On Tuesday, two Chinese fighter jets conducted a high-risk close intercept of a U.S. Navy surveillance plane over international waters. Once again, China’s President Xi Jinping is playing with President Obama. The underlying reality is best evidenced by two specific agreements: China’s unenforceable, unbinding, and utterly unreliable pledge to peak its carbon emissions by 2030 (this commitment is a joke, but President Obama calls it one of his legacy accomplishments) and the ludicrous September 2015 deal in which China agreed to end commercial cyber-espionage (China has not fulfilled that agreement).
But the most consequential issue in U.S.–China relations is the Communist nation’s island-construction campaign in the South and East China Seas. The U.S. still has credible means of action to deal with this issue. Here are four of them.
First, the U.S. should lead our regional partners in a coordinated effort to go eye-to-eye with China’s military. While President Obama sees himself as the maestro of multilateral diplomacy, the reality of his diplomacy is disastrous. Around the world, by friend and foe alike, Mr. Obama is seen as fundamentally unreliable. It is in this vacuum that Chinese imperialism is rising. The longer America hesitates, the more entrenched China’s power becomes. As China continues to dredge, it gains more land for missile platforms, fighter/bomber aircraft, and other area-denial military capabilities. And at some point in the not so distant future, those platforms will be so significant as to preclude U.S. military access absent a massive force umbrella. In basic terms, stopping China two years from now will require far greater overt escalation than it would today.
The U.S. should lead a coordinated regional effort to challenge Chinese imperialism.
There’s a better option. Recognizing China’s increasing economic frailty and its massive overreliance on global exports, the U.S. should lead a coordinated regional effort to challenge Chinese imperialism. This should begin with unannounced but overt joint naval and air military exercises by the U.S., Australia, Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam. Such a show of resolve would achieve two strategic effects. First, it would illustrate China’s diplomatic and military isolation and degrade China’s diplomatic credibility on the world stage. That credibility matters greatly to China as it tries to reshape the international order in its favor. Second, this multilateral force would send a clear signal to China that its policies are regarded so negatively as to have motivated collective military reprisal. Specifically, the U.S. should make clear that it has boosted its attack-submarine capability on the lines of communication between China’s mainland/Hainan Island military ports and its island outposts. While this approach will give fuel to China’s deliberately fostered domestic populism against a history of humiliation (Western 19th-century imperialism and Japan’s occupation of China during the 1930s and 1940s), it will also force China to contemplate a physical manifestation of profound regional anger. In Vietnam, for example, anti-China nationalism is now highly significant. That translates into, among other things, an opportunity for a new U.S. naval base at Vietnam’s newly developed Cam Ranh Bay port.
Second, the U.S. should increase pressure on close U.S. allies to abandon China’s Asia Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB). The British and Indian governments deserve special focus here. After all, by joining China’s patronage network in the Asia-Pacific region, these American allies have chosen to feed at the trough of Chinese wealth and abandon the U.S.-led Pacific balance of power. And while their rejection of U.S. concerns over the AIIB is an indication of the Obama administration’s weakness, the next U.S. president could re-prioritize this issue. If China continues buying off our closest partners (British government officials seem especially keen to accept thinly veiled Chinese payoffs), it will have little reason to think that the U.S. will ever mount a coordinated challenge to its imperial ambition.
Third, the next U.S. president must direct the U.S. Navy to re-focus its procurement toward attack submarines. As CNN’s Jim Sciutto reported last year, China’s military is increasingly confident in threatening U.S. military forces. Unfortunately, rather than responding with procurement changes, the U.S. Navy continues to double down on a dated shipbuilding program. Consider, for example, that the Navy’s 2016 budget continues to waste money on its pet project, the LCS (littoral combat ship) program, while keeping new construction funds effectively stagnant until at least 2020. As Lawrence Korb notes, LCS vessels are highly vulnerable and highly expensive. Instead, the U.S. Navy should divert funds into building more Virginia-class attack submarines. Those submarines and their exceptional crews rightly scare China.
Fourth, the president should direct the NSA to start deterring China via cyber-retaliation to the incessant attacks by the People’s Liberation Army. At present, U.S. cyber-security policy is that of an alarm company. We warn customers (U.S. institutions and citizens) of China’s cyber-threat, but we rarely defend ourselves. That must change. While the best NSA capabilities should be saved for cases of armed conflict, we should make clear that we will protect our interests. The U.S. must implement a full spectrum of deterrence, reaching from the Pacific Ocean to the Internet. Absent that understanding, China will continue stealing our secrets, and laughing at our broader impotence.
To be sure, all of these options carry risks, some of them highly significant. But our present course in relations with China is disastrous. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, more than $5 trillion in trade goods transit the South China Sea every year. If China entrenches its empire, all those assets will rest at the mercy of a Communist dictatorship. And in short order, China will be able to subjugate the region to its empire and deal a serious blow to U.S. ideals and U.S. incomes (by forcing U.S. consumers to buy costlier alternative goods). Late last year, I predicted that 2016 would see new ISIS attacks in Europe, Iran’s continued breach of nuclear-deal commitments, and a Chinese skirmish with U.S. allies in the South China Sea. Now more than ever, I’m confident that unless we wake up to the inadequacies of our present strategy, conflict is coming.