WASHINGTON — President Obama’s “rebalancing” toward Asia is already severely off-kilter as China barrels toward military superiority, bullies its way to territorial control and lengthens its manipulative reach far beyond its continent.
As administration negotiators were busy trying to rush a deal with Iran on Saturday, China announced that it had established an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone over the disputed Senkaku Islands also claimed by Japan. Under the new rules, all aircraft must get clearance from Chinese authorities or face a military reaction from PRC authorities guarding the zone.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he was “deeply concerned” by the announcement, viewing it as “a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region.”
“This unilateral action increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations,” Hagel said. “This announcement by the People’s Republic of China will not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region.”
Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement echoed Hagel’s, adding “escalatory action will only increase tensions in the region and create risks of an incident.”
“We don’t support efforts by any State to apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter its national airspace. The United States does not apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter U.S. national airspace,” Kerry said. “We urge China not to implement its threat to take action against aircraft that do not identify themselves or obey orders from Beijing.”
Today aboard Air Force One White House spokesman Josh Earnest called China’s move “unnecessarily inflammatory.”
“There are regional disputes in that part of the world, and those are disputes that should be resolved diplomatically,” Earnest said. “And there should be, in this case, plenty of overlapping common ground to reach a situation — or reach a resolution that doesn’t involve inflammatory, escalating rhetoric or policy pronouncements by any side. And that’s how we hope that this situation will be resolved.”
But Congress learned in a recent report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission that the People’s Republic is increasingly poised to obtain what it wants in a less-than-diplomatic fashion.
“While we continue to warn about our military’s readiness and the dangerous effects of budget cuts and sequestration, China’s military spending continues to rise and its new leadership seeks to increase combat readiness,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) at a hearing last week to review the report. “Its current pace of military modernization shows that Beijing is developing the ability to project power and influence further abroad.”
Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), though, said “there is no reason that we should have China as an enemy.”
“I think we have an increasing number of common interests in terms of peace and stability, certainly in Asia, but globally. China has become more and more involved economically throughout the world,” Smith said. “And I think the most important thing is they actually step up and start assuming that role.”
The chairman for this year’s report, Bill Reinsch, noted that China is not exactly acting like a partner for peace with its actions in the East and South China Seas — and this even before Saturday’s airspace decree.
“It is becoming clearer that China does not intend to resolve its maritime disputes through multilateral negotiations or the application of international laws and adjudicative processes, but prefers to use its growing power in support of coercive tactics to pressure its neighbors to concede China’s claims,” Reinsch said.
“Meanwhile, China continued to develop and field advanced military platforms and weapons systems. China’s comprehensive military modernization is altering the balance of power in Asia, challenging decades of U.S. military preeminence in the region,” he said.
The committee found that China is more prepared than ever to strike at Taiwan and that Obama administration officials need to be urged to visit Taiwan to lend their support — with consistent congressional oversight.
They found that China’s rapid, thorough modernization of its military means the People’s Republic has 65 submarines that can employ intercontinental ballistic missiles, torpedoes, mines or anti-ship cruise missiles, and has made even more dangerous strides in its cyberespionage campaign that threatens U.S. industry, infrastructure and military operations. In March the PRC hiked its defense budget by more than 10 percent.
The People’s Liberation Army is “rapidly expanding and diversifying its ability to strike U.S. bases, ships, and aircraft throughout the Asia Pacific region including those that it previously could not reach, such as U.S. military facilities on Guam.”
The report noted that China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, “introduced the ‘China Dream’ concept, which envisions the ‘great renewal of the Chinese nation’ and the advancement of an international system in which China’s successful rise provides an attractive alternate political model to Western ones. Achieving the dream means building a ‘moderately prosperous society’ by 2021 and a ‘modern socialist society that is strong, democratic, cultured, and harmonious’ by 2049.” Combat readiness has been a consistent theme of Xi’s speeches to the military and has shifted the focus more from showy parades to hard training; the PRC has also begun inserting combat troops into UN peacekeeping missions.
“Historically, China has avoided directly opposing U.S. power in the region, content to free ride on the U.S. security presence there,” testified review commissioner Carolyn Bartholomew. “In recent years, however, Beijing appears increasingly willing to take positions on important regional issues that directly oppose or undermine U.S. interests and objectives. This is clearly the case with Syria.”
China similarly carries on cozy relationships with Iran and North Korea, and in April China moved a few dozen of its soldiers 12 miles into India’s border, angering New Delhi.
“The impact of China gradually taking on a more assertive global role will be significant. Beijing may become more willing to use its increasing political and economic clout to wield its influence,” Bartholomew said. “This trend has significant implications for the U.S., particularly if China’s foreign policies undermine or challenge America’s.”
Vice-chairman of the review commission, Dennis Shea, told the committee that China is “trying to deny access to the western Pacific by U.S. forces and to extend military power out to the second island chain, which is about 1,800 nautical miles from the Chinese coast and be able to operate freely in that — in that area.”
“And basically remove the United States as the predominant military force in that region of the world,” he said.
Commissioner Larry Wortzel called the 1,800-mile range sought by China “a very serious range.”
“And it’s a range that’s roughly equal to the combat radius a carrier aircraft and the range of a Tomahawk cruise missile,” he said. “In other words, they want to keep us far enough out that we can’t get near their coast or their interior.”
As Bartholomew put it, “China is ultimately interested in retaking what it sees as a historic position in the world.”
“I think that that will potentially, and frankly, inevitably, end up challenging U.S. power in a lot of ways. Sometimes — sometimes intentionally but sometimes it’s just, we’ll be — we’ll be playing in the same space.”
Shea said the best way to defuse China’s bullying in the region is with “a strong U.S. military presence there.”
“If Japan weren’t operating under a security umbrella with the United States, I wonder what would be happening now,” he said.
“Their military thinkers and writers and political leaders see us in a slow decline and struggling to meet the obligations that we have cut out for ourselves,” Wurtzel said. “And they look at, you know, some things that might be effective operational tactics like air-sea battle and think that we may not be quite capable of doing those things with the proper number of forces.”
Out of its 41 recommendations, the commission identified 10 as more critical. Those include funding the Navy’s shipbuilding and operational efforts “to increase its presence in the Asia Pacific to at least 60 ships and rebalance homeports to 60 percent in the region by 2020 so that the United States will have the capacity to maintain readiness and presence in the Western Pacific, offset China’s growing military capabilities, and surge naval assets in the event of a contingency.”
The report also recommends “Congress fund departments of Defense and State efforts to improve the air and maritime capabilities of U.S. partners and allies in Asia, particularly with regard to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, to improve maritime domain awareness in the East and South China Seas.”
On cyberwar, the report noted that “to date, Washington has not implemented a comprehensive framework for addressing China’s ongoing cyber espionage.”
“There are no indications the public exposure of Chinese cyber espionage in technical detail throughout 2013 has led China to change its attitude toward the use of cyber espionage to steal intellectual property and proprietary information,” the report states. “It is clear naming and attempting to shame will not be sufficient to deter entities in China from engaging in cyber espionage against U.S. companies.”