China’s South China Sea dominance is the price U.S. pays for Iraq and Afghanistan
Author: David P. Goldman June 8, 2015
Over at Asia Times, M.K. Bhadrakumar parses the press statements following US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s New Delhi visit, noting that the Americans spoke grandly of “strategic convergence” (against China) while Modi maintained a deliberate ambiguity about the nature of India’s defense relationship with the US. I will offer a prediction as to what will come of China’s territorial assertions and America’s oppostion: China will get what it wants.
There won’t be a war, because there is no practical way to have a war, even if the US wanted to take the matter to the point of military confrontation. A nervous pilot might loose a missile at his opposite number, to be sure, but even a live fire incident will not ignite a broader conflict. There is a simple reason to be so confident about the outcome: American aircraft carriers, for decades the source of America’s hegemony in East Asian waters, are now vulnerable to Chinese surface-to-ship missiles and diesel-electric submarines. There is a good deal of debate about the effectiveness of China’s DF-21D “carrier killer missile,” which goes into space and heads straight down at its target, but the probabiity is that Chinese missile artillery can swamp a US carrier’s defenses. If missiles don’t get it, the subs likely will: running on electric batteries, diesel eletric submarines are extremely quiet, and have “sunk” American carriers in NATO exercises in the past.
The US is working on countermeasures, to be sure, but chronic underinvestment in cutting-edge defense R&D has left them underdeveloped and under-deployed. The Bush administration spent $1 trillion or so in Iraq and Afghanistan, mainly on personnel, and reduced defense R&D to accommodate its nation-building ambitions in the region. That was a bad trade-off. The US has little to show for its efforts except the chaos that has enveloped the Levant and Mesopotamia after the collapse of the Iraqi state. China has had time to close the technology gap with the US, and neutralize if necessary America’s principle means of projecting power in the region.
Washington is not happy with China’s territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea, nor should it be. The de facto seizure of the Spratley Islands humiliates American allies and violates norms of international good behavior. I am not happy about it. But there is no way to force China to stop, and no way to persuade it to stop.
This is not, as any number of analysts opine, the use of “Chinese nationalism” to take the population’s mind off slowing economic growth. “Chinese nationalism” is an oxyomoron; China is not a nation, but an empire that subjects nations to a common system of written characters and a central authority in Beijing. When the Chinese say that their “historic” borders are inviolable, what they mean, simply, is that the assimilation of the myriad ethnicities and language groups that comprise the Middle Kingdom is irreversible. If it could be reversed, the integrity of Chinese culture and the premises of Chinese civilization would be in jeapordy. One can argue about China’s “historic rights” to islands in the South China Sea, to be sure, but there is an element of a fortiori at work in Chinese thinking: if China will draw a hard line around uninhabited islands, all the more so will it resist centrifugal forces in Tibet or Xinjiang.
All of the talk about Indian-US strategic convergence, or an alliance with Japan and India against China, is only talk. India isn’t going to sent an aircraft carrier to face off the Chinese around the Spratleys. Japan isn’t going to sent missile ships to the Indian Ocean if India gets into a territorial spat with China in the Himalayas. If it did, what would it accomplish?
America won the Cold War in large part because the Russians knew that American avionics would give NATO control of the air in any prospective war; that the Pershing missiles in Germany and Italy gave NATO an advantage in any prospective nuclear exchange; and that the Reagan Strategic Defense Initiative portended a new range of technologies that Russia couldn’t match. China looked on from a distance and aligned itself with the dominant technological superpower.
If America wants to command China’s respect, it has to widen the technology gap, rather than watch it shrink. If China believed that its weapons systems were ineffective against American countermeasures, it would show far more caution. But the opposite is true: the technology gap is closing, and China knows it. America still has a technological lead and the resources to widen it–should it choose to do so. There is no obvious political constituency for such an effort though, and no prominent leader commited to doing so. A return to the Eisenhower-Kennedy-Reagan commitment to American technological superiority would also have enormously beneficial effects for America’s lagging productivity. But it is hard to persuade Americans that it is better to be tough than to sound tough.