February 03, 2014
Credit: Korean Aerospace Industries
Resurgent Chinese military power will dominate the strategic decision-making of nations in the region, and consequently their defense acquisitions. Most experts and sources agree on that, but as far as details go, they tend to agree on nothing else.
China's rise affects at least two sets of relationships: those between Asian nations and the U.S., currently the region's dominant power, and those among Asian nations themselves. “The U.S. will have to work harder,” according to one former senior U.S. defense official. “The waning of the 'unipolar moment'—the period of unchallenged U.S. leadership that followed the end of the Cold War—allows smaller states to be more agile. Some critical states do not view a strong partnership with the U.S. as being completely necessary.”
For many in the region, including Japan, South Korea, India and Australia, China is their largest trading partner. According to a report in June from the Center for a New American Security—a rising think tank whose CEO, Robert Work, has been tapped as a candidate for the next U.S. deputy defense secretary—“many Asian countries are beginning to question the sustainability and wisdom of pursuing close economic relations with China while relying on the U.S. to deter aggressive Chinese behavior.”
Across the region and within nations, views on China differ. Japanese hawks see a revival of the nation's Cold War posture—where the role of Association of Southeast Asian Nations forces was “to take hold of the Soviets' left arm and left leg,” as former Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces (JMSDF) Commander Vice Adm. Yoji Koda said at a January conference organized by CNAS. That is a view not shared in Washington: “There is no comparison of Soviet containment and Chinese treatment,” Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said at the Surface Navy Association symposium in Washington last month.
But Koda's hawkish view was echoed at the CNAS forum by Narushige Michishita, director of the security and international studies program at Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. China's aim, in his view, is to impose a “sea control” line within the “first island chain” that defines the East and South China seas, within which it enjoys full freedom of movement and can control the movement of any other shipping. As one expert points out, “a 200-nautical-mile zone around all the land features that China claims covers a remarkably large percentage of the South China Sea.”
Hawks look at China's development of nuclear submarines, bombers and anti-ship ballistic missile systems, and suggest that China's navy and air force intend to establish a “sea denial” line, up to 2,700 km (1,680 mi.) from its coasts, within which other naval forces are at risk of attack. The South China Sea, in this view, is being eyed as a bastion for ballistic missile submarines—reflecting Soviet activities in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Cold War.
Even the hawks do not expect this development overnight or necessarily believe that China is going about its strategy in the right direction. “The more carriers that China builds, the better off we are,” Koda says. In his view, China's deployment of the modernized ex-Soviet carrier Liaoning will be an expensive diversion from more productive investments and the carriers will be vulnerable to submarines.