IDSA COMMENT

The Dragon has landed for the American Eagle

October 13, 2010

The Chinese dragon has landed in the American shop. The American eagle is sputtering. Sino-US rivalry has been simmering for the past many years, as China has replaced Russia in the American scheme of things as its most potent adversary. China has begun to project itself as an equal of the United States. China’s public outburst against the recent (“destabilizing”) US-South Korea naval exercises and its officials’ on-record statement that China had as much reason to be upset about such activities in its backyard as the US was about Soviet manoeuvres during the Cuban Missile Crisis is a testimony to Beijing’s changed demeanour. The Chinese government’s mouthpiece People’s Daily wrote on July 29, 2010 that Beijing was willing to work with Washington if Americans were to accept China as the second world power and divide areas of domination.

Some of China’s recent military moves are worth taking note of. Well aware of the historical fact that only the most powerful seafaring nations have ruled the world for centuries, China is busy giving teeth to its navy. It is working on the 2400-km range DF-21 Anti Submarine Ballistic Missile (ABSM), a weapon that promises to be Beijing’s game-changer in future naval battles as it can decapitate American warships in the region. The weapon poses the gravest threat ever to the US Navy as its space-based maritime surveillance and targeting systems make its interception well nigh impossible.

The American maritime superiority is threatened like never before. Already the situation is such that the over-stretched American naval forces are no match to China, both in terms of numbers and fire power. It is a fact that the US alone is no longer capable of checking and countering Chinese naval hegemony in Asia; Washington will need the help of Japan, India, Vietnam and South Korea to do that.

On July 1-2, 2010, China conducted a major naval exercise in the South China Sea. The importance of this exercise from Beijing’s perspective can be gauged by the fact that it was overseen by Central Military Commission members Gen. Chen Bingde and Navy Chief Wu Shengli. This was followed by a five-day naval-air fire exercise by the Chinese military in the Yellow Sea.

As part of its well thought out strategy, China has been working for decades to achieve one strategic objective: to slowly push other countries out of the East China Sea and South China Sea and bring the littoral seas under Chinese domination. Consider the following landmark events in China’s recent history. In 1953, China issued a map that laid claim to 80 per cent of the South China Sea. In 1974, it seized the Paracel Islands from Vietnam. In 1988, China again attacked Vietnamese forces on Johnson Reef and occupied six features in the Spratly Islands. In 1994, China captured the Mischief Reef from the Philippines. The Spratly and Paracel islands are far from China and within the 200-mile exclusive economic zones of neighbouring Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. In March 2010, Beijing told US Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg that China would not tolerate ‘foreign interference’ in its ‘territory’ in the South China Sea. And Beijing has been walking its talk by backing up its political and diplomatic manoeuvres with military posturing. Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and even the United States have been at the receiving end of China’s fiery diplomacy.

China is consciously investing in developing supersonic anti-ship missiles that would skim just meters above the water, something that the Soviets did as they took on the Americans during the Cold War. Such missiles present China with an economical and militarily effective option. A long-range cruise missile costs half a million US dollars, while a typical US aircraft carrier costs over one billion dollars. In other words, one American aircraft carrier can buy ten thousand long-range cruise missiles. And it does not take rocket science to understand that one or two such missiles can disable or sink an aircraft carrier. Therefore, China will not be a push-over for the Americans even though it is much poorer and its military arsenal is much inferior in comparison to that of the United States. China can use its missile power to enforce a no-go zone in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea which Beijing has begun to view as its exclusive offshore preserve.

The Chinese are also investing in space research at a time when NASA is cash-strapped. China has already locked itself in a long-drawn, cost-intensive rivalry with the United States to dominate the last frontier. On January 11, 2007, China successfully test-launched its anti-satellite system and broke a 22-year-old American monopoly in this sphere. Interestingly, the Chinese test-launch took place on a day when Russian leader Vladimir Putin was in New Delhi for the annual India-Russia summit. Quite understandably, Australia, Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom, apart from the United States, quickly condemned the Chinese ASAT launch.

The US stole a march over China in a big way three years later when on April 22, 2010 the US Air Force launched into orbit X-37, the world's most sophisticated robotic spacecraft. This development has left China gaping, as nothing like this has been done by any nation so far. X-37 not only counters China’s ASAT capability, but it has also demonstrated to Beijing how the Americans still continue to be generations ahead in terms of space technology. Dubbed as “space inspector”, the Boeing-built X-37 can spy on other countries’ satellites and even disable them. The multi-billion dollar reusable, unmanned spacecraft is almost identical in design and layout to the space shuttle. X-37 would enable the United States to mount a replacement in space in case the enemy were to destroy its satellite in a conflict.

As though this were not enough, China has been incrementally raising its sweepstakes in South America, Africa, Middle East and Central Asia. China’s game plan in Central Asia is strategically timed. Afghanistan is a classic example of China’s strategy for Central Asia. Beijing has taken full advantage of the Obama administration’s tomfoolery in declaring an exit plan from Afghanistan. While Americans are preparing to leave Afghanistan, China is upgrading its involvement in Central Asia through Afghanistan. It has already pumped billions of dollars into Afghanistan for copper mining. It plans to build a transnational highway from Pakistan through Afghanistan to Central Asia. But unlike in the context of India's goal of reaching out to Afghanistan, even in the face of Pakistan's refusal to give transit rights to India, China will face no problem from its all-weather friend, Pakistan. China also wants to exploit some of the world's vast untapped deposits of precious metals like gold and uranium in Afghanistan. Given recent reports from Washington that the United States has found mineral deposits almost worth $1 trillion, a finding that officials say could transform Afghanistan, China's planned exploitation of minerals could not come soon enough.

It is inevitable that the leading powers of the world conclude one day that China’s rise is menacing, that the United States alone will not be able to rein in the dragon, and that the other leading regional powers will have to join hands with America in this mission. The international community had actually been there and done that in 2007. Japan, the United States, Australia and India had gotten together to explore the possibility of a strategic quadrilateral, but it was aborted in 2008. The Quad initiative needs to be re-launched. Perhaps, it can now be a Hexagon initiative by roping in South Korea and Vietnam.