The Heritage Foundation

Backgrounder #1925 on Asia

April 17, 2006

April 17, 2006 | Backgrounder on Asia

Hedging Against China

According to the Central Intelligence Agency, China is the world's second largest economy.[1] Sec­retary of State Condoleezza Rice has observed that China is becoming a "military superpower,"[2] and Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte has testified before Congress that China "may become a peer competitor to the United States" in the Asia-Pacific region.[3]

By itself, the rise of a new power in Asia need not be alarming, but a new superpower that works against the interests of freedom, free trade, and glo­bal stability is now becoming a reality. On the eve of Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit, it is time for America to reexamine its China strategy and its stake in the Pacific.

The Bush Administration, to its credit, seems ready to face the challenge of a rising China. The recent National Security Strategy of the United States specifies that America's new "strategy seeks to encourage China to make the right strategic choices for its people, while we hedge against other possibilities."[4] Significantly, the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, issued on February 6, 2006, also warns that the U.S. must "hedge against the possibility that a major or emerging power could choose a hostile path in the future,"[5] undoubtedly referring to China.

While hedging against China as a new super­power is a prudent choice, the Administration's task now is to develop and implement sound pol­icies that protect and advance American interests.

The New Strategic Environment in Asia

China is the new superpower in Asia, distrustful of the Pacific's status quo power, the United States. For example, at the Chinese Communist Party's 16th Congress in November 2002, Party leaders not only reiterated that they "oppose hegemonism and power politics" (i.e., the United States) and will "boost world multipolarization" (i.e., oppose America's role as the sole superpower), but also compared "terrorism" and American "hege­monism" as equal threats.[6] However, China's strat­egy is not solely to balance American power in Asia. China's leaders seek to reclaim China's ancient place as the preeminent power in Asia, replacing the United States.

While Beijing has prudently avoided head-on collisions with U.S. policies, an examination of China's strategic unhelpfulness at virtually every level of engagement with the United States-from the war on terrorism to the proliferation of weap­ons of mass destruction (WMD) to even the traffic in counterfeit currency-is unsettling.

Nothing in China's strategic behavior is more unsettling than its military buildup.Since 1992, Chinese defense spending has grown at an annual double-digit rate. The Pentagon estimates that total defense-related expenditures were between $50 billion and $70 billion in 2004 and as high as $90 billion in 2005, placing China third in defense spending (in nominal dollars) after the United States and Russia.[7] On March 6, 2006, China announced another 15 percent increase in military spending, on top of 13 percent in 2005,[8] giving China the world's fastest growing peacetime defense budget. This led Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to muse, "Since no nation threat­ens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment?"[9]

However, budgets do not tell the whole story. For example, Beijing's military is rapidly increasing its ballistic missile capability. Short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) production has doubled from 50 per year in 2002 to over 100 per year by 2006.[10] In addition, China is fielding growing numbers of medium-range and intercontinental-range missiles, such as the DF-21 and DF-31 and the submarine-launched Julang-1. Chinese media reports indicate that a new DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a range of 10,000 kilometers (km) and an improved Julang-2 SLBM with a range of 8,000 km will enter service in four years.[11]

Moreover, the fact that China's first-ever military exercises with Russia last summer included drills with the Russian SS-N-22 Moskit supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, which are specifically designed to sink American aircraft carriers,[12] calls into ques­tion Beijing's peaceful intentions in the region.

Perhaps the most unsettling facet of China's mil­itary buildup is its naval modernization. In addi­tion to four advanced Russian Sovremenny-class destroyers that the Chinese navy will have this year, China has been deploying a new series of Type 051 and Type 052 missile destroyers since 1996.[13]

China's submarine fleet is also growing prodi­giously. The Chinese navy has already deployed four super-quiet Russian Kilo-class diesel subma­rines. Eight more Kilos are on order from Russian yards, and China has increased production of the new, formidable Song-class diesel/electric subma­rine to 2.5 boats per year. It is also testing a new diesel submarine that the defense intelligence com­munity has designated the Yuan. The Yuan is heavily inspired by Russian designs, including sound-absorbing tile coatings and a super-quiet seven-blade screw.

The addition of "air-independent propulsion," which permits a submarine to operate underwater for up to 30 days on battery power, will make the Song-class and Yuan-class submarines virtually inaudible to existing U.S. surveillance networks, including U.S. nuclear subs. By 2025, Chinese attack submarines could easily outnumber U.S. submarines on station in the Pacific by a five to one ratio, and several Chinese nuclear ballistic missile submarines will be capable of patrolling America's west coast.[14]

American intelligence analysts and academic researchers are unanimous in their assessment that China's submarine strategy is aimed at neutralizing America's carrier-centered naval strength in the Pacific.[15]

Beyond the U.S., what else might China intend for its military buildup? Taiwan is certainly a near-term target of China's military modernization, but some analysts see China's forced "unification" with Taiwan not as an end in itself, but as key to China's ability to project power well into the Pacific. They cite a senior Chinese military theorist:

[Taiwan is of] far reaching significance to breaking international forces' blockade against China's maritime security…. Only when we break this blockade shall we be able to talk about China's rise…. [T]o rise suddenly, China must pass through oceans and go out of the oceans in its future development.[16]

A Responsible Stakeholder?

In a September 2005 speech, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick asked, "For the United States and the world, the essential question is- how will China use its influence?" To answer that question, he said, "we need to urge China to become a responsible stakeholder in that sys­tem."[17] While Zoellick's speech "Whither China: From Membership to Responsibility?" was designed to express concern about Chinese policies that run counter to international norms and stan­dards, Beijing's proliferation record has to be among the most troubling of these policies.

Serial Proliferator. For several decades, Beijing has pursued an insouciant approach to the prolifer­ation of weapons of mass destruction and WMD technologies, components, and materials.[18] As then-Under Secretary of State John Bolton described the problem in 2005, the Chinese government displays a deliberate lack of attention to "the continuing problem of business-as-usual proliferation by Chi­nese companies."[19] The U.S. Department of State considers China a "serial proliferator" and has sanc­tioned Chinese companies 80 times (out of a total 115 sanctions actions) for proliferation-related ship­ments between 2001 and 2005.[20]

Iran. Chinese exports of nuclear technology, chemical weapons precursors, and guided missiles to Iran have caused American proliferation officials the most heartburn. For example, in 2003, the Central Intelligence Agency reported that "Chinese entities are continuing work on a zirconium pro­duction facility at Esfahan that will enable Iran to produce cladding for reactor fuel." Although Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and is required to accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on its production of zirconium fuel cladding, it has made no moves to do so, and China has exerted no influence to this end.[21] Indeed, China tacitly supports Iran's nuclear power program by ignoring overwhelming evi­dence that has persuaded the U.S., Germany, France, Britain, and others of Iran's intentions to produce nuclear weapons.

On January 10, 2006, Iran finally removed seals from the last nuclear enrichment laboratories that remained under IAEA safeguards. The day before, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister met with the Chinese Foreign Minister in Beijing to brief him "about the views and considerations of the Iranian side." As one Washington commentator put it, "in other words, Tehran cleared its action with Beijing."[22] This might explain why China managed to water down subsequent IAEA language censur­ing Iran. One Western official dryly observed that "technically, China is being difficult."[23]

On January 31, China's representative in the IAEA relented in a vote to "report" Iran's nuclear violations to the U.N. Security Council, provided that no action would be taken until March. On March 20, after the Security Council failed to reach agreement on a formal statement ordering Iran to stop its uranium-enrichment program, China's U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, suggested that no action be taken for "four or six weeks" until the IAEA issues yet another report on whether Iran has ceased its objectionable activities-effectively delaying the matter at least until June when the 35-nation IAEA governing board meets again.

Accordingly, on March 29, the Security Council requested the IAEA governor to report, yet again, in "30 days" on Iran's progress in complying with IAEA request, thereby ensuring that the issue would not come up inconveniently during Hu Jin­tao's April visit to the United States.[24] China's assumption of the Security Council presidency in April also placed it in a stronger position to stymie efforts to slow Iran's weapons program.

In addition, China appears to have persuaded Russia to oppose any Security Council action beyond a reprimand calling on Iran to cease ura­nium enrichment, and it is likely that China will threaten to veto any U.N. sanctions on Iran. With­out sanctions, Iran will have no incentive to nego­tiate the dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program.

Beijing's policies appear grounded in a strategic calculation. In April 2002, shortly after President George W. Bush labeled Iran a member of the "Axis of Evil," Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Teheran and conveyed a message that China and Iran hope to "prevent domination of a superpower on the entire world," according to the Iranian press.[25] Jiang also declared that China's policy was "to oppose American deployments in Central Asia and the Middle East." He pledged that "one of China's most important diplomatic missions is to strengthen unity and cooperation with developing countries and to avoid having developing countries become the targets of American military attacks."[26]

North Korea. Washington should not be sur­prised by China's lack of interest in deterring the Iranian nuclear weapons program; its behavior mirrors Beijing's policies toward North Korea.

Washington policymakers must ask themselves why, despite North Korea's absolute economic and security dependence on China, China's three years of involvement in multiparty talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions have resulted in no progress. Indeed, the situation has worsened.

Since 2002, the United States has sanctioned Chinese companies for providing North Korea with tributyl phosphate, an acid solvent used to extract uranium and plutonium salts from nuclear reactor effluents. The most recent sanction action was in April 2004-incongruously, just one month before the State Department recommended that China be admitted to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an infor­mal international nonproliferation organization.[27] In 2003, China interdicted one such shipment at U.S. insistence,[28] but there is no indication that China has made any other effort to enforce its export controls on North Korea.

In the opinion of arms control experts at the U.S. State Department, China enforces its rules "only under the imminent threat, or in response to the actual imposition, of sanctions," and China's failure to respond represents more an "unwillingness" than an "inability" to enforce its export regulations.[29]

Pyongyang removed irradiated fuel cores from its Yongbyon reactor in February 2005 and thus far has apparently fashioned fissile plutonium cores for six to 10 nuclear weapons.[30]

China's support of the Iranian and Pakistani nuclear programs, both of which have been con­nected to Pyongyang's nuclear program, could be grounded in Beijing's calculation that a nuclear-armed North Korea is in China's interests. A nuclear-armed North Korea complicates U.S. stra­tegic planning, especially in scenarios involving conflict in the Taiwan Strait or island territorial dis­putes with Japan.

This may explain why, when North Korea admit­ted on February 10, 2005, that it already had nuclear weapons, China's reaction was a shrug of the shoulders. "We are still researching the situa­tion," it announced, and China continues to say that it is uncertain whether Pyongyang has a nuclear device. Moreover, China's steadfast insis­tence that the six-party talks are the only way to address the situation may mean that North Korea will keep its nuclear weapons indefinitely.

Clearly, Beijing's involvement with North Korean, Pakistani, and Iranian nuclear programs belies the idea that China has become a responsible stakeholder on weapons proliferation.

Obstructionism in the War on Terrorism.China has attempted, with varying degrees of success, to hinder U.S. coalition forces support­ing operations in Afghanistan. In June 2005, China pressured its Central Asian allies in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to demand that the U.S. set a timetable for withdrawal from U.S. bases. Within weeks, American officials accused China of "bullying" Uzbekistan to remove U.S. bases and cajoling neighboring Kyr­gystan to agitate for increased U.S. funding to retain bases there.[31] Subsequently, American bases were closed in Uzbekistan and nearly shut­tered in Kyrgyzstan.

A number of U.S. officials have remarked about China's lack of enthusiasm for the global war on terrorism.[32] One reason for China's disinterest is ideological. Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin has cautioned against "unreserved support for the war on terror" lest it aid the United States in its quest for hegemony.[33]

Support for Oppression. Another reason to hedge against China is its support for illiberal regimes, insulating them against criticism on human rights from the United States and other Western democracies. The Beijing regime views constant harassment from the West on human rights issues as undermining its own legitimacy. To the extent that it can defend despots around the world-such as the leaders of Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Burma-as only "exploring a road to develop­ment suited to their national conditions,"[34] it can claim that its own lack of civil and political rights is suited to China's national conditions.

Despite international concern about human rights in China, the post-Tiananmen Beijing regime remains and will probably continue to be a coun­terliberal force, encouraging despotism and under­mining democracy at home as well as in Asia and around the globe.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center