Obama’s pivot to Asia faces a changing Chinese military

April 7, 2015
Soldiers of Chinese People's Liberation Army see off a fleet before it sets out for Aden, Yemen from Zhoushan

Soldiers of Chinese People’s Liberation Army see off a fleet before it sets out for Aden, Yemen, from Zhoushan, Zhejiang province, April 3, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

China’s People’s Liberation Army is rapidly modernizing, thanks to a growing budget and an emphasis on military hardware. Rather than compete head-on with U.S. forces — too ambitious a goal for a military that still suffers from corruption, recruitment challenges and other weaknesses — China wants to make the PLA strong enough that the United States will steer clear of regional disputes.

As the United States pivots to Asia, the Chinese worry over what they see as a U.S. strategy of containment. To China, increased U.S. military-to-military exchanges with Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as new agreements with the Philippines over naval bases, look like attempts to keep China from what it considers its rightful place in the region.

To flex its military muscle, China has taken a two-pronged approach, developing ways to counter U.S. forces from the safety of its mainland bases, while using the PLA and maritime militia to pressure countries in the region.

Firepower is key. China, which has long used mainland-based cruise missiles to maintain pressure on Taiwan, is expanding that effort so that cruise and ballistic missiles can reach all 23 U.S. bases in Japan, from Honshu Island to Okinawa. Since these missiles can also be launched from naval bases and aircraft, even remote U.S. bases like Guam are at risk. China has also started developing a land-based ballistic missile that may pose a threat to U.S. ships.

China is also using the PLA, coast guard and navy to pressure neighboring countries, especially Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. From conducting air exercises over the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the northern Philippines, to using the coast guard to counter Philippine fishing boats in the Scarborough Shoals, China is determined to show the United States that it can enforce its claims in the region — and maintain its defenses along an arc from northern Japan, through the Philippines, to Indonesia.

The U.S. response to these actions has been mixed. It initially responded forcefully to the new ADIZ, sending a U.S. warplane to fly through the region. Then the United States advised its commercial carriers to abide by the ADIZ rules while still denying the zone’s legitimacy. When the head of Naval Intelligence for the U.S. Pacific Fleet said that China was preparing for a “short, sharp war” with Japan, senior U.S. officials, including the Army Chief of Staff, immediately repudiated the claim. And while President Obama said that an attack on the Senkakus would obligate the U.S. to respond under the terms of the mutual defense treaty with Japan, he’s refrained from making a similar statement about territory claimed by the Philippines. This inconsistency has left U.S. allies in the region wondering if they truly have the full support of the United States.

While China’s military activities in the West Pacific have roiled the U.S.-China relationship, PLA activities in other parts of the world show that, at least in areas that China does not consider core domestic interests, the PLA can be a viable and valuable partner. China has long been a major provider of troops for U.N. peacekeeping missions, as well as an increasingly important financial contributor to these efforts. It has also been an active participant in counter-piracy efforts off the coast of East Africa. China’s recent evacuation of Chinese citizens and other foreigners from Yemen marks the first time that China has used PLA Navy vessels to carry out such a mission.

The United States needs to assess its strategy in the Pacific. China will not accept the United States as a participant in what it sees as bilateral issues that don’t naturally involve the United States. The PLA’s growing strength should be a wake-up call to the United States, which is wrong to think that it can dictate regional outcomes based on its military dominance.

It’s obvious that there are now great powers on both sides of the Pacific. As the Chinese become more confident that they can prevent the United States from intervening in regional flare-ups — especially involving allies Japan and the Philippines — they will grow more assertive. The U.S. Navy has been strong enough to keep the Chinese in check, but as the PLA modernizes, this is no longer the case.

And that U.S. pivot to Asia? It would do well to be focused as much on diplomacy as on flexing military muscle.


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