by Austin Bay
August 17, 2010
The Pentagon just released its annual report to Congress on
China's military. Weapons programs got ink, especially its cyberwar programs,
its expanding navy, ballistic missile projects. The report summarized China's
strategic priorities as "perpetuating Communist Party rule, sustaining
economic growth and development, maintaining domestic political stability,
defending China's national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and securing
China's status as a great power."
At the moment, the United States and China have numerous
military and defense-related disagreements. Discussions among Pacific region
defense ministers held in Singapore this June made that clear. America's
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates insisted that North Korea's sinking of a
South Korean warship last March required a rigorous response by all nations
that are committed to peace in Asia. He was challenging China, which has hedged
criticism of North Korea. China remains miffed at U.S. plans to help Taiwan
modernize its defense forces.
This month, the United States and Vietnam conducted joint
naval exercises off Vietnam's coast in the South China Sea. China recently
rejected a Vietnamese diplomatic initiative intended to resolve territorial
disputes in the region. A senior Chinese defense official called the exercises
When the global super power and Asia's regional giant chide
and argue, the world ought to pay attention. However, that media focus -- U.S.
versus China -- can distort.
A quick tour of China's borders suggests friction with the
United States is a symptom, not a cause. China faces numerous troubles with its
neighbors -- many of the problems exacerbated by Beijing's muscle-flexing and
claims of regional hegemony. (China's internal challenges will be the subject
of a future column.)
India is China's foremost regional competitor. The economic
competition receives the most media coverage, but the military dimension
concerns Beijing. China sees India's nuclear weapons, new ballistic missiles
and naval buildup as strategic challenges. China continually frets over access
to natural resources. The Indian Navy is positioned to interdict ships
transporting oil and minerals from the Middle East and Africa to China. India
also sees China as a threat. According
to StrategyPage.com (July 13), the Indian Air Force's Tactics and Air Combat
Development Establishment (equivalent to the U.S. Navy's "Top Gun"
program) now features Chinese air tactics and aircraft. Indian pilots train to
fight Chinese pilots.
Though Beijing and New Delhi have discussed settling
remaining Sino-Indian border issues, Chinese and Indian competition for
influence in Central Asia, the Himalayas and Southeast Asia is increasing. Both
nations remember the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The Chinese quietly acclimated an
assault force, preparing infantry for high-altitude operations, then conducted
an offensive that punished the Indian Army. The Indian Army won't let that
happen again. The Tibetans still resist Han Chinese domination. For Beijing,
the aging Dalai Lama remains a diplomatic thorn. China insists on having a role
in selecting his replacement.
Central Asia: Kazakhstan's oil attracts Beijing. Kazakhstan
wants to sell oil, but it has no interest in becoming a Chinese protectorate.
Thus, Kazakhstan and the United States have several mutual interests. China has
internal troubles in its western provinces, some stoked by Uighur Islamic
Siberia: A long, empty border, and Russian military power is
ebbing. Yes, Moscow sees China as a market for advanced arms, but Kremlinites
know an expansionist China threatens Siberia's treasure chest of natural
The Koreas: North Korea has been an asset for China, a
nuclear-armed midget that rattles Japan and America. North Korea, however, is
also dirt poor and starving. South Korea is wealthy, modern and
militarily-able. In a crisis, at best the Koreas are question marks for
Japan: Old enmities mark the Japanese-Chinese relationship.
Beijing once let Washington know it approved of the U.S. Navy vessels berthed
in Yokohama. From Beijing's perspective, Washington kept a thumb on Japan. The
U.S. and Japan are allies. Japan operates Aegis destroyers and needs more. Why?
The Jamestown Foundation "China Brief" recently noted China's navy
must breach the "natural barrier" of the Japanese archipelago in
order to achieve its "blue dream" of high seas operations.
Taiwan: Taiwan gets American weapons -- a sore spot in
U.S.-Chinese relations. While China-Taiwan trade and investment relations are
good, Beijing insists it wants to acquire Taiwan -- preferably by diplomacy.
Vietnam: In 1979, China and Vietnam fought a brief but
bloody border war. That war told even hard-core Vietnamese cadres that
Communist brotherhood was kaput. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Vietnam
lacked a major power ally to make the Chinese "colossus to the north"
think twice. Hanoi complains of U.S. imperialism, but Asia has experienced
millennia of Chinese imperialism. At least with the Americans, you get rock and
roll. A bellicose Beijing spurs closer U.S.-Vietnamese strategic cooperation.
South China Sea: Potential petroleum reserves always excite
interest. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and even Cambodia claim
slices of the seabed. Vietnam and the Philippines have both sparred with
Chinese forces in the Spratly Islands. The Association of Southeast Asian
Nations (ASEAN) already has the outline of an anti-China alliance.