Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:40 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:40 | SYDNEY

Responding to China growing power


Hugh White

5 February 2008 15:21

Well, Sam gets to the heart of the issue in his response to my post.  He raises two questions: how serious is China’s maritime military challenge to the US, and what can we do about it?

On the first question Sam says that China is a long way from building the kind of ocean-going fleet that would challenge US regional standing more broadly. I’m not sure I agree. Certainly it will be a long time before China could compete with America on equal terms as a global maritime power. That power consists in America’s capacity to project maritime forces anywhere in the world that would be sufficient to easily defeat any opposing maritime forces that it might meet. At the moment, China is not even trying to emulate the US capacity to deploy decisive naval forces globally. But China is challenging America’s global maritime primacy locally, in Asia, by building forces which will, as they grow, drive up the costs and risks to the US of naval operations in China’s region. Today, China’s capacity to sink a US carrier in the waters around Taiwan is a lot higher that it was twenty years ago. Within a couple of decades – and when speaking of strategy these long timeframes matter – there may be real questions about whether the US will still be able to deploy carriers against China. Of course it will not do that by building a battle fleet just like America’s and sailing out to seek a decisive battle in the Mahanian tradition. It will do it asymmetrically with submarines, aircraft and fast small missile-firing patrol boats.

Now does this challenge US ‘standing’ in Asia? Hmm. ‘Standing’ is a slippery word and I’m never quite sure what it means. I think it is better to talk in more concrete terms about the credibility with which Washington can promise effective military support to its allies. Sam concedes, I think, that China’s growing naval capability erodes the credibility of US promises to defend Taiwan, but suggests that I think this is no bad thing. In the case of Taiwan I agree. But let’s shift the focus to a much more important case — Japan.  The risk of a maritime confrontation with China, for example in the East China Sea, is a very real strategic concern for Japan. The higher the risk and cost to the US of deploying its naval forces to support Japan in such a crisis, the less confidence Japan can have in US willingness to do so when it is Japanese rather than direct US interests that are engaged. This undermines Japanese confidence in the US alliance. Does that challenge US ‘standing’ in Asia?  You bet.

Which brings us to the second question Sam raises – how should we respond? Of course Sam is right; we should not just vacate the field and leave China to build maritime primacy in Asia unchallenged. That is why, for example, I have long argued that Australia needs to give priority to building our own air and naval forces. But at the same time, we have a very strong interest in not taking steps which would unnecessarily amplify the sense of strategic competition between ourselves (and our allies) and China. I am perhaps a little fatalistic about the fact that China and others in Asia will build increasingly capable maritime forces over coming decades, but I am also optimistic that peace can nonetheless be preserved in Asia as long as we can find a way to accommodate China’s growing power and other key strategic shifts in a new, stable Asian order. We can only do that if we recognise the legitimacy of China’s growing power, including its military power. That does not preclude us from building our own forces, nor does it preclude us from limiting the export to China of specific military systems and capabilities – for example, our Over The Horizon Radar technology,which could help China find US carriers in the Western Pacific.  But it does suggest that COCOM-style programs to limit ‘dual-use’ technology exports to China are likely to be strategically counterproductive, as well as being economically unsustainable for the reasons I sketched in my earlier post.

And one last point. Sam’s phrase ‘with our allies’ elides a really crucial element in this debate for Australia, and that is the question of how closely Australia’s strategic interests and objectives in relation to China will align with America’s in the years to come. I have written elsewhere of the risk that the US may try too hard to sustain strategic and political primacy in Asia as its economic primacy passes. If so it may end up destroying the international order it is trying to preserve. That would not be in Australia’s interests, and now is the time to start telling America that. In the list of things for the new government to do, I’d put this much higher than the sale of catamarans to the PLA Navy.