The Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation has two centennial goals. The Communist Party’s centenary was on 1st July. New China’s foundation centenary is in 2049. This should be the apotheosis of China as a great power, exercising comprehensive national strength – political, diplomatic, economic, trade, tech, fintech, information and digital, cyber and space, innovation; and military, too. China is already impacting the world in all these dimensions.
Dreaming with Chinese Military Characteristics
The People’s Liberation Army, ever the Party’s army, now has a global mandate. Military might is both byproduct of, and pre-condition to, national greatness. For President Xi, a strong country and strong military go together.
China’s economic power underwrites wholesale reform and modernisation of its armed forces. The aim: by 2049 to have “world-class armed forces”. State-directed, state-subsidised, strategies such as Military-Civil Fusion, and advances in AI, quantum technologies, new, emerging and disruptive technologies will speed it there.
Sphere of Primacy
China says it will never be a world hegemon. Conventional analysis of China’s ambitions is that it seeks at least a regional primacy and global leadership - in other words, dominance centred on Asia-Pacific and a global leadership a little more accommodating. We can leave this as a moot point for now. Let’s imagine, in China’s shoes, what the military dream might look like in the Western Pacific.
The Meaning of the Dream
It irks China that its region is divided between a Chinese economic and a US security sphere of influence. US Indo-Pacific Command has over 377,000 military and civilian personnel. US Forces Japan number 54,000 military personnel, US Forces in South Korea 28,500.
A ‘good’ dream for China might look like withdrawal of US forces east of the International Date Line, the end of US defence agreements in the region, no assistance to Taiwan, cessation of closein reconnaissance flights, and the halting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. With the US out, its partners and allies melt away, and regional states are powerless to resist China’s pursuit of national interests, especially in the East and South China Seas.
Dream, Not Yet Reality
That dream is not yet reality. The military balance is still in the US’s favour. Its defence budget is about three times China’s, though that advantage is attenuated by China’s lower costs, especially for military wages, offbalance-sheet funding and shortcuts in research and development unhelpful to other states. China is not fibbing when it says the “PLA still lags far behind the world’s leading militaries”, by which it really means the US. One example, take expeditionary capability. China is still working on Carrier Strike Groups, Amphibious Task Forces, strategic air lift, refuelling assets and “strategic strongpoints” from which to project power globally. Whereas the US for decades has operated with these capabilities, and forward-positioned and sustained armies, fleets, marine expeditionary forces and air forces.
Realizing the Dream
China is steadily realising its dream. On quality, Chinese shipbuilding, integrated air defence systems and cruise and ballistic missiles are already top-notch. On capability, Chinese and US nuclear forces and ballistic missile defences are in an action-reaction cycle for dominance.
On deployable power projection, USPACOM is feeling Chinese push-back in the Western Pacific. In July 2020, USAF Deputy Commander USPACOM predicted Chinese military overmatch compared to INDOPACOM’s assigned (not all US) forces. He said China has “home field advantage” within the first island chain (Kuril Islands, main Japanese archipelago, Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, northern Philippines archipelago and Palawan, Borneo and bending up to Vietnam). In March 2021 Commander INDOPACOM, worried about an unfavourable military balance, said the US needed to “regain the advantage” quantitatively and qualitatively. “America’s day begins in Guam”, he said. He could have added he does not want it to end there.
China’s formula for a relationship with the US is “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”. We would expect China to use Sun Tzu strategy to win without fighting. A strong military, able to fight and win is, paradoxically, a military that does not have to fight to win. Deterring the use of hard power against it, China exploits other levers of national power to achieve its goals.
China is skilled at getting its way without triggering an armed conflict. There is assertiveness, but not a fight. The term “grey zone” operations is in common use now to describe the activity. A prominent example is in the South China Sea, where instead of fronting up with grey-hulled warships which are obviously intimidating, China employs Maritime Militia in blue-hulled look-alike fishing trawlers and white-hulled China Coast Guard vessels, symbols of peace-time maritime law enforcement, but actually belonging to Chinese armed forces. If there were a fight, it would be a close call. US forces would be at stretch, Chinese forces would have deep field strength. China’s AntiAccess and Area Denial (A2AD) strategy holds at risk intervening forces. This strategy is being extended to the second island chain (from Tokyo through Guam and Palau, down to Indonesia’s Irian Jaya).
Ominously nicknamed ballistic missiles are the DF21D “carrier killer” and the DF26 “Guam killer”. Taiwan is the most likely flashpoint between the US and China, perhaps also the litmus test of military primacy in the Western Pacific. A failed invasion by China or a failed intervention by the US would be a strategic shock.
Opposed amphibious landings are notoriously difficult and will be so in Taiwan which has been preparing for them. Conventional and nuclear warheads are only a 6 to 8-minute bus ride away on Chinese short range ballistic missiles, but that will leave a mess and an angry population for their occupation forces. Once combat has started, containing it to a local war is unlikely. Off-ramps for two nuclear superpowers to prevent escalation to their homelands may be hard to find. Chinese leadership are rational and calculate risk. Most policy statements emphasise “peaceful reunification”.
Rude Awakening or Nightmare
The dream may stop with a rude awakening or turn into a nightmare. A Japan without the US might re-arm and become a nuclear power. A denuclearised, unified Korean peninsula could turn antithetical to China. The international situation is even more complicated for China. China blames the US. US, EU, Germany, and France each have their Indo-Pacific strategies. In the Integrated Review, the UK has announced its tilt to the Indo-Pacific. India, Japan and Australia are adapting strategic outlooks on Indo-Pacific.
China is the underlying reason. NATO calls China a systemic challenge; the EU calls China partner, competitor and systemic rival; the G7 calls out unilateral attempts to change the status quo and increased tensions. The US is not taking anything lying down. Its 2021 Innovation and Competition Act is a recent addition to four years of interagency, whole-of government, measures to tackle the China challenge.
Swapping the Baton and Assassin’s Mace?
China’s metanarrative is that the “east is rising, the west is declining”, an historical determinism. China expects the US to hand over the baton of Western Pacific (even Asia-Pacific) primacy and global leadership. However, the US is rallying. The Pacific Defence Initiative doubles down on military primacy. If it doesn’t work, and one day China seizes the baton of military primacy, China will have to let go of the assassin’s mace. This is the instrument of the weaker military power asymmetrically to overwhelm the stronger. US forces, now becoming dispersed, distributed, more dynamic, lethal, re-invested and re-focused for the strategic competition, may just be that mace.
- 原标题：周波：中国已经主导西太平洋了吗？ 本文仅代表作者个人观点。
- 责任编辑: 朱敏洁
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