China in US gunsights

Damian Grammaticas
China correspondent

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe US review has prompted some to ask whether a clash between the US and China is inevitable

Is China's rise going to lead to conflict with America? Is Beijing destined to go to war with today's undisputed global superpower?

The question is not posed directly in the new US defence strategic review. But, unspoken, it is there, running through the document that seeks to shape America's new military thinking for the 21st Century.

Read the review and it is clear that the challenge posed by a rising China is at the very heart of America's new defence strategy.

The document is careful to say China is not destined to be an adversary. But it makes clear America is, nevertheless, about to retool its military to deter China, and, if necessary, to confront it.

Released by President Barack Obama at the Pentagon, the aim of the new strategy is there in black and white: to reshape the US military in a way that "preserves American global leadership, maintains our military superiority".

The Pentagon and the White House are certainly not ready to accept the notion that America is inevitably facing long-term decline while China is on an equally inevitable rise. America wants to remain number one, and this new defence policy is designed to achieve that.

Lack of trust

In the very first sentence of his preamble, President Obama says "our nation is at a moment of transition," and the review states: "We face an inflection point." It identifies two basic forces shaping the transition, one inside America, one outside.

At home growing budget pressures mean there have to be cuts in military spending. At the same time there is the awareness that, abroad, China's growing economic strength is changing the dynamic of power in Asia.

image copyrightAFP
image captionUS President Barack Obama insists his country welcomes the "peaceful" rise of China

The new defence posture, says the US, encourages "the peaceful rise of new powers". That is code for welcoming China's ascent, and has been said many times before.

As to what China's rise means, the new strategy is open-minded. "Over the long term," it says, noncommittally, "China's emergence as a regional power will have the potential to affect the US economy and our security in a variety of ways."

Note the way that China is described as an emerging "regional power". The Pentagon is not ready to accord China the status of a global power or superpower, or even an emerging superpower, a reflection of the fact that China's military reach is still far from global.

However China's economic influence does now span the world. America and China are bound by mutual self-interest. But the review is clear there is a real lack of trust.

"Our two countries have a strong stake in peace and stability in East Asia and an interest in building a co-operative bilateral relationship. However, the growth of China's military power must be accompanied by a greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region."

Arms race

So the US is still hedging its bets. Already last year, the Obama administration unveiled its "pivot", turning America's gaze towards the Pacific. That shift is clear in this new doctrine. "We will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region", it says several times.

Now America is stating that it will work on several fronts to counter China's emerging power.

There is a clear concern about China's efforts to develop weapons that would make it hard for US forces to operate in parts of East Asia. China is investing in "anti-access" and "area denial" weapons like so-called "carrier killer" missiles that could sink US aircraft carriers at sea. It has also invested heavily in submarines and is building stealth fighter jets.

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe US and China may send up in a tug-of-war over the Pacific region - and perhaps globally

All of those could push US aircraft carrier fleets further from China's shores, limiting their ability to influence vital trade routes in the South China Sea, or to defend Taiwan if it is attacked by China.

The review says "states such as China and Iran will continue to pursue asymmetric means to counter our power projection capabilities." But it promises "the United States must maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged".

"The maintenance of peace, stability, the free flow of commerce, and of US influence in this dynamic region will depend in part on an underlying balance of military capability and presence," it says.

So the US wants to keep its military superiority over China intact. What that leads to is an escalating arms race as America moves to counter China's own advances.

In a way the Pentagon may be copying China's own strategy, investing in similar types of weapons. There will be a focus on developing increasing air and naval power, and on advanced weapons such as even more sophisticated stealth jets, missiles and drones, along with cyberwarfare and space capabilities too.

Making friends

Strengthening a network of alliances around China is the other pillar of the strategy. "We will emphasise our existing alliances, which provide a vital foundation for Asia-Pacific security. We will also expand our networks of co-operation with emerging partners throughout the Asia-Pacific region."

Already the US has close defence relationships with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Australia. It is working to build ties with Vietnam, Indonesia and is "investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India".

What all this amounts to is a very robust message of deterrence to China. The US will contest any challenge to its dominance. It will cement core alliances with China's neighbours and protect its interest in East Asia.

To return to the question we began with. Will there be conflict between the US and China one day?

The answer may well depend on how China responds to this new policy. Will it seek to assert its own power in East Asia? Will that cause growing friction?

One early response to the new US policy has come from the state-controlled Global Times newspaper, often nationalist in its opinions.

It says "China needs to enhance its long-distance military attack ability and develop more ways to threaten US territory in order to gradually push outward the front line of its 'game' with America".

"China," the paper says, "must make the US realise that its rise can't be stopped and that it is best for the US to show friendliness towards China."