In late May, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense published its 2015 Chinese Military Strategy (CMS) white paper. It comes just six days after CNN aired footage and audio of a US Navy surveillance plane being warned away from artificial islands being built in the South China Sea. (Background reading: What’s the Risk of War with China?) There’s no doubt that the U.S. Navy invited CNN along for the sole purpose of reporting that Chinese warning, which was already reportedly a daily occurrence, and this white paper is likely to be in partial response to that incident.
The report describes a powerful Chinese military being necessary for the security of the nation’s peaceful development. And it cites a new policy of “active defense,” which is not very well defined.
China states its goal of “great national rejuvenation” somewhere between 2021 and 2049, when the Communist Party of China and the People’s Republic of China celebrate their 100 year anniversaries. This “great national rejuvenation” includes protecting its economic interests in order to protect global, international trade, but hidden between the lines is a desire to show military success and continual gains toward global superpower status. The report’s preface assures the world that the nation’s interests and goals are peaceful, along the lines of trade and an “independent foreign policy.” But in this region of the world, which accounts for a third of the global population, Chinese foreign policy is far from independent: it’s biased toward China’s future, even if it’s to the detriment of other nations. And, really, who can blame them for looking out for number one?
The paper clearly jabs at U.S. and Western influence in Southeast Asia and the Obama administration’s Pivot to Asia strategy, but it’s not wholly warranted. Four of the top 15 U.S. trade partners are located in the Pacific (in order: China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan), and the U.S. currently has defense agreements with the Philippines, New Zealand, Thailand, Japan, and South Korea (U.S. State Dept). In other words, the U.S. has good reason to be in the area. A continued presence in Southeast Asia may be a thorn in the side of China, but that presence is welcomed by other nations. Consider, for instance, that without US presence, China would dominate the South China Sea in an area in which several countries claim sovereignty. China’s grounds for claiming the Spratly Islands is purely historical, and certainly not based on geographical boundaries. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines make much better arguments in the dispute.
But if possession is nine-tenths of the law, then consider China well in the lead. Conservative estimates put neighboring nations’ militaries 10-20 years behind an ability to counter Chinese force projection in the area. And the thinking goes that if a U.S. presence can just hang on in the region for even part of that time, then it gives those neighboring nations some time to become more competitive. And for their part, neighboring nations have steadily increased their military budgets after the alarming rise of the Chinese military.
And U.S. leaders aren’t backing down. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was quoted as saying, “There should be no mistake [about this]: the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows us, as we do all around the world.” As soon as the Department of Defense begins allowing other nations to bump them off a strategic global security vision, the U.S. loses face and invites others to do the same.
So What is China’s “Active Defense” Strategy?
Well, the first thing that stands out is one in a laundry list of Chinese imperatives: “To maintain strategic deterrence and carry out nuclear counterattack”. That strategic deterrence ranges from its DF-21 “Carrier Killer” missile and over-the-horizon munitions to cyber and electronic warfare. Nuclear counterattack suggests that first-strike is not an option, however, it’s likely that China would consider first-strike in the event that its mainland sovereignty was threatened. A nuclear attack is the proverbial ‘permanent solution’ to any problem. Under Section 3 of the CMS, China summarizes their active defense strategy: “We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked.”
Continuing on with strategic deterrence, take into consideration, for example, the Chinese hack into the U.S. Government’s Office of Personnel Management security clearance files (a hack that gained them access for up to a year), and China has a deterrent more powerful than the threat of nuclear strike: sensitive personal information from perhaps up to 18 million cleared Americans, including personnel with Top Secret / Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) clearances. This information could allow China to exploit and manipulate U.S. Intelligence and Defense personnel. And if we want to take a war with China to the ends of its logical conclusions, it could open up Intelligence and Defense personnel or their families to kinetic targeting.
China further states in the CMS that it’s preparation for military struggle includes: “winning informationized local wars, highlighting maritime military struggle and maritime [preparation for military struggle]. The armed forces will work to effectively control major crises, properly handle possible chain reactions, and firmly safeguard the country’s territorial sovereignty, integrity and security.”
Given this outlined strategy of active defense, China affirms its commitment to being prepared to fight wars in her own backyard. What a U.S.-China war in the South China Sea would look like, however, is another matter.