China is no longer squeamish about throwing its weight around. It even seems willing to take on the US to protect its national interests and given that these are expanding, Washington has a serious security problem on its hands, which explains the rapid deterioration in relations.
The turning-point in US-China relations came with Washington’s decision early in the year to sell more weapons to Taiwan. Beijing responded by cutting off defense talks with the US.
Why is China so hypersensitive about such weapons sales when President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration in Taipei has been bending over backwards to please Beijing: because China wants to overwhelm Taiwan with superior political and military reach, leaving it with no option but to do as it is told.
Only with US arms supplies and commitment might Taipei be able to counter China’s political and military plans to annex Taiwan.
It is a bizarre situation that even when relations between Taiwan and China are better than they have ever been, the latter still reportedly deploys between 1,050 and 1,150 short-range ballistic missiles targeting Taiwan.
The US concern over China’s hawkish posture is reflected in the Pentagon’s annual report on its expanding military capability. According to the report, China is developing a “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missile; it has “the most active land-based ballistic missile and cruise missile program in the world” and “one of the world’s largest forces of surface-to-air missiles,” as well as nuclear-powered submarines.
China is also said to be pouring money into space warfare systems and cyber warfare capabilities. Beijing is clearly developing a military force to project power way beyond its coastline.
Indeed, there is a correlation between Beijing’s growing economy and military build-up. China is reported to have overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy based on second-quarter growth figures, though, in terms of per capita income, it remains far behind.
What all this means is that China is feeling increasingly confident about its strength, especially when US military power is overstretched and its economy still struggling. Beijing has apparently concluded that now is the right time to challenge US primacy in the region.
China’s confidence is reflected in its strong reaction to the recent joint US-South Korean naval exercises against the backdrop of Pyongyang’s sinking of a South Korean warship.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said at the time that China “firmly” opposed any foreign warships or aircraft conducting activities that undermined China’s security in the Yellow Sea and China’s coastal waters.
At about the same time, Pyongyang threatened Washington with “physical response” if it went ahead with new sanctions. Its official mouthpiece, the Rodong Sinmun, was even more colorful in its warning.
It said: “If the US provokes another war, it will only be corpses and graves that it will be presented with.”
Beijing might be more diplomatic, but the intent is clear — it will not accept the activities of the US Navy in what it considers its territorial waters.
Chinese Rear Admiral Yang Yi (楊毅), of the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University, told a Beijing-based Australian journalist that: “It is some kind of challenge and humiliation to China’s national interest and the feelings of the Chinese people” when the US decides to “hold this kind of military drill” in its coastal waters.
The South China Sea is emerging as another problem area. In the 1990s, China passed domestic legislation proclaiming sovereignty over this area. However, a number of other countries in the region have competing claims.
Under a 2002 proposal, China agreed to resolve these issues peacefully through diplomacy, but has now declared the South China Sea a “core national interest” and hence beyond negotiation.
In other words, China might in its “national interest” restrict or control the passage of foreign ships in these waters, through which one-third of all commercial shipping is said to pass.
China is challenging the dominance of the US Navy on national security grounds. Indeed, Beijing’s view is succinctly expressed in a comment, reported in the Economist: “A retired Chinese admiral likened the American Navy to a man with a criminal record ‘wandering just outside the gate of a family home.’”
In other words, trouble is brewing in the Asia-Pacific as China seeks to dethrone the US as the dominant power in the region.
There is a strong belief among many Chinese that it is the nation’s destiny to regain former glories. As retired general Xu Guangyu (徐光宇) recently told the South China Morning Post: “China’s long absence from its exclusive economic waters over the past decades was an abnormal historical accident and now it is just advancing to normal operations.”
China seems engaged in a concerted campaign to whip up national hysteria, spearheaded by serving and retired generals. Major General Luo Yuan (羅援) of the Academy of Military Sciences, for instance, recently threatened to use the US aircraft carrier in the exercises as a “live target.” Luo also suggested the withdrawal of US Treasury bonds to destabilize the US economy.
Washington is obviously concerned. To quote Admiral Robert Willard of the US Pacific Command: “Of particular concern is that elements of China’s military modernization appear designed to challenge our freedom of action in the region.”
Although the US is clearly reluctant, it must back-down or confront Beijing.
China appears supremely confident of reaching the top. The US, on the other hand, is keen to accommodate Beijing as a strategic partner, but is not having much success because China has its own agenda.
One doesn’t need to be a strategic genius to opine that the US-China strategic rivalry is heading toward a showdown of some sort. The scope and intensity of that will depend on a host of factors that will emerge over time.
Sushil Seth is a writer based in Australia.
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