime manifestation of this change, especially the standoff with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal.

"This is not what we saw 20 years ago," said Ross Babbage, a defense analyst and founder of the Canberra-based Kokoda Foundation, an independent security policy unit.

"China is a completely different actor now. Security planners are wondering if it is like this now, what is it going to be like in 20 years' time?"

As China also continues to modernize its navy at breakneck speed, a growing sense of unease over Beijing's long-term ambitions has galvanized the exact response Deng was anxious to avoid, regional security experts say.

In what is widely interpreted as a counter to China's growing influence, the United States is pushing ahead with a muscular realignment of its forces towards the Asia-Pacific region, despite Washington's fatigue with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Pentagon's steep budget cuts.
Read the whole thing. The article goes on to discuss some of China's military developments, including warships specifically designed to mitigate the advantages in naval power that the U.S. enjoys. Unfortunately, the U.S. is in a difficult position to enter an arms race with China because of excessive sovereign debt, a poor economy, and the fact that China manufactures much of the military hardware used in the U.S.

The latter is a critical difference between China and the Soviet Union. In the 1940's and into the 1950's, there was, for the most part, technological parity between the Soviet Union and the U.S. However, the U.S. rapidly pulled ahead, and by the mid-60s an 70's enjoyed a clear technological advantage. The proof of that advantage has been borne out anytime Soviet and American equipment has faced off, such as the various wars in the Middle-East.

By the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was incapable of manufacturing the necessary high technology items to complete with the U.S. Not so with China because we (the West generally) have exported technological know-how and manufacturing to China. In fact, China is, in many cases, in a better position vis-a-vis heavy industry and many electronic components than is the U.S.

I see three-fold motivation here (and I don't believe that they are necessarily both held by the same factions within China). First, there are probably some that believe it is time for China to flex it power in order to dominate its neighbors and secure primary access to sea routes and natural resources. Second, these incidents are a useful test of American resolve and reactions (not just political, but also technological and tactical--see what we deploy, how effective it is, measure and record radar and other signals, test the sensitivity of sensors, etc.). Third, and related to the second, if the U.S. doesn't show much resolve, it weakens the faith that the U.S. allies or putative allies have in the U.S., and makes it easier for China to dominate them.

The unintended consequence, however, is that China's actions may strengthen the resolve of some neighboring states to take a more aggressive stance independent of the U.S., e.g., Japan, Australia, and India.

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