September 3, 2014 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Asia, China

The U.S. Giant Slumbers

The leaders of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) want China to achieve hegemonic control over East Asia extending at least throughout the East and South China Seas. They have claimed sovereignty over those waters and the islands they contain, and they are developing the means to enforce their claims by a massive military buildup that is shifting the balance of hard power in the western Pacific. I wrote yesterday on the features of that buildup and in particular on how it is strategically designed to exploit the vulnerabilities in America’s military posture.

The CCP has three prime reasons for seeking hegemony:

1) Economic and strategic: China wants unfettered access to and control over the resources under its near seas, to gain dominion over its strategic environment.

2) Nationalistic and historical: The United States and its allies have midwifed an international system that fosters, however imperfectly, free access to the international “commons,” neutral rules governing trade, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. China’s leaders are happy to accept the benefits of such a system but chafe at the constraints. Their vision is of a world where the powerful countries get most of the benefits, at least within their respective spheres of influence. They are moving to create such a sphere in Asia.

3) Political: The CCP is well aware that it lacks the legitimacy of a democratically elected government. To strengthen its popular support, the party believes it must deliver economic growth, a better quality of life, and a reassertion of China’s historic place as the Middle Kingdom in Asia. Success in those areas is therefore not just a matter of national interest, but vital to regime stability. Nothing is more important to the CCP than retaining its power.

China cannot count on diplomatic or economic pressure as the primary tools for achieving the regional dominance it seeks. China has few friends in Asia and only North Korea as an ally. Virtually every one of China’s neighbors would greatly prefer U.S. primacy in the region.

China can and does leverage its position as the largest economy in Asia to advance its regional objectives. But China’s economy faces huge difficulties. It has no reliable banking or judicial system. It has been unable to create a consumer-driven economy. Its local governments raise revenue by appropriating land and selling it off for development, which has resulted in a huge bubble in China’s real-estate market that could burst at any time.

In short, China has a rich state but will be, for the foreseeable future, a relatively poor country and is still a long way from becoming the kind of vital market economy that might be able to dominate Asia. It is not at all clear that the CCP will ever be willing to give up enough state control to permit such a transition to occur, or that such an economy would be of use to them if it did. A free market by definition is one in which capital flows as the market, not the state, dictates.

But China does have the wealth to continue financing its military buildup, and that is the path toward hegemony that the CCP has chosen. The regime is extending China’s sovereignty essentially by taking actions that assert it — and backing up the actions with locally dominant military power. Two years ago, Chinese forces blocked off the Scarborough Shoal and took control of it from the Philippines. They are in the process of doing the same thing to the Second Thomas Shoal. This summer China stationed an oil rig in waters also claimed by Vietnam and began reclamation projects on nearby reefs and islands to help sustain its naval and maritime law-enforcement presence. The Chinese are flooding the Senkaku Islands, which Japan administers, with fishing boats and coast-guard vessels. They have declared an “Air Defense Identification Zone” over much of the East China Sea and likely will do the same soon in the South China Sea. They have issued official maps depicting Taiwan and much of their near seas as Chinese territory, accompanied by loud claims of absolute sovereignty, and they refuse arbitration or resort to international law over their claims.

All of this has occurred with the Chinese navy hovering in the background, essentially presenting other countries with the choice of acceding to Chinese sovereignty or starting a shooting war. It’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer, and there are no signs whatsoever that these actions will stop unless and until the Chinese are confronted with superior force and clearly defined consequences.

The Obama administration has responded with its “rebalance” initiative, which entails shifting forces to the western Pacific, firming up America’s alliances there, and presenting China with a united diplomatic and military front. It’s the shell of a good policy but is failing for want of power. America cannot shift forces it does not have, and it’s hard to strengthen allies who can see what everyone outside of Washington sees: that America is becoming weaker while China grows strong.

So what alternatives does the United States have?

First, it could, in theory, “kowtow” to the Chinese, accepting their hegemony and negotiating the best terms it can get. But that would require sacrificing interests the United States has heretofore regarded as vital: the territorial integrity of Taiwan, America’s treaty commitments to Japan and the Philippines, the peaceful resolution of disputes according to international norms, and unfettered freedom of trade and travel in international waters and airspace.

No one knows what the Chinese would do with their sphere of influence once they officially have one, or how far they would try to extend it; as of now, they are extending their combat reach to what they call the “second island chain,” and that includes the U.S. territory of Guam.

Alternatively, America could continue on its present course, presenting itself as the obstacle to China’s ambitions without achieving the level of power and purpose necessary to deter them. This alternative is the path of least resistance in the short run. It would allow the United States, for a brief additional time, to ignore the broader implications of China’s aggression while pretending that the balance of power in East Asia is not changing. But it is also quite likely to convince the Chinese that the United States is their enemy while at the same time earning their contempt — virtually guaranteeing that they will move decisively once they are strong enough and that America will be unprepared when they do.

Finally, the United States could enforce its rebalance policy and pursue it as a long-term strategy, with vigor and purpose. That would require:

  • A broad and informed bipartisan consensus sufficient to sustain the policy for years and probably decades, until forces in China either force the regime to liberalize or overthrow it.
  • An immediate and substantial buildup of allied military power capable of imposing clearly unacceptable costs on the Chinese if they push too far.
  • A parallel diplomatic and political effort designed to expose China’s strategy, strengthen alliances and partnerships in the region, and shape the international narrative regarding Chinese aggression in East Asia and the corruption and human-rights abuses of the Chinese regime at home.

So there is nothing easy about this alternative, either. China would test America’s resolve, early and often. Tension would be high, and periodic incidents of armed confrontation, with the danger of escalation, would be possible and perhaps likely.

Yet the cost and risks of this third alternative would be small compared with the other options and relative to the enormous latent power of the United States. And America would not be alone in pursuing it. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, Vietnam, India, and other Asian nations would be willing and able partners, once they were convinced that the United States was committed to the effort.

In the broadest sense — taking into account the relative economic dynamism, regional support, and political stability of the two countries — the United States is much stronger than China under the CCP. I suspect the Chinese leaders know that; I suspect they will think long and hard about their current strategy if they believe it is “awakening the sleeping giant and filling him with a terrible resolve.”

But right now the giant is asleep, and the CCP is winning by default.

America has the ability to preserve the peace and defend its allies and interests in East Asia. The question is whether its leaders can fully recognize the danger, and muster the will to act, while there is still time.

 - Jim Talent serves on the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission, to which he was appointed by the U.S. Senate in 2012. He has served on the Senate and House Armed Services Committees and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-chairman of the American Freedom and Enterprise Foundation.

About the Author

Jim Talent Distinguished Fellow
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

Originally appeared in the National Review Online