• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The China Challenge

China Story Yearbook 2013: Civilising China

edited by Geremie R. Barmé and Jeremy Goldkorn
Canberra: Australian Centre on China in the World, 459 pp., available at www.thechinastory.org
johnson_1-050814.jpg
Erik De Castro/Reuters
Filipino crew members gesturing at a Chinese Coast Guard vessel that tried to block their supply ship from approaching the decrepit BRP Sierra Madre, where Filipino Marines are stationed to guard the disputed Ayungin reef, Spratly Islands, South China Sea, March 2014

In 1890, an undistinguished US Navy captain published a book that would influence generations of strategists. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 posited that great nations need potent, blue-water navies backed by far-flung naval bases to project power around the globe. His work was so influential that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany pledged to learn it by heart as he sought to triumph over the dominant power of his day, Britain and its Royal Navy. When Mahan died nearly one hundred years ago, just after the outbreak of World War I, he was widely blamed for being the lead theorist for an arms race that led to the catastrophic conflict.

It may be a little too pat, but it’s probably no coincidence that Mahan is enjoying newfound fame in another rising power: China. Mahan’s books have been widely reprinted in China, including one that features a fold-out map of the Pacific showing US naval facilities in the region. The lesson for China is plain—at least in the Pacific region, it must emulate America’s naval strength if it wants to become a great power.

The popularity of Mahan’s book is one of the fascinating threads in Geoff Dyer’s The Contest of the Century. The title might sound a bit like a reality show, while the subtitle (The New Era of Competition with China—and How America Can Win) has the tone of a self-help book for a fading superpower. But ignore these examples of editorial overreach; Dyer’s book is stimulating, erudite, and deeply researched, perfectly timed to explain the unfolding conflicts in East Asia. He focuses on maritime affairs as a clue to China’s intentions, which he bluntly states as: “Forget their bland rhetoric: China’s leaders think very much in geopolitical terms and would like to gradually erode the bases of American power.”

This runs counter to the two dominant ways of looking at China. One is that China is so obsessed with domestic issues that it has little real interest in getting involved abroad. Its corollary is that Beijing is too insecure about its hold on power at home to think seriously about challenging the US. But Dyer—a former Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times—points out that China already is involved abroad, while “domestic insecurity is feeding, not inhibiting, the desire to stand tall overseas.”

Dyer is hardly an alarmist. His main point isn’t that China and the US are headed for a military conflict. With both sides possessing nuclear weapons, a war isn’t likely. Instead, his broader point is that China is shifting from a country that accepts existing rules to one that wants to make them. Dyer points out a great irony in this: China’s rise has been made possible because of the global trading system and alliances that Washington created after World War II. The US hasn’t prevented China from buying resources or exporting its goods; on the contrary, its navy has created a calming effect that makes China’s vast seaborne trade possible, while American consumers have bought its products.

America’s dominance is eroding primarily because China’s economic rise enables it to assert long-standing territorial claims, and it is doing so by changing international norms. This is clearest in how China views the Law of the Sea. This 1982 UN treaty defines territorial waters as extending twelve nautical miles from a country’s coast. It also gives countries a two-hundred-mile “exclusive economic zone.” The two are not the same: territorial waters can be entered only with a country’s permission; the economic zone is for economic exploitation but foreign ships, including warships, can pass through it freely.

What China is doing now is to redefine the economic zone into a kind of territorial air and sea zone—hence the series of conflicts between US and Chinese forces. In 2009, for example, a US surveillance ship towing a barge full of intelligence equipment was patrolling seventy miles off the coast of China when it was confronted by a flotilla of Chinese ships. They deployed planks to obstruct the US ship. When the US ship turned, sailors on the Chinese ships used poles to smash the equipment on the US barge. After completing their mission, the crew of one Chinese boat dropped their pants and waved their rear ends in the direction of the Americans.

Most recently, in December, China’s new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, got into a naval dispute in its first significant voyage. Traveling south to the contested waters of the South China Sea, it was shadowed at a distance by a US cruiser. When the US ship got too close—estimates are that it was several dozen miles away—a Chinese escort ship executed a dangerous maneuver, cutting directly in front of the US ship and forcing it to take evasive action. The move was defended as necessary to protect the carrier. The carrier was under no threat, but carriers are the ultimate Mahan prestige project—capital ships meant to project power around the globe.

This near clash came shortly after China redefined the airspace over parts of the Pacific, creating an Air Defense Identification Zone that covered islands controlled by Japan. This was the latest in a series of recent moves to assert sovereignty over the islands, which in Japan are called the Senkaku and in China the Diaoyu.

Individually, it’s easy to explain away these events, or even to see them as laughable. (Mooning a ship? Throwing planks in the water? They hardly constitute the Battle of the Nile.) But taken together they do show China’s desire to expand its reach. They also become more significant when China’s territorial claims are taken into account. China claims the entire South China Sea—which includes almost all the waters between Vietnam to the west, Malaysia to the south, and the Philippines to the east. These waters contain contested islands, and if China were to obtain control over them, as it wishes, and then redefine its economic zone around each one into quasi-territorial waters, then its territorial waters would include some of the most important shipping lanes in the world.

If this sounds far-fetched, consider that Chinese law already treats these waters as domestically controlled. In January, for example, China announced new fishing regulations that cover most of the South China Sea. The new measures require foreign fishing ships to obtain permission from China before operating in the waters. Tellingly, the law says the waters should be policed by China’s coast guard, not its navy. This can be seen as reducing tensions, but also that China considers the waters to be so domestic that it doesn’t need to involve its navy.

Such laws beg the question of who will follow them. It’s hard to imagine Vietnamese fishing boats faxing requests to fish in waters they have trawled for years. But in a way, this isn’t the point. The new rules should instead be seen as Beijing methodically laying the groundwork for control of these waters, part of a very long-term strategy.

Dyer makes this point most effectively by comparing events today with those in US history. In 1823, Washington announced what came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine, stating that any further efforts by European powers to colonize or interfere with states in North or South America would be viewed as an act of aggression and require US intervention. At first, this was mere bluster. The United States had no significant navy, and Britain continued to act as it saw fit, especially in the Caribbean, a body of water that’s as close and crucial to the United States as the South China Sea is to China. As late as 1890, the year Mahan’s book was published, the US Navy was still the butt of jokes.

But the 1823 declaration was a marker. By the end of that century, the United States developed a navy that could enforce this claim. Eventually, the Caribbean came to be dominated by the United States. Britain’s influence there faded. So too, perhaps, with China and the United States.

I was reminded of this long-term horizon when reading a New York Times piece from last year on the fate of Ayungin, a submerged reef that is part of the Spratly Islands. Lying 105 nautical miles from the Philippines, the reef is part of its economic zone and is claimed by Manila as its territory. But over the years, Chinese ships have began to patrol the reef, and essentially have swallowed it up, much as they did Mischief Reef in the 1990s, eventually turning it into a military base.

Worried that this would be repeated, the Philippines sank an old ship on top of Ayungin. It now houses eight Filipino soldiers, who hold out in Kurtzian conditions. Meanwhile, Chinese ships surround the rocky outcropping, interdicting supply ships. The men are supplied only sporadically when Filipino fishing vessels slip in, but for all purposes the territory and surrounding seas have been lost to China. The article showed the disarray in the Philippines, and how China patiently waits for its chances.1

China’s neighbors have begun pushing back. Most dramatically, Philippines President Benigno S. Aquino III said in February that his country’s situation was analogous to Czechoslovakia’s on the eve of World War II, when it was forced to surrender parts of its territory. Military spending is rising in several Asian countries, most notably Japan, while India has begun testing a new ballistic missile that could hit China.

China’s methodical acquisition of overseas bases is another lesson drawn from the Mahan playbook of great powerdom. Mahan called on the United States to acquire bases so its fleet could refuel. It was during this time, the late nineteenth century, that America made its big push to incorporate Hawaii, and pushed even further into the Pacific by acquiring the Midway archipelago—named because it lies roughly midway between North America and Asia. Soon after, it obtained the Guantánamo Bay naval base to protect the Panama Canal. Likewise China’s apparent moves to build ports and deepwater facilities in countries that are somewhat friendly to Beijing, especially Burma, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Some seem to be mainly commercial projects, but Dyer argues that one day they could become bases for the Chinese navy. At the very least, the intention appears to exist.

A subtler point is that both countries’ expansion came about as a result of broader changes in economics, and in people’s mindsets. Mahan’s book was so influential because it caught the spirit of the times. In another era or country, it might not have made a splash. Instead, people like the financier J.P. Morgan thought it so important that he donated money to help get it published.

In China, too, one senses that the military buildup and projection are the result of forces not always part of a government plan. The port in Burma, for example, is being pushed by a Chinese oil company. It argues that it would be safer to send Middle Eastern oil to Burma and then by pipeline to China, rather than by ship through the Straits of Malacca and directly to China. And then there is nascent public opinion in China, which is often louder and more bellicose than official pronouncements. In other words, things like bases don’t always come about because of grand strategy cooked up by geniuses in Beijing or Washington but because of longer-term forces.

  1. 1

    “A Game of Shark and Minnow,” The New York Times Magazine, October 27, 2013. The interactive online version is highly recommended. 

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print