While President Trump is traveling on his Asian tour, he will be visiting China for the first time. Pointing out some of the intricacies of the U.S.–China relationship will make following this visit more interesting.
Twenty-one years ago, when Taiwan was about to hold its first presidential election, China flexed its military muscles by holding a series of military exercises and firing missiles close to the Taiwanese coast. The U.S. deployed an aircraft carrier group to international waters near Taiwan, signifying imminent battle. That silenced the Chinese and let the Taiwanese vote. From then on, almost every conversation on growing Chinese military power ended with a simple conclusion: stop the Chinese from any belligerent action with the two American aircraft carriers positioned in the Taiwan Strait. They would be enough not only to prevent the Chinese from attacking Taiwan but could win an entire war against China.
This excessive American self-confidence, transformed into popular belief which neglected to acknowledge the ambition of the fast-growing Asian giant, could not last forever. Even the United States, the absolute winner of the Cold War, knew that someday it would have to deal with China. It took a while, but that time is now.
It is time to revisit the dusty charts and confront the problem. In the era of technological warfare, the once powerful American aircraft carriers became paper tigers, useful in appearance but otherwise vulnerable in the case of real combat. What America is facing today, military experts tell us, is the new balance of military power between the United States and China, the new world order. In the air, on the sea and underwater. The potential combat area between the two superpowers covers the South and the East China Sea, where China builds artificial islands and postures to take complete control of the region, pushing all other powers–America included–out.
Utilizing “salami-slicing” strategy–the slow accumulation of small actions, none of which is a casus belli, but which add up over time to a major strategic change–China is expanding its control over the South China Sea, confounding Washington’s military plans. While leaving passages for cargo boats open, China wants to obtain military and security control over the entire region, similar to the way the United States did with the USSOUTHCOM Area of Responsibility (AOR), which encompasses 32 nations in Central, South America and in the Caribbean.
It appears as if America realized this new situation only in the wake of two recent events. A week ago Michael Fabey, a military and naval affairs reporter, published “Crashback: The Power Clash Between the U.S. and China in the Pacific,” an investigative book on the tension between them, with unprecedented access to both American and Chinese naval ships and personnel. Fabey describes in detail the new balance of power in the period of the warm war, as he calls it. A warm war is that which might not necessarily end in a global conflict, but rather in a narrow transition toward a new global order of an uncertain future. Fabey describes the complexity of the present situation at the beginning of his book:
It’s a war over tiny specks of land and vast reaches of sea and sky, a warm war of dangerous confrontations and small escalations, a war over military hegemony and the diplomatic and economic influence that naturally follows that hegemony. It’s a war that pits a diminished U.S. Navy, which sailed the Pacific virtually unchallenged for decades, against a burgeoning Chinese navy that is evolving with astonishing speed from a coastal defense force to a “blue-water” fleet capable of projecting power throughout the region. It’s a warm war in which China is trying to gain ownership and military control of some of the world’s most economically vital waters…And it is a war that the United States has been losing.
When Fabey presented his book at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he could not hide his admiration for the latest Chinese military achievements, especially for the monstrous, Chinese-designed and built 10,000-ton destroyer, equipped with guided missiles, new types of air defense, missile defense, anti-ship and anti-submarine weapons. But while the Chinese are building fast, and strategically, Beijing is also closing the gap by benefitting from the stagnation of America. China made significant progress in building a stronger and more modern navy, increasing their submarine fleet and modernizing substantially their air force. “They are still behind us, except in one field. China is much better in long-range missiles, which means that if they want, they can keep our navy away from their shores,” said Fabey during the presentation of his book. This is why the carriers are losing their importance in the imminent naval battle, the battle that will be predominately decided by submarines, said Fabey, who mentioned also that the Chinese are building their carriers to impress potential allies in the region.
Fabey thinks that eventual war between China and the U.S. will be won by the Americans. The victory, he says, will not be easy, much more difficult and bloodier that it would’ve been decades ago. In this context, he mentioned the problems the Chinese have with logistics (the reason they could never invade Taiwan from the sea) and all sorts communications that come with high-tech warfare. China has not been in a war for ages and is short of combat skills, while America is constantly and permanently testing its warfare in conflicts and maneuvers around the globe.
Those are important matters, said Fabey, who noted that the recent collision of the US Navy warships with commercial vessels in Asian waters was due to lack of training and experience of the young crews, not always equipped with the best resources. The United States must improve the training of the naval personnel, modernize current naval equipment, develop long-range missiles and build more submarines, ended Fabey’s surprising account. But in his book he makes a more hawkish conclusion:
America could lose simply by not trying to win. And for too long that’s exactly what American political leaders and some American military leaders have been doing—not trying to win. In the past, they’ve failed to even acknowledge that the warm war with China exists, preferring instead to view China as a potential military partner rather than a military competitor. They’ve refused to accept that China’s current leadership doesn’t respond to Western concepts of moral persuasion, that the leadership responds only to displays of strength—economic, diplomatic, and military. It’s been a policy of accommodation—some might call it appeasement—with a Chinese leadership that has taken full advantage of American complacency to expand its aggressive military reach in the Western Pacific region to the detriment of its neighbors. Only relatively recently has the American defense establishment begun to recognize that America’s economic and national security depends on having the will to win the warm war with China.
The second event that changed America’s mindset was Beijing’s announcement of the end of the 19th Congress of the Communist Party, which gave the Chinese strongman, Xi Jinping, unprecedented powers. Having been enshrined in the Party Constitution as the sole legitimate interpreter of Party politics for the new era, Xi’s political authority in China is now absolute.
Xi’s mandate is to implement the historical “Chinese dream of glorious Chinese national restoration” by 2050. Proceeding from 2020, this plan is divided into two 15-year parts. By 2035, China will be fully developed and technologically advanced. It will then embark on taking its rightful place as the world’s unassailable economic and cultural leader, playing “an important role in the history of humanity.”
Seated on the throne as sole leader of the Party that now dominates every aspect of Chinese society, Xi can turn his attention to rest of the world. During the Congress, he pledged that he will launch China into a new, third era. In his report to the Congress, Xi hinted that if Mao made China independent, and Deng made it prosperous, he would make it strong again. “Restoring China to greatness is a central message of Xi Jinping Thought, and a goal that has already guided Mr. Xi’s policies of building up the military, strengthening domestic controls and raising China’s profile in global affairs,” writes Chris Buckley from Beijing.
As China’s most powerful leader in decades, Xi seeks to reassure the world that his country’s rise will be peaceful. “Xi’s vision includes—for the first time in contemporary Chinese history—staking out a global leadership role,” said Jonathan Sullivan, director of University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute. “This will inevitably bring China’s interests up against those of other powers.”
As I am writing this, the much-discussed American President is at the doorstep of the new Chinese emperor. Donald Trump’s visit to China could not come at a worse time; the political disorder and leadership vacuum at home represents a strategic opportunity for China. But do not expect humiliation from his Chinese host. The Chinese know how to stroke Trump’s ego. They will give Trump the royal treatment he craves. They may even offer some business deals. The visit will appear harmonious, kind and most probably lavish. Trump will receive respect, cooperation, maybe even praise. Otherwise known as slices of salami.