Walden Bello on the US-China strategic confrontation

Presentation at the AEPF Global Military Spending and Global In(security) Webinar, Dec 3, 2020

Walden Bello, Focus on the Global South

There are great worries today that the conflict between China and the US will not stop at simply being a trade war, that it could at some point spill over into some form of military conflict.

It is increasingly clear that there are elements in the Biden national security team that, like Trump’s people, feel that the US must take a harder line towards China.

This is not surprising since many of these people served during the Obama administration and they participated in formulation of Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy meant to contain China.

Also there are many influential neoconservatives who supported Biden because they felt that Trump’s foreign and military policies were incoherent and harmful to US global interests, and they are now are exerting pressure on the Biden team to go back to policies assuring stable US hegemony.

Comparing the US and China on military spending

In 2019, US military expenditure was about three times more than China’s, $732 billion to $261 billion.  The rise in military spending by the US was 5.3 per cent from 2018, while that of China was 5.1 per cent.

A “Near-Peer Competitor”?

The US National Security Strategy Paper issued in 2017 characterized China as a “Near Peer Competitor.”

This is patently false, if we use objective indicators.

First of all, in terms of nuclear weapons, Beijing has a relatively small nuclear force that is guided by a “No First Use” (NFU) Doctrine focused on deterring a potential aggressor via the maintenance of a second strike retaliatory capability.  The US has vastly superior nuclear capabilities and it has not adopted an NFU position.  China has only about 260 nuclear warheads while at the end of 2017, the US’ nuclear arsenal contained approximately just under 1400 deployed and approximately 4000 stockpiled warheads.

Second, China’s conventional offensive capabilities are grossly inferior to that of the US.  Two key indicators of a country’s offensive capability are its overseas bases and its aircraft carriers.  China has only one overseas military base, and that is located in Djibouti off the Gulf of Aden, out of which it participates in anti-piracy activities.  The US has scores of military bases surrounding China, 25 major bases and 60 other facilities spread all over Japan; 15 bases in South Korea; three bases in Guam; and five bases in the Philippines.

In terms of aircraft carriers, China has two operational carriers with a Soviet-era design, while the US has 11 carrier task forces, one of them, the Seventh Fleet, based in Yokosuka, Japan, which can easily be supplemented by another carrier task force from the Eastern Pacific in the event of conflict. US carriers like the recently commissioned USS Gerald Ford are the state of the art, far in advance of anything China has to offer.

Contrasting Strategic Postures

Third, even the Pentagon admits that Beijing’s strategic posture is “strategic defense” which “is rooted in a commitment not to initiate armed conflict, but to respond robustly if an adversary challenges China’s national unity, territorial sovereignty or interests.”

The US strategic posture, on the other hand, is offensive.  It has three key components:

One is forward deployment, that is to push the presence of US military power as near as possible to the borders of a likely enemy.

Second is a war fighting strategy called Airsea Doctrine.  A key document explicitly pointed to China as the enemy, and it called for “’kinetic and non-kinetic (other words, both explosive and electronic) strikes” against inland command centers, radar systems and intelligence gathering facilities, raids against missile production and storage operations, and “blinding” operations against Chinese satellites.  It also said that China’s “seaborne trade flows would be cut off , with an eye toward exerting major stress on the Chinese economy and, eventually, internal stress.”

Third the US’s long-term strategic perspective is “Overmatch.”  According to my friend Mike Klare in an article in the Nation, “Although reminiscent of containment in some respects, overmatch differs from Cold War strategy not only because it presumes two (and possibly more) major competitors instead of just one, but also because it requires a perpetual struggle for dominance in every realm, including in trade, energy and technology.”

China’s Strategic Dilemma and Its Response

China’s strategic dilemma is that large parts of the US military forces in the Western Pacific lie right on its doorstep, entrenched in bases on the so-called First Island Chain or at sea in the forward deployed US Seventh Fleet.  Most of China’s industrial infrastructure and population are located in the country’s southeastern and eastern coasts and thus are very vulnerable to US power in the event of conflict.

China’s response to this dilemma has been to push its defenses outwards, placing anti-access, anti-denial weapons (A2AD) in maritime formations it seized in the South China Sea from countries like the Philippines.  These moves were justified unilaterally by saying that 90 per cent of the South China Sea belongs to China (the infamous nine-dash-line decree).

Towards Demilitarization and Denuclearization of the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea

This situation leads me to make three observations and recommendations.

One is that the US-China jockeying for power in the South China Sea is creating a very explosive situation, where a mere ship coalition can escalate into a higher conflict since there are no rules of the game except an informal balance of power, and we all know that balance of power as a regulator of conflict is quite unreliable, as we saw in the case of the European balance of power that resulted in the First World War.

Second, China’s unilateral declaration that 90 per cent of the South China Sea belongs to it and its grabbing maritime formations there from other countries are brazenly unjust since the other countries that border the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea also have equal rights to its waters and resources.  Beijing has valid strategic concerns, but it is going about resolving them the wrong way, like a classic imperial power.

Third, in my view, the only viable solution to conflicts in the area lies in multilateral negotiations among China and the Southeast Asian countries towards demilitarizing and denuclearizing the area that would demand compliance from third parties like the United States.

Civil society in all of these countries needs to play an active role in pushing their governments to demilitarize and denuclearize the South China Sea.

Thank you.

The points presented here are discussed in more detail in two reports the author did for Focus on the Global South: China: An Imperial Power in the Image of the West? and Trump and the Asia Pacific: The Persistence of American Unilateralism.