December 30, 2013
A decade of boots-on-the-ground warfare in the Middle East does not, in late December, appear to have done much
to spread democracy or tolerance across the region or indeed to quell the sources of terrorism. Syria, Libya and Egypt waver between rule by more or less secular strongmen and takeover by Islamic radicals. Overwatch by fighters, helicopters and surface-to-air missiles is now a routine feature of global sporting events as well as G20 meetings.
On the other side of the globe, however, tensions are reminding many observers of the machinations that preceded previous industrial-age wars such as World War 1. China's declaration of an air defense identification zone was remarkable not so much for its direct impact as for the fact that it took observers by surprise.
That is a strong indicator of regional tension and potential instability. While China's armed forces are strong and growing rapidly, symbolized by China's first aircraft carrier, the ex-Russian Liaoning (see photo) its smaller regional rivals are also heavily armed and have much longer experience in high-technology warfare. China has relatively recently emerged from decades of infantry-dominated “people's war” and, until a few years ago, had virtually no experience of training and exercising with other nations' forces.
But it is exactly that kind of qualitative difference in the balance of forces that increases the risk of miscalculation. This is particularly the case when one side controls its media and public expression more tightly than the other. Chinese defense managers, commanders and leaders can read global media (and study their intelligence reports) and read about China's growing strength and the need to develop doctrines, such as Air-Sea Battle, and improve technologies (ballistic missile defense, for instance) to counter their expansion. This selective view tends to downplay the current strength of other regional actors.
On the other hand, Chinese citizens and political actors see a carefully stage-managed picture of their own strength, via deliberate Internet leaks and state-run media. The result is pressure on the military to show and, if necessary, use its strength to assert regional presence.
Consequently, there is high risk in 2014 of some kind of confrontation in the oceans around China. Modern sea warfare is complex and fast-moving, and battle groups can find themselves within weapon range of one another quickly and unexpectedly. Commanders have to take decisions concerning the safety of their own forces; links to shore may not be available and superior commanders on land, beyond the horizon, do not have access to a tactical picture.