National Security & Defense

China’s Maritime Strategic Challenge

The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning takes part in drills in the western Pacific, April 2018. (Stringer/Reuters)
America and its allies must cooperate to counter the military-commercial threat.

China is working to end U.S. military predominance in Asia, and likely beyond. This forces U.S. officials to rethink how military security relates to trade and investment. U.S. officials are urging friends around the world to join the reexamination.

How to regulate its business and other relations with China is the greatest strategic challenge facing the United States. The answer is not to stop all trade with China; that is neither necessary nor practical. But obliviousness is not the answer, either. It would be reckless to ignore the role of commercial transactions in China’s national-security strategy.

The challenge has become reasonably clear only in the past half-dozen years or so. U.S. officials are just beginning to develop the necessary new laws and policies and to discuss — and sometimes quarrel — with allies about how to counter Chinese ambitions regarding 5G Internet infrastructure, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, advanced manufacturing technology, cyber operations, influence over critical facilities (e.g. seaports), and other militarily sensitive matters.

Chinese president Xi Jinping has moved China into a new era. He declares that China stands “tall and firm” and should now “take centre stage in the world.” China is asserting itself, claiming, for example, sovereignty over vast areas in the South China Sea long widely recognized as international waters. It presses those claims against the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, and other neighbors. It threatens them, punishing some by attacking their fishermen and sinking their boats. The way Chinese leaders abuse their neighbors is of a piece with the anti-democratic brutality of their rule in China.

China aspires to become a maritime great power and is well on its way. Having created a formidable regional navy, President Xi is building the capability for what Chinese doctrine calls “open seas protection.” Through prolific naval shipbuilding; deployment of a fleet of aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, surface vessels, and submarines; development of missiles; conduct of long-range missions; and establishment of numerous facilities abroad that can facilitate blue-water naval operations, China shows its determination to operate a global maritime force. In August 2017, it inaugurated its first overseas military base in Djibouti, at the chokepoint between, on the one side, the Indian Ocean, and on the other, the Red Sea, Suez Canal, and Mediterranean.

President Xi’s maritime strategy extends beyond strictly military vessels. China operates one of the world’s largest commercial shipping fleets and the largest distant-waters fishing fleet. It is a world leader in commercial shipbuilding. If the U.S. naval presence in strategic locations wanes further and China maintains its trajectory, China will in time enjoy a sea-control advantage.

President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative involves huge infrastructure construction projects around the world. China uses the initiative to link itself to useful facilities and also to promote its own information-technology standards and e-commerce platforms, aiming not just to obtain commercial clout but to give Chinese officials access — clandestine as well as overt — to vast quantities of technological, commercial, personal, and other information — all of which is exploitable economically and strategically.

A major element of Belt and Road is a globe-girdling network of maritime ports. China owns, operates, or has plans to own or operate ports in scores of places, including Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, Morocco, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

The Chinese government integrates commercial and strategic activities to a much greater extent than do Western governments. One of its most important national-security initiatives is what China calls the Military-Civilian Fusion Policy. President Xi boasts of China’s commitment to taking advantage of civilian business activities to strengthen China’s military power.

The United States cannot now think of China simply as an enemy in traditional terms. Nor can it “contain” China as the Soviet Union was economically isolated. Export controls worked well against the Soviet Union in large part because, at the time, the distinction between military and civilian technology was reasonably well defined. That distinction is far less clear now.

China’s position in the world is arguably unprecedented. It is a peer strategic competitor of the United States and simultaneously our major trade and investment partner. Much of China’s trade and investment relates to technology and helps China improve its ability to confront America militarily.

The relationship between Russia and China is strained in some areas but cooperative in others. In arms sales, combined military exercises, and defense consultations, they have grown close. They have worked together against American and Western interests worldwide, supporting the Iranian regime, the Syrian regime, and Venezuela’s Maduro regime. Both are intent on straining and cracking America’s alliances.

Those alliances help America handle China’s challenge without war. For them to serve their purpose, the members need to do three main things:

  • First, cultivate a common threat assessment.
  • Second, improve their military capabilities, plans, and ability to operate together.
  • And third, confront the dangers China has created through merging its commercial activities and aggressive national-security strategy.

China is actively erasing the line between commercial and military activities. And President Xi has killed the longstanding theory that China would have to liberalize as it grows its economy. The good news, however, is that the Chinese challenge is recognized by Americans on both the left and the right — rare common ground in a generally polarized community. Meeting the challenge requires effort at home and abroad.

Douglas J. Feith is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and served as under secretary of defense for policy. Admiral Gary Roughead (USN, retired) is the Robert and Marion Oster Distinguished Military Fellow at the Hoover Institution and served as chief of naval operations. This article is adapted from a maritime security study by the University of Haifa-Hudson Institute Consortium on the Eastern Mediterranean.

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