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Obama: Ignoring China's Military Buildup By: William R. Hawkins
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, April 03, 2009


The Obama administration came into office looking to “deepen the dialogue” with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). On her visit to Beijing in late February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “it is essential that the United States and China have a positive, cooperative relationship. Both of us are seeking ways to deepen and broaden that relationship.” In reality, she narrowed the discussion by pushing to the margin areas of disagreement. She downplayed human rights abuses in China and glossed over U.S.-PRC rivalries in hot spots like North Korea and Iran. Her main concern was to reassure Beijing that its large investments in U.S. government securities were safe and to urge that capital keep flowing from the Chinese trade surplus to American budget deficits.  

Testing just how much of a supplicant Clinton had been, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fleet harassed a U.S. Navy research vessel in the South China Sea almost exactly a month later. This incident was similar to that of April 1, 2001, during which a Chinese fighter collided with a Navy EP-3 intelligence-gathering aircraft, forcing the American crew to crash land on Hainan island where the aircraft was dismantled and tits personnel held hostage against a U.S. apology. The Navy ship in the recent incident was also sailing in the vicinity of Hainan monitoring a new underground PLA naval base.  

In both cases, Beijing claimed rights within its Exclusive Economic Zone which are in conflict with the traditional unrestricted use of international waters. The EEZ was awarded under the Law of the Sea Treaty (which the United States has not ratified) and extends 200 miles out from the Chinese coast. The EEZ applies only to the exploitation of resources. It is not meant to be an extension of sovereignty over the ocean itself, though Beijing is pushing for such an expanded interpretation.  

The Navy ship was 75 miles from Hainan, well outside the 12 mile legal reach of territorial waters. The U.S. Navy regularly operates in this area, so the timing of the incident, like the one eight years ago, must be seen as another test of a new American president. President Barack Obama shrugged it off to avoid a confrontation. In contrast, Admiral Timothy Keating, who heads the U.S. Pacific Command, said, “China, particularly in the South China Sea, is behaving in an aggressive, troublesome manner, and they're not willing to abide by acceptable standards of behavior or rules of the road.”

The growth of China’s navy was a source of concern in the annual report on Chinese Military Power released by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates March 25. The report portrays a China rapidly acquiring advanced weapons in an effort to dominant Asia, Though Taiwan remains a focus of Beijing’s military effort, the 2009 report, like its predecessors, warns that China wants to project its power beyond Taiwan. Beijing’s “dependence on secure access to markets and natural resources, particularly metals and fossil fuels, has become an increasingly significant factor shaping China’s strategic behavior,” says the report.

Control of the South China Sea is vital for future resource development, control of trade routes, and the isolation of Taiwan. This is the purpose of the Hainan base which the report says, “appears large enough to accommodate a mix of attack and ballistic missile submarines and advanced surface combatant ship.” The base “provides the PLA Navy with direct access to vital international sea lanes, and offers the potential for stealthy deployment of submarines into the deep waters of the South China Sea.”

The PLA has an “anti-access strategy” to keep American (and by extension U.S. allies like Japan) out of this area during a confrontation. Submarines, anti-satellite weapons, and new ballistic missiles are keys to this strategy. The report talks of Chinese development of ballistic missiles capable of homing in on aircraft carriers and of anti-satellite systems more sophisticated than what China tested successfully in January 2007. The test was of a missile, but Beijing is also investing in lasers, high-powered microwave and particle beam weapons for use against space targets.  

China is expanding its surface fleet. Indeed, the PLA Navy, with 320 warships, outnumbers the U.S. Navy. And while ship-for-ship, the USN is far superior to the PLAN, the American fleet is spread thin around the world whereas the Chinese fleet is concentrated close to home in the theater of likely conflict. This is the same strategic problem the U.S. faced with Imperial Japan before the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack.

China, which is vying to create the world’s largest shipbuilding industry, will likely soon start development of an aircraft carrier. In the meantime, China is building advanced shore-based strike fighters and cruise missiles that can be vectored against naval targets and regional bases by new surveillance satellites. The greatest threat, however, is PLAN attack submarines, both conventional and nuclear. The PLAN operates a dozen Russian-designed Kilo-class advanced conventional submarines, but is building its own undersea boats including experimenting with air-independent propulsion which can give non-nuclear submarines a greatly increased capability to operate submerged for extended periods. Currently, the PRC is outbuilding the U.S. in submarines by a 5-1 margin.

According to the Pentagon report, "China has the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world.” At the strategic level, this includes the long-range DF-31A ICBM with a range of almost 7,000 miles which “can target any location in the continental United States.” China is also building more Type-094 ballistic missile submarines, whereas America has scrapped most of its “boomer” boats and has no new construction planned.

The Report also discusses Beijing’s cyber-warfare capabilities which are already being tested in massive hacking attacks around the world on a daily basis.  

The PRC reacted strongly to the Pentagon report. “This is a gross distortion of the facts and China resolutely opposes it,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told journalists in Beijing. “This report issued by the US side continues to play up the fallacy of China's military threat.” He asked the United States to stop issuing the annual report (which is mandated by Congress) to “avoid further damage to the two sides' military relations.”

The real question is what will President Obama’s reaction be, particularly in regard to defense spending and major weapons programs that would be needed to counter the Chinese military buildup? With huge sums committed to anti-recession stimulus packages, bailouts for the failed financial sector, and expanded social programs such as health insurance, there is growing pressure to cut defense spending to contain future budget deficits. Department of Defense Comptroller Robert Hale told the House Budget Committee on March 18 that the F-22 air superiority fighter, missile defense systems, and naval shipbuilding programs are all under review, with no decisions about funding levels having yet been made. These are exactly the projects of most importance to the U.S.-PRC military balance.

Liberal opinion favors defense cuts, which require a benign view of China and world affairs to justify. Nina Hachigian, an Asia expert at the Center for American Progress, says Americans should take a deep breath before getting worked up about a sinister Chinese rival. The CAP is a liberal think tank closely aligned with the Obama administration. Hachigian told National Public Radio that China is still decades away from directly challenging U.S. military pre-eminence “in any way.” She even praised Beijing for sending warships to help fight pirates off the coast of Africa. Yet the deployment of two of the PLA’s newest destroyers and a support ship to waters near the Persian Gulf will give Chinese commanders increased operational experience in projecting power on a global scale.

Chas Freeman, who holds a chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies funded by the family of the one of the founders of the AIG insurance firm that was originally established in China, was almost appointed chairman of the National Intelligence Council. The NIC prepares the National Intelligence Estimate that forecasts future threats to the country. Freeman complained to a meeting of the National War College alumni in April, 2008 that, “A small group of members [of Congress] seeks to equate hostility toward China with patriotism. These members have sought to raise public alarm about China through special commissions and annual reports and the passage of legislation to bar contacts and dialog with the Peoples Liberation Army.” He argued for a “strategic partnership” with China, so “that the credibility of China as a putative ‘peer competitor’ of the United States would be greatly diminished. Our defense industries would be thrust back into another season of ‘enemy deprivation syndrome’ – the queasy feeling they get when their enemy goes away and they have to find a new one to justify defense acquisition programs….A moment of disorientation in the military-industrial complex would, in any event, be a small price to pay for greater security in the western Pacific and the end of any serious prospect of armed conflict with China.” Comments like these stirred up so much controversy that Freeman was forced to withdraw his name form NIC consideration.

Retired Clinton-era Admiral Dennis Blair, who supported Freeman’s initial nomination, remains Obama’s Director of National Intelligence. In 2007, he wrote a monograph with former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills for the Council on Foreign Relations entitled U.S.-China Relations: An Affirmative Agenda, A Responsible Course. They recommended that American policy-makers should start by “Stating clearly and more often that the United Stets wants to establish a close, candid, constructive, and collaborative relationship with China” and by “Explaining to the American public the many benefits that flow from a strong bilateral relationship.” The future DNI, who in his new post is supposed to be ever vigilant, nevertheless recommended, “The president should frankly acknowledge that mutual suspicion currently burdens U.S.-China relations and call on both nations to take steps to deepen mutual understanding and trust.”

On the same day the China Military Power report was released, a letter sent to Democratic congressional leaders by a coalition of left-wing groups was reported by The Hill newspaper The letter called for steep cuts to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and other “futuristic weapons” with the money saved going to schools, healthcare and other social services. The F-35 will not only be the mainstay of American airpower, being built for the Air Force, Navy and Marines, but will also be sold to U.S. allies. The letter came from the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Black Leadership Forum, the Hispanic Federation, the League of Rural Voters, the National Congress of Black Women, and the National Council of Negro Women.

Beijing has been proclaiming that the current financial crisis has put an end to both the Western economic model and to American hegemony in world affairs. It is, however, beyond China’s unilateral ability to change the balance of power in its favor. The United States still has the technological lead and a larger national economy. Beijing’s only hope (like that of the Soviets during the Cold War) is that U.S. leaders will not use these advantages to maintain American preeminence. The Obama administration seems poised to grant the Chinese communist regime its wish even as the Pentagon warns of the dire consequences of doing so.

William Hawkins is a consultant on international economics and national security issues.


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