The Pentagon’s annual reports to US Congress on Chinese military power typically quote Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) “24-character formula”: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” In other words, China should hunker down until it is strong enough to assert itself.
Beijing may believe that time has arrived. For example, outspoken Fudan University academic Shen Dingli (沈丁立) declares that the Western Pacific naval balance now tilts toward China. This appraisal will come as sobering news to the US Navy, whose maritime strategy seeks to sustain US primacy in Asian seas.
Such a mismatch has consequences. Shen said Beijing has started pushing its maritime claims in the South China Sea because it is confident Washington will not fight for freedom of the seas along the Chinese periphery and because the number of US warships plying those waters is “not a big deal for us” in any case.
If he is right, this year’s Sino-American encounters at sea — most notably the “harassment” of USNS Impeccable south of Hainan — are not isolated incidents. They portend a major but predictable shift in Beijing’s attitude toward nautical affairs.
The 24-character formula was sound advice for Deng’s China, which opened to the outside world in order to bolster its “comprehensive national power” — shorthand for its economic, diplomatic and military strength. It made sense for a weak China to keep a low profile, lest it give outside powers an excuse to intervene in its affairs — as they had to disastrous effect during China’s dynastic era.
Such advice should be familiar to Americans. In his 1796 farewell address, president George Washington warned Americans to stay clear of great-power politics. Like other American founders, Washington feared that Britain and France might exploit factionalism, turning Americans against one another and shattering the new republic.
But once they had consolidated a strong nation, they could “defy material injury from external annoyance” by deterring “belligerent nations” from infringing on US interests. They would enjoy the freedom to “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.” Deng could scarcely have put it better.
Has China reached military parity with the US, emboldening its leadership? Strictly speaking, no. But neither had the US reached parity with European sea powers by the 1890s, when the Grover Cleveland administration proclaimed that the US’ “fiat is law” throughout the Western Hemisphere. Washington had built a fleet able to command US waters against all but the most determined opponents. The US Navy could defeat the largest contingent any navy was likely to dispatch to the New World.
And that was enough. Only if Great Britain or Imperial Germany was prepared to concentrate all of its naval might in the Americas could it hope to overwhelm the US Navy battle fleet. That was improbable as Britain and Germany squared off across the North Sea, waging a feverish naval arms race. Their interests in the Americas were secondary at best. The US thus held local naval superiority, and it was more committed than any faraway power to managing nearby waters.
Beijing enjoys a similar home-field advantage over an overextended, resource-strapped US Navy. Ship for ship, the US Navy remains markedly superior to its Chinese counterpart. But the military balance will favor China in the Western Pacific unless Washington proves willing to concentrate the fleet there — and leave US interests elsewhere in the world unguarded. Shen is clearly onto something.
Another reason China’s confidence has surged is that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has fielded an arsenal of guided missiles capable of discouraging US interference in the China seas. The DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missiles sure to be on display at tomorrow’s 60th-anniversary parade in Tiananmen Square offset US efforts at nuclear coercion. Should the PLA perfect its “antiship ballistic missile,” it can also use land-based weaponry to threaten US aircraft-carrier strike groups far from Chinese coasts, dissuading them from ever venturing into East Asia.
In effect, the PLA is hoisting two shields over Chinese Navy forces operating along the Asian seaboard. Beijing’s liberty of action will only expand in East Asia as the likelihood of US intervention contracts. In George Washington’s words, it can hope to defy “external annoyance” while pursuing a bold foreign policy. The strategy Deng set in motion 30 years ago may reorder Asian politics — unless the US and its allies act to preserve their own maritime ascendancy.
Deng’s ghost must be smiling.
James R. Holmes is an associate professor at the Naval War College in the US.
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