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Sea Change in the Pacific

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

China dislikes the rules of maritime behavior written when it was less powerful. How will the United States respond?

A rising power with growing ambitions flexes its muscles in its surrounding seas, making expansive claims about its maritime rights. The established power resists and sends more forces to the contested region to back its own maritime claims. Sound familiar? It should: this is how a rising America behaved toward Great Britain. Indeed, it is the historically normal pattern of relations between growing and established powers. But China was somehow supposed to behave differently as its power grew relative to ours, or at least that is what our government has been telling us for the better part of two decades.

Unlike rising powers from time immemorial, the path China would choose would be peaceful, its leaders claimed. China’s leaders had learned the lessons of history and would forgo strategic competition with the United States. It would not, we have been told, try to rewrite the rules of the international system.

But the latest Sino-American naval contretemps in the South China Sea is proof positive that Beijing does not particularly like the rules of maritime behavior written when China was less powerful. Earlier this month, five Chinese naval vessels surrounded a U.S. ocean surveillance ship, the Impeccable, near China’s Hainan island and blocked its way with pieces of wood. According to the Chinese, the Impeccable was acting illegally within China’s exclusive economic zone. Washington responded, contending that the ship was operating peacefully and lawfully in international waters. The dispute is unlikely to be litigated or adjudicated anytime soon.

America’s military advantage in Asia has guaranteed the region’s decades-long peace to our great benefit.

Instead, President Obama has sent a guided missile destroyer, the USS Chung-Hoon, to escort the Impeccable as it conducts its missions. And its missions are none other than monitoring Chinese undersea military activity. It turns out that the Chinese are not fond of U.S. surveillance missions around China’s periphery.

 China has been building up its naval force at a rapid clip. Over the past decade alone it has added dozens of new submarines and surface ships to its fleet. Last year, a new nuclear submarine base at Sanya on Hainan island was exposed. That is the same Hainan island where, in April 2001, a U.S. EP-3 electronic surveillance aircraft was forced to land after a Chinese fighter jet crashed into it. The dispute then was similar to this one; the United States was conducting a surveillance mission near China and Beijing did not like it. Now nearly eight years later, China has greater military capabilities and thus more for Washington to monitor. Beijing will keep adding to its naval fleet and Washington will continue to monitor Chinese military developments.

The only surprise is that anyone would expect China to act differently than it has. Beijing does not like America’s military presence near its shores and the People’s Liberation Army now has more capability to do something about it. Washington’s military presence in the Asia Pacific has kept the peace and created the conditions for the region to prosper. Neither America nor her allies want a reduction in Washington’s Pacific presence. Quite the contrary, given China’s increasing power most nations in the region want more of an American presence.

Given China’s increasing power the region wants more of an American presence.

But America is cutting its military capability, a move that is sure to harm the Pacific balance of power. Allies already whisper worriedly about our degraded anti-submarine warfare and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. Meanwhile, the Obama administration just publicly announced future defense budget cuts. With two ongoing wars engaging much of our ground forces, the victims of these cuts likely will be the Navy and the Air Force, the two services most needed to keep the peace in a quickly transforming Asia.

Cutting defense spending is exactly the wrong response to China’s growing power. Instead, America must invest in reconstituting our Pacific military presence. We need the air and naval power to track China’s buildup, deter its adventurism, and defend our allies. That means more submarines, ISR, stealth fighters, and the aircraft that support them. To be sure, this is an expensive investment, but it is less costly than losing our edge in the Pacific. America’s military advantage in Asia has guaranteed the region’s decades-long peace to our great benefit.

China is not monolithic. Many Chinese do not want to engage in a military competition with the United States. They would rather their government spend more on pensions and healthcare for an aging population. Our job is to strengthen their hand by demonstrating to China’s leaders that continuing down the path of military competition is too costly.     

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Earlier this year he outlined with Aaron Friedberg An American Strategy for Asia.

FURTHER READING: Michael Auslin recently testified before Congress about China’s military and security activities abroad. AEI maintains an ongoing Tocqueville on China project that convenes a select group of scholars, policy analysts, and government experts to generate innovative studies that elicit the underlying civic culture of post-Mao China. And Harvard University’s Dwight Perkins published The Challenges of China’s Growth, a book that emerged from his Henry Wendt Distinguished Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/The Bergman Group.

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