China: the next military rival

The death of Osama bin Laden is a crucial military-political opportunity for Barack Obama. But the United States defence complex has Beijing and budgets on its mind.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
26 May 2011

The course of the United States involvement in Afghanistan, and how if at all this will be affected by the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces in Pakistan, is now a matter of acute concern in Washington and allied capitals.

It is not yet clear whether Barack Obama will use the al-Qaida leader’s death as a pretext to accelerate American troop withdrawals from Afghanistan; the event certainly makes it easier for him to do so should he want, even though the linkage between al-Qaida and the Afghan war is marginal.

There is a compelling political reason for the president to make the connection, since - in an atmosphere of war-weariness in the homeland and deep concern with domestic issues such as unemployment - the ability in 2011-12 to highlight troop reductions in Afghanistan and progressive disengagement from Iraq would fuel Obama’s re-election hopes in November 2012.  

True, there would still be problems in the “greater middle east” that Washington cannot avoid addressing: instability in Pakistan, the intractable Israel/Palestine conflict, possible crises over Syria and Iran (though whatever happens in Libya in coming months, there will no major US involvement). Thus, in the absence of unforeseen and dangerous eruptions, President Obama could by early 2012 be preparing for a smoother home run than once seemed conceivable.

A painful era

A powerful obstacle to this scenario may, however, come from within: the United States military and defence industries. Any real reduction in their overseas involvements would endanger the bountiful budgets they have come to expect since the the latter part of the George W Bush era, when (in terms of government spending and subsidy at least) it has been a good period to be a senior officer or a defence contractor.

The rewards may have been unequally distributed: the army, marines and special-operations command have been most favoured, the air force less well served, while the navy has undergone a really troubled period (in great part because it has hardly been involved in two major conflicts - Iraq and AfPak - and has found it hard to argue for higher budgets).

But if the largesse has benefited some more than others, the prospective downward trend is uniformly bad news across the military-industrial-academic-bureaucratic complex. A prospective era where there are fewer wars to fight and a ballooning federal debt involves painful adaptation. These are precidely the circumstances where a new enemy is badly needed. Almost on cue, there is renewed talk of a potential military rivalry with China (see “China’s military: threat or twist”, 28 January 2011).

The advocates of the notion that China is the new threat to Washington’s global position are especially useful to the navy and air-force. These would be at the forefront of any United States military build-up in the western Pacific and east Asia; indeed, it is the supporters of naval power that are currently leading the arguments over China’s challenge and the need to address it. 

The next rival

The influential military journals have in 2011 seen a veritable surge in articles about the growth of Chinese military power. Four current themes are evident. The first is China's involvement (albeit alongside and as an ally of) many western states in anti-piracy patrols of the east African and east Arabian coasts. In itself this is welcome cooperation in the face of a common problem, but it can easily be depicted too in terms of the gradual enhancement of a long-range Chinese naval capability.

The second theme is Chinese expansion into the polar regions. China now has two Antarctic research stations and one in the Arctic; operates a large polar-research vessel, the MV Xuelong (Snow Dragon); and is particularly interested in the northwest passage as a convenient route for exports to Europe. It has even established an unusually large embassy in Iceland and is looking to develop a marine hub there (see Wendell Minnick, “Ice Station Dragon: China's Strategic Arctic Interest”, Defense News, 16 May 2011).

The third, and of more immediate military relevance, is China's expanding submarine fleet, which is leading to a growth in anti-submarine forces right across the wast Asian region. Malaysia, South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore are all involved, in ways that provide useful and lucrative new arms orders to US as well as other companies (see Leithen Francis, “The New Great Game”, Aviation Week, 23 May 2011).

The fourth theme is the development of a new J-20 prototype plane, described in some quarters as a game-changer. This plane has the potential to match the United States’s F-22, though development with an indigenous engine is likely to take up to ten years - and the US F-22 has already been in service for that long (see Carlo Kopp, “Stealth has the Smell of Success”, Asia Times, 25 May 2011). China is also converting an old Soviet-era aircraft-carrier for experimental use, but (again) it could take a decade or more for Beijing to command the complex technologies and training necessary to operate fixed-wing naval aviation from scratch.

A new great game

The broader issue here is that China is a rapidly growing economy intent on a “peaceful rise” in the global arena. But the leadership in Beijing - also facing an important transition in 2012 - also faces  serious problems of internal unrest and increasing aspiration among its people, largely as a consequence of deep socio-economic divisions.

In this context, China’s economic strength - which has enabled it to overtake Japan to become the world's second largest economy - also creates the potential to develop varied military capabilities.  It could even, over many years, develop a global maritime capability. The short term is a different matter. China’s contribution to anti-piracy operations has typically involved one warship and one support-vessel. It has nothing remotely to match the strike-power of a US carrier battle-group and will not have until well into the 2020s - and even then only if it opts to develop its navy much faster than at present.

China is a substantial regional military power and may develop its capabilities further; much of the new equipment it deploys in this effort will reflect China's massive maritime trading requirements and be intended primarily to protect sea lines of communication. That nowhere near equates to China being a global military force. This, however, will not diminish the arguments from within and around the US defence community that China is the new military threat to the United States.

The gap between image and reality has a strong echo of the recent past. For this is truly a “back to the future” moment (Tom Engelhardt, “China-risers should pause for breath”, Asia Times, 25 May 2011). In the late 1990s too, there were repeated warnings about the rise of China as a world military force; then came 9/11 and a new and more urgent enemy presented itself. The “war on terror” then took military budgets beyond even some of the peak cold-war years of the 1980s, while embroiling Washington in two painful, inconclusive and destructive wars whose legacies are far from exhausted.

Now, a cautious Barack Obama is seeking to disengage from these wars, and the chief adversary of the post-9/11 decade - Osama bin Laden - is no more. To many in Washington, that is the cue for a fresh tide of warnings. A huge defence complex needs feeding, and Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida provided a rich larder. China is set to provide the next hoard. That is good news for military industries and establishments, and bad news for everyone else.

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