Thursday, May 25, 2006

China's Military Modernization and the "Second Island Chain"

The current iteration of the Pentagon’s report to Congress on Chinese military modernization is, to me, a relatively moderate document.

It starts off with the Foggy Bottom-approved “responsible stakeholder” trope, another sign that Donald Rumsfeld is sitting on the porch of the Old Folks Home for Defense Secretaries Who Masterminded Utterly Failed Wars and grumbling that Nobody Ever Visits.

It does include the Rumsfeldian riff that “China’s military sector is too opaque to inspire confidence.”

The alarmist high estimate of China’s actual military spending, which attracted some notice, is so risible piece of Powerpoint Rangering I actually wonder if they were laughing as they cranked it out.

C’mon guys, at least mess with Excel spreadsheet so the whole bar chart doesn’t look like it was stamped out with a cookie cutter!

Demonizing China as irrational and dangerous—a staple of Bush-era good vs. evil pre-emptive foreign policy posturing—is off the menu too.

The document does a good, evenhanded job of analyzing Chinese military priorities and concerns in the context of the PRC’s economics-driven but Taiwan-shadowed foreign policy.

Discussing China’s perspective on attacking Taiwan, the report says on page 40:

Finally, Beijing’s planning must calculate the virtual certainty of U.S. intervention, and Japanese interests, in any conflict in the Taiwan Strait. It views the United States, especially in combination with Japan, as having advantages over China in many scenarios involving the use of military force. China’s leaders also calculate a conflict over Taiwan involving the United States would give rise to a long-term hostile relationship between the two nations – a result that would not be in China’s interests.

The phrase “Japanese interests” is a little clumsy. It sounds like Prime Minister Koizumi and the Japanese people would be sure to set their Tivos to CNN if war broke out in the Taiwan Straits. It’s worth pondering that “Japanese response”, “Japanese opposition” or “Japanese condemnation” or even “Japanese concern” didn’t make it into the text.

The LA Times commented somewhat perspicaciously (in its May 24 article, Chinese Threat is Expanding, Pentagon Says) that a key audience for the report seems to be China's neighbors in the western Pacific. The report talks persuasively about China’s blue water ambitions and a rather interesting graphic lays out China’s purported interest in the “Second Island Chain”.

If the expectation of the report's authors is that Taiwan, terrified by new evidence that the Red tsunami will sweep across the Pacific and scour freedom from the shores of Formosa, will finally get off its butt, pass the immense special budget for arms purchases from the United States, and reoccupy its proper place as our Israel in the Pacific, I’m afraid the result might be just the opposite.

The implication I drew from the report is not that the Chinese intend to contest this perimeter in order to deny the Western Pacific to the United States so that the PLA can have its fiendish way with Taiwan while our carrier groups slug it out with the newly emboldened Chinese navy on the same godforsaken string of islands that we conquered in World War II.

Those islands are as defensible as Dien Bien Phu. They aren't part of any Taiwan invasion strategy.

Quite the opposite.

Consider that line on the map a blueprint for China’s vision of a future peace and prosperity zone in maritime Asia after the Taiwan issue has been resolved to its satisfaction.

Extending China’s reach to those remote, extremely vulnerable islands only makes sense if the Western Pacific is universally accepted as China’s legitimate sphere of influence; in other words if Taiwan has peacefully reconciled with the mainland, turned over its regional security interests to Beijing, and told the US to bug out.

That’s what probably really worries the U.S. government the most: not that the Chinese will suddenly go nuts, attack Taiwan, and start World War III.

Instead, Washington fears that some combination of political disarray and public confusion in Taiwan will provoke a Hong Kong-style accommodation with Beijing--and a disaster for America's prestige and strategic position in the area.

As China redefines and asserts its intentions and capabilities as a “responsible” regional power, the possibility of a modus vivendi between a nominally independent Taiwan and the PRC increases, and with it the odds that the Taiwanese will take the path of least resistance and rapproche with Beijing.

In this case, maybe it’s easier for us to retain the diplomatic initiative if we continue to assert that the Chinese intentions remain opaque, and that its leadership is a hive of irrational dingbats.

After all, when we acknowledge China as a rational actor, we are implying that its goals are understandable, achievable...and perhaps even acceptable.

If the Chinese said it’s time for Asians to take over Asian security because a certain alien, dangerous, distracted, and overstretched superpower is no longer up to the job…

…and the choice is either Co-Prosperity Sphere redux with the Japanese acting as American surrogates…

…or a genuinely independent Asian policy in alliance with the region’s dominant economic and military power…

…we might not get the answer we want to hear.


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Looking44sight said...

Nice sleight of hand in your analysis as is common with Sinophiles.

If Zhongnanhai were to say "it’s time for Asians to take over Asian security," more than a couple of chinese neighbors will likely read it as "It's time for China to reclaim its old territories." China still has claims over significant parts of Asia and it has a track record of narrowly interpreting its commitments even in "settled disputes."

The fact is that China is growing its military in an opaque manner and all its leaders say when asked for their intentions is "Peaceful Rise" bromides. Given that Chinese leaders are willing to rake up nationalist passions against Japan, it would not be hard to imagine a future CCP leadership to rekindle any one China's maritime disputes to divert attention from their internal failings.

Some of China's neighbors may also be wondering if China will be happy with putting its maritime claims in the East and South China Seas on the back burner were the Taiwan issue to be resolved soon.

The same people who ordered the use of force against Vietnam and in the Spratlys are still in power in China. Who's to say that this current "peaceful rise" posture isn't a tactical retreat?

D.A. said...

What are your thoughts on China's recent activity on Information Warfare, and how they use it to maintain an upper hand in Asia?


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