As China builds another aircraft carrier and the U.S. adjusts its policy accordingly, geopolitical intrigue threatens to devolve into a new Cold War.
If you haven’t been watching goings on in the Asia-Pacific region of late, you are currently missing one of the greatest geopolitical balancing acts on Earth.
It is there, in a great arc of territory running east from the India-Pakistan border to Southeast Asia, encompassing the vast Indonesian archipelago and Australia before curving northward to China, the island chains of the West Pacific, and finally, Korea and Japan, that a brand-new system of international rivalry and strategic one-upmanship is taking shape.
Consider, for instance, photos that emerged this week appearing to show China’s second domestically-built aircraft carrier currently under construction at the Dalian shipyard in Northern China. This comes as no surprise given announcements that after last year’s deployment of its first carrier, the People’s Liberation Army Navy would build more carriers. Still, to see China’s naval aspirations begin to materialize so quickly is disconcerting. Certainly it is (pardon the pun) making waves around the greater Trans-Pacific region.
What do we know about China’s second carrier? First, unlike China’s current carrier the Liaoning – a Soviet-built derelict China acquired from Ukraine – this new carrier looks to be bigger and more state-of-the-art. Bigger, of course, means that more planes and armaments can be deployed, but the inclusion of a steam catapult, which the photos seem to indicate will be included in this second Chinese carrier and which the Liaoning lacks, means larger, better-armed aircraft can be put aloft.
Obviously this means that if and when this second carrier is deployed, it will field an air wing much more comparable to what the U.S. Navy’s carriers are capable of putting into the air. While this is in itself remarkable, one can assume that lessons learned about carrier operations — and the personnel now learning them on the Liaoning — will also be onboard the second carrier when it eventually puts to sea.
If, as also seems likely, this second carrier will boast more advanced electronics, air-defense and surveillance systems than those found onboard the Liaoning, then what will be deployed is a modern carrier manned by a fully trained crew, possessing the latest in modern armaments, aircraft and naval technology. The second carrier will definitely not be a floating schoolyard like the Liaoning. It will be an advanced warship comparable to what only a very small group of other countries can field.
China’s carrier kill box
A Chinese aircraft carrier, however — even two or three of them — is not in itself a major threat to continued U.S. military dominance of the Western Pacific. The United States possesses many more aircraft carriers than the Chinese are likely to for quite some time, and the U.S. advantage in long-distance combat aircraft, submarines and surface ships will be a telling determinant of the balance of power going forward. Indeed, the U.S. nuclear submarine fleet is something that only the most foolish Chinese admiral would dare discount – all it would take is a couple of well-placed torpedoes from an American sub to put Chinese carriers out of commission.
But, the Chinese, too, are building up their stock of surface and subsurface combatants with which they no doubt plan to challenge U.S. naval supremacy. Meanwhile, Beijing’s deployment of truly terrifying numbers of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, land-based anti-ship missiles and combat aircraft in bases up and down the Chinese coast — but concentrated mostly on Beijing’s side of the Taiwan strait — could provide the leverage the Chinese need to successfully challenge U.S. naval control of the Western Pacific if war were to occur.
Finally, another big unknown is the DF-21D ballistic missile, which the Chinese tout as a carrier-killer. Launched from mobile firing platforms based on the Chinese coast and with a range of 1,700 miles, the missiles, allege the Chinese and some Western analysts, can hone in on a U.S. carrier far out to sea and strike it without much in the way or recourse by the U.S. Navy.
Taken with those mountains of shorter-range anti-ship missiles and delivery platforms currently possessed by the Chinese, the U.S. may have no alternative but to keep its precious carriers far away from the Chinese kill box now being set up in the Western Pacific – the heart of China’s anti-access, area-denial strategy. If the Chinese can keep the U.S. Navy out of the Western Pacific, goes Beijing’s thinking, then it is China, not the U.S., that is the de facto military hegemon of East Asia.
The Asian arms race
Given China’s territorial claims on Taiwan, the South China Sea and several islands that are also claimed by Japan, this erosion of the U.S. Navy’s deterrent power in the Western Pacific has greatly worried China’s neighbors. They, in turn, have begun to arm themselves in reaction to China’s growing military power in what has become an open-ended arms race all across the face of East Asia. None point to China’s growing power as cause, of course, but it sits there like the 800 pound gorilla.
Not to be outdone, other states in Southeast Asia are also arming themselves to the teeth. Vietnam, for instance, which successfully fought a border war with China in 1979 and which has recently borne the brunt of some of China’s expansionist maritime claims, is in the process of purchasing Russian submarines, fighter aircraft and advanced anti-ship missiles – many of the same make and model that the Chinese, too, are currently purchasing from Russian arms manufacturers.
Indonesia has increased its defense expenditures from $2.6 billion in 2006 to $8 billion today, nearly triple where it once stood, with nearly all going to advanced fighters, new ships and submarines – just what you would expect a vulnerable multi-island nation to purchase, true, but also exactly what would be needed to ward of any Chinese naval incursion into Indonesian waters. Even Malaysia, the Philippines and tiny Singapore have gotten into the game, each purchasing a smattering of naval and air systems designed to increase their control of their territorial waters.
It is further north, however, where truly big arms developments are beginning to make themselves felt. Japan, which like Vietnam has been the recipient of some very nasty Chinese nationalist rhetoric and territorial claims, recently revealed a huge new destroyer – the biggest naval warship built by Japan since the Second World War – that is technically not an aircraft carrier, but sure as heck looks like one. Tokyo says the new ship is to field helicopters and serve in an anti-submarine warfare capacity, but its extra-long flight deck means it could also field a variety of aircraft – including possibly jet fighters. The breakneck speed with which the Japanese built this new ship – some four years – is also testament to the fact that it might not simply be a regularly scheduled purchase, but in fact a direct response to Chinese provocations along their mutual maritime border.
South Korea, too, has jumped on the bandwagon, quietly acquiring a significant force of Aegis-armed destroyers, amphibious assault ships, submarines and anti-submarine frigates. Ostensibly the South Korean naval buildup is aimed at protecting South Korean commerce and defending itself from North Korea, which in 2010 sank a South Korean destroyer. This may indeed be the case, but that this South Korean buildup happens to coincide with China’s own buildup and the consequent weakening of the U.S. Navy’s regional deterrent power is likely no coincidence.
At the Trans-Pacific’s other geographic extreme is India’s ongoing military modernization program. Like China’s, India’s program has for a long time been merely a matter of upgrading existing systems with an eye to keeping India’s longtime rival, Pakistan, in military second-place in South Asia. China’s growth, however, has spooked Indian defense officials and there is an increasing tendency in Delhi to view India’s own modernization program as a response to China’s growing strength and strategic clout.
Indeed, Asia’s two giants have for a long time viewed each other skeptically and not a little suspiciously. In 1962, for instance, China dealt India a humiliating defeat in a short border conflict that led to India’s loss of disputed territory along the two countries’ long border.
China’s recent push to acquire bases in Myanmar, combined with Beijing’s long-time support for Pakistan – India’s arch-nemesis – have also been viewed by some in India as a bid to encircle India and so neutralize it if war should occur.
In response to this provocation, real or imagined, India has significantly beefed up its conventional forces along their mutual land border and has, like China, looked to increase the size and capability of its navy – which now includes an operational ballistic missile submarine in addition to an existing and several planned aircraft carriers. More impressive, India is also apparently developing a multi-warhead, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that could hit targets deep inside China itself.
The diplomatic legwork
The United States is not taking all this laying down.
While Washington has more or less quietly accepted the existence of a Chinese kill box in the western Pacific, it has tried to outflank the Chinese via the adoption of a new strategy called AirSea Battle that looks to extend combat operations beyond the kill box that China would hope to lure U.S. forces into. Loosely based on a Cold War doctrine known as AirLand Battle designed to defeat Soviet armies in Europe, this new strategy is in essence a naval version of that old Cold War plan.
The doctrine prominently features the use of long-range and stealthy weapons systems such as a planned new bomber, combat drones, submarines and tanker-supported advanced-generation fighters staged from outside the effective range of Chinese missile forces. In the event of war, these dispersed forces would in turn be coordinated in the engagement and destruction of Chinese naval and air assets throughout the entire Western Pacific region – potentially including the Chinese mainland.
This, of course, requires the reorganization and repositioning of U.S. forces throughout East Asia. Indeed, this is already happening, with U.S. Air Force combat aircraft being deployed to Australia, India, Thailand and Singapore. Vulnerable naval and air units crucial for a campaign aimed at stopping a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, for instance, are being rebased further away from the Western Pacific kill box, to be brought closer only when units assigned to AirSea Battle successfully neutralize the Chinese threat. This means close-in allies will have to rely, at least initially, on their own resources if war occurs, while the United States would engage in surviving China’s initial blows and landing well-placed ones of its own from the safety of newly acquired base areas further to the rear.
While this is the U.S. military solution to growing Chinese military power and Beijing’s kill box strategy, America’s new AirSea Battle doctrine for the Western Pacific requires much more intensive diplomatic legwork than did the old strategy of letting near-in naval forces deal with any Chinese threat. The former strategy, in fact, hardly required any diplomatic work at all, since powerful U.S. battle fleets could steam up and down the Chinese coast with near impunity. This no longer is the case, and the need for secure bases further to the rear will in consequence make the U.S. far more dependent on all its regional allies than ever before.
To see why, consider what would happen if one set of allies decided to not participate in a conflict with China. Under the old system, where the U.S. could rely on its own forces to do the close-in work, Washington needed only one or two secure bases at most, and these bases were never directly threatened with retaliation. Twice during the Cold War something similar happened – first in Korea and then in Vietnam – and the non-participation of several regional allies did not meaningfully harm U.S. war efforts.
With AirSea Battle, however, such nonparticipation could cripple the U.S. military’s ability to respond to Chinese attacks. It would not do, for instance, if nations hosting U.S. bases in Southeast Asia refused the U.S. permission to use forces stationed there for use in Northeast Asia or vice versa. Such a situation would be disastrous, since U.S. forces in both areas would be mutually dependent on one another in a war situation. It would be akin to, during the Cold War, if Italy or Spain wouldn’t allow U.S. forces based there to aid Germany in the event of a Soviet invasion. Refusal to participate would effectively strand significant numbers of U.S. assets in areas where they wouldn’t be needed — even as Chinese attacks would no doubt be gaining ground elsewhere. Defeat would be a real possibility.
War: a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Thus, what is necessary for AirSea Battle to succeed is the assurance that all the nations hosting U.S. bases stretching in that great curve of space from South Asia to Northeast Asia would all cooperate in the event of war. This is an enormous diplomatic task, and will require something like the establishment of a de facto military alliance directed against Beijing, and in effect committed to striking targets inside China itself. AirSea Battle, then, is likely to lead to some kind of Pacific version of NATO – the U.S.-European alliance which deterred the Soviet Union from invading Western Europe during the Cold War.
A functioning Pacific version of NATO might make AirSea Battle more likely to work, but quite likely at the cost of increased global tensions — making the war the strategy is intended to win all the more likely to occur. Beijing would see the tightening of the U.S. alliance network around it and react accordingly – perhaps striking up a relationship with Pakistan or Iran. It would turn East Asia, a highly integrated, multi-national economy, into a powder keg.
And it might not even work – Asian countries are diverse, have many competing interests and a huge economic incentive to cooperate with Beijing. It is by no means clear that fear of military domination by Beijing will outweigh the riches that could flow from acquiescing to Chinese hegemony. After all, Chinese domination would merely be a return to the historical norm which existed there for centuries before the incursion of Western powers into East Asia. If that was the case, you would have the worst of both worlds – a weak alliance ostensibly led by Washington but in fact so riddled with disaffection that the U.S. could never actually depend on it in the event of war.
This in turn would give the U.S. great incentive to strike first so as to prevent Chinese power and diplomatic pressure from peeling off its allies. Since naval and air assets are extremely vulnerable to disruption by a successful first strike, China in turn would similarly face pressure to strike first if it believed the U.S. was about to neutralize its kill box by attacking the mainland air and naval forces tasked to it. A successful first strike by either side would not only eliminate deadly yet vulnerable enemy forces, but shore up diplomatic support for the successful striker amongst the smaller countries stuck between the U.S. hammer and the Chinese anvil. Eliminate one and these countries would have no choice but to accommodate whoever was left standing.
As in the Cold War, the only recourse of the side felled by such a first-strike strategy that effectively eliminates its in-theater forces might be retaliation against civilian targets in the other power’s homeland. Perhaps such an escalation would start out with cyber-attacks against critical civilian infrastructure, but after a few such strikes it would be very difficult for the other side to not reply in kind. From there escalation could very quickly get out of control and develop into something far, far worse than a simple naval and air campaign in and around the Taiwan Strait.
So, going forward, this is what the new Cold War with China is going to look like. An economically declining U.S., increasingly dependent on its regional allies, will face a rising China bottled up by a cordon sanitaire of weak countries. China will try to leapfrog this containment by supporting anti-U.S. elements in the Middle East and elsewhere.
All while, mind you, the world will get hotter, become increasingly crowded, while natural resources, especially oil, will become even scarcer and more expensive than they are today. Oceans will rise. Welcome to the future – hope you survive it.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.