China’s Pacific policies cause anxiety among US allies

Former NATO chief, and currently an Operating Executive with The Carlyle Group, ret. Admiral James Stavridis wrote an op-ed piece published by Bloomberg, essentially echoing a Defense Department report warning that China’s military buildup is reaching the point where it can attempt to “impose its will on the region and beyond.”

According to Stavridis visiting official from SE Asia spoke to him of their deep concerns “about the US long-term commitment in the region, starting with troops in South Korea – especially in the face of China and their determined military expansion.”

The West is becoming a less reliable partner, is how Stavridis interprets the messages from the ground. Asian allies are also worried about weakness and distraction of a Europe facing Brexit. This is compounded as they watch China increase pressure on Taiwan to accept a “one nation, two systems” deal a la Hong Kong and militarize the South China Sea by constructing artificial islands.

The report notes that China is not ready to wage war far beyond the shores of Taiwan, but it is pressing hard to develop some advanced weapons and increasingly wants to project power beyond its shores with an increasingly capable military.

For Stavridis this translates into China building its naval capability to dominate farther into the Pacific — as far as what Western analysts call the “second island chain.”

As he notes, since the 1950s, U.S. planners have delineated a first island chain, running from the Japanese islands through the Philippines, and down to the tip of Southeast Asia. Dominating inside that line has been the goal of China’s recent buildup in naval and missile capabilities. But U.S. officials warn that Chinese strategists are becoming more ambitious, set on gaining influence running to the second island chain — running from Japan through the Micronesian islands to the tip of Indonesia. As with its initial forays into the South China Sea, Beijing is using “scientific” missions and hydrographic surveying ships as the tip of the spear.

The former NATO chief expects that China will eye the third island chain, encompassing Hawaii and the Alaskan coast before dropping south down to New Zealand. This has long been regarded as the final line of strategic demarcation between the U.S. and China. Second, some analysts are beginning to talk about a fourth and even fifth island chain, both in the Indian Ocean, an increasingly crucial zone of competition between the U.S. and China.

Two obvious Indian Ocean chains exist. The first would run from southern Pakistan (where China has created a deep-water port at Gwador) down past Diego Garcia, the lonely atoll controlled by the U.K. from which the U.S. runs enormous logistical movements into Central Asia. As a junior officer on a Navy cruiser in the 1980s, I visited Diego Garcia when it was essentially a fuel stop with a quaint palm-thatched bar. The base has expanded enormously, becoming critical to supporting U.S. and British combat efforts in the Horn of Africa and Middle East.

The fifth and final island chain could be considered to run from the Horn of Africa – where the U.S. and China now maintain significant military bases – down to the coast of South Africa. Little wonder the U.S. military has renamed its former Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command.

Each of the island chains will be a line of contention. Both U.S. and Chinese war plans encompass protocols for employing land-based forces from the various islands to project power to sea.

China is “on the leading edge” of building fieldable hypersonic glide vehicles to attack ships, along with various missile systems. This has been made possible by consistent and expansive defense spending. Beijing’s total military-related spending for 2018 probably exceeded $200 billion, a threefold increase since 2002. Chinese military spending increased by an average of 10 percent annually from 2000 to 2016. It has since gradually slowed to 5- to 7-percent growth during the past 2 years, as the Defense Department report says.

But Stavridis, who is known to overplay the “threat to world order” card, misses the fact that all is not favorable for China. Although China is forging ahead in some sectors, in others they are meeting problems, which are not easily surmountable. One case in point is the J-20 fighter, a stealthy looking aircraft that some compare to the F-35. As other defense officials have noted in the past, the Chinese have had “some issues with jet engines.” That means the PLA still have some challenges to get their systems up to the level they obviously are aiming for.

As the report notes: an historically inward-looking country, with a military focused on maintaining internal order and waging land wars, making a major shift. It “signals a turning point in the expansion of PLA operations in the Indian Ocean region and beyond.” 

This shift is not a minor modification of tactics, but will essentially have to achieve a total realignment of the military from the geo-strategic down to the tactical level.  This transition period will be fraught with issues, and may in fact be the cause of friction as new duties and purposes will be difficult to interpret at the unit level, leading to incidents, which may be hard to control.