SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — A real life game of chess is being played out in the Pacific between China, the United States and its allies.
China is dramatically modernizing its military, especially its navy, and has been engaged in confrontations in recent months with Japan over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal. Both Japan and the Philippines have defense treaties with the U.S.
The Chinese also have commissioned an aircraft carrier, landed a J-15 fighter on its deck and deployed drones in exercises near Okinawa, according to media reports.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has recommitted itself to the Pacific and expanded diplomatic ties in the region, courting Myanmar as it emerges from isolation and expanding relationships with Vietnam and Cambodia. U.S. Marines have been stationed in Australia, and there are plans to deploy littoral combat ships to Singapore, moves that some analysts see as a policy of containment.
High-level meetings in Beijing and at the Pentagon, invitations to exercises and tours of military bases for visiting dignitaries have done little to mask that bilateral distrust is at an all-time high and these examples of tit for tat one-upmanship and chest puffing have not been seen — outside of the Korean Peninsula — since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Two major reports this year have detailed an emboldened Chinese government — bolstered by years of economic growth, theft of technology secrets and a navy that is quickly becoming more modern and designed to specifically combat U.S. Navy platforms — that increasingly sees the U.S. as a superpower in decline. China is in a leadership transition, but analysts don’t expect much to change.
The tenuous relationship has been called many things, from adversarial to an arms race.
“There is a new kind of Cold War going on,” said June Teufel Dreyer, a professor in political science at the University of Miami and an expert on the Chinese government and U.S. defense policy.
Teufel Dreyer said it is reminiscent of the chess game played between the U.S. and Soviets following World War II, even though the U.S. government won’t acknowledge it’s happening. Official Chinese military journals that aren’t translated into English say it “implicitly,” she said.
Baohui Zhang, a political science professor at Lingnan University’s Centre for Asian Pacific Studies in Hong Kong, stopped just short of calling it a Cold War.
“I think that at a minimum, a strategic competition has emerged between China and the United States,” Zhang said. “They are competing for influence and leadership in the Asia-Pacific region.”
China began to modernize its navy in the 1990s, according to a Congressional Research report released in March. The reasons largely relate to Taiwan, which is claimed by China but has self-rule and is allied with Washington. The Chinese are believed to be developing an anti-access maritime force that would try to keep the U.S. Navy from intervening if Taiwan declared independence and conflict broke out.
The Chinese also aim to assert territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and enforce its view that it has the right to regulate foreign military activities in its 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone.
China’s naval modernization effort includes anti-ship ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, unmanned aircraft, submarines, aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, mine countermeasures ships, hospital ships, education and training, as well as exercises with countries like Russia, the report said.
The Defense Department says the amount of modern units in China’s submarine force has gone from less than 10 percent in 2000 to about 56 percent in 2010. Surface combatants have gone from less than 10 percent in 2000 to about 26 percent in 2010.
“Decisions that Congress and the executive branch make regarding U.S. Navy programs for countering improved Chinese maritime military capabilities could affect the likelihood or possible outcome of a potential U.S.-Chinese military conflict in the Pacific over Taiwan or some other issue,” the paper’s author Ronald O’Rourke wrote.
“In the absence of such a conflict, however, the U.S.-Chinese military balance in the Pacific could nevertheless influence day-to-day choices made by other Pacific countries, including choices on whether to align their policies more closely with China or the United States.”
It is a daunting prospect considering the gridlock in Washington, looming defense budget cuts, and an already-overtaxed fleet of ships. More than one-fifth of Navy ships fell short of combat readiness in the past two years, and fewer than half of the service’s deployed combat aircraft are ready for their missions at any given time, according to congressional testimony.
Another report, “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust,” released in March by the Brookings Institution in Washington and the Institute for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, said the Chinese government’s senior leaders believe they will come out on top due to the state of American politics and the economy.
Zhang said the Chinese economy is poised to overtake the U.S. in the next 10 years as the world’s largest.
Wang Jisi, an influential and widely respected expert on Chinese foreign policy who has held positions within the Chinese government, wrote in the Brookings report that the Chinese view themselves as on the rise and the U.S. on the decline. As such, they see the U.S. as trying to disrupt their rise toward becoming the world’s most powerful country.
“In Beijing’s view, it is U.S. policies, attitude and misperceptions that cause the lack of mutual trust between the two countries,” Jisi wrote.
O’Rourke wrote that China’s emerging maritime anti-access force is similar to the Soviet Union’s sea denial force developed during the Cold War to keep U.S. forces from intervening in a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict. The difference, O’Rourke claims, is the Chinese missile capability to strike a moving ship at sea. Military experts have called that a game-changer.
Zhang said the era of globalization could not support a full-scale war between the two powers, but he was still pessimistic.
About the future
“This is why the U.S. position on the issue is so important. If it overextends its commitment, then a U.S.-China stand-off could emerge” from a standoff between China and the Philippines or Japan, he said.
Teufel Dreyer said the Chinese are being careful not to instigate an all-out military conflict but are slowly and deliberately escalating the situation, claiming territory and restricting access.
The Chinese are mining the South China Sea for natural resources like oil to maintain an economic growth rate of 8 percent that some feel is unsustainable. Teufel Dreyer said this is being done to mitigate dissent with the promise of a bright future.
“No country can sustain an 8 percent annual growth forever,” according to Simon Shen, a professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong. “There’s a rise of Chinese nationalism, but the target isn’t only the U.S. In a country where full freedom of speech is lacking, nationalist trends can also go against the regime.”
The U.S. government has pledged to support its allies in the region but does not weigh in on territorial disputes like those that China is embroiled in with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Analysts fear that an overcommitment by the U.S. could lead to a conflict.
“The U.S. has a national interest in freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea,” a Department of State spokesman said, asking not be identified.
However, the Senate unanimously approved an amendment Nov. 29 to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to Japan on the uninhabited islands that Japan calls Senkaku and China calls Daioyu as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2013.
So what will be the outcome?
Chinese economic growth already has begun to slow, Teufel Dreyer said, adding that she believes the Obama administration is playing nice while patiently waiting for China’s rising star to burn out and fall.
“The U.S. is going to try very hard to manage this relationship,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do. China is eventually going to be constrained by the weaknesses in their own system. The U.S. will try to smooth the cracks [in the relationship] without giving anything away while trying to fix our own deficiencies.”