Beijing and Washington: Things That Go Bang

Conn HallinanReading the headlines about U.S.-China relations might lead to the conclusion that current tensions between the two have less to do with political differences than chemical imbalances, with the Chinese tiger “showing its claws” and America “far too soft” in its approach to China. It seems as though journalists are implicitly recommending drugs (maybe a dose of Thorazine?) not diplomacy as the remedy.

Real differences and common ground exists, but sorting through them can be a taxing exercise in deep analysis. Are the tensions over an increasingly aggressive Beijing that is beginning to assert itself in a world formerly dominated by United States? Or is it because Washington is encircling China with allies and military bases aimed at blocking the rise of an up-and-coming international rival?

On the surface, this antagonism resembles the imperial competition between Britain and Germany at end of the 19th century. But the world of 2011 is very different than in 1914. It is far more connected, far more interdependent, with the consequences from rivalries far more dangerous. Now every time either side brings in its military, tensions increase and solutions turn elusive.

Economic Dependency

The partnership between Beijing and Washington is built on money and trade. China currently holds close to a trillion dollars in U.S. treasury securities. The yearly trade between the two is more than $400 billion. In comparison, China’s trade with the entire European Union is about the same. Both economies are interdependent; trouble in one generally means trouble in the other.

As the number one and number two economies in the world, the United States and China compete for market share and raw materials.

China currently ranks as the world’s number two energy consumer. Its explosive industrialization will require 11.3 million barrels of oil a day by 2015. Since China only produces 3.7 million barrels per day on its own, much of its foreign policy is aimed at insuring a steady supply. How that energy gets to China, and who supplies it, is the rub.

China’s major oil suppliers are Saudi Arabia, Angola and Iran, This means about 80 percent of its energy supplies travel by sea through two choke points, the Straits of Hormuz and the Malacca Straits, both controlled by the U.S. Navy.

Beijing has adopted a two-pronged strategy to deal with its energy insecurity. First, Chinese energy supplies are increasingly moved through pipelines from Russia and Central Asia. Both the Turkmenistan-Xingjian pipeline and the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline from Russia are operational.

Second, China has strengthened its naval fleet and established a “string of pearls” of Chinese navy-friendly ports in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Gwadar, Pakistan. The Gwadar port could potentially serve as the jumping off point for an Iran-India-Pakistan-China pipeline. Iran and Pakistan have already signed on. India and China have signaled their interest. If the United States successfully pressures India to keep out, China will step in with investment money.

China’s Military Buildup

China’s naval buildup reflects its nervousness over safeguarding its sea routes and its determination not to repeat recent history. In 1996, the Clinton administration sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Straits during a tense standoff between Formosa and the mainland. Since the Chinese did not have an aircraft carrier, or much in the way of weapons for a significant show of force, Beijing backed off. The Chinese have not forgotten this humiliation.

China’s navy does not present a serious challenge to the United States. Its lone aircraft carrier was constructed decades ago by the Russians and is half the size of a Nimitz-class carrier, of which the U.S. navy has 10.

Much has been made of a new Chinese ballistic missile that U.S. Admiral Robert Willard recently declared a major threat to U.S. carriers. But the missile is not yet operational, and its capabilities are not yet known.

“China’s military rise is not to attack America, but to make sure that China is not attacked by America,” says Chinese military analyst Liu Mingfu.

Ruffling Feathers

China’s push to keep the United States out of areas it considers “core” has also put it in conflict with a number of south Asian nations that have equal territorial claims on islands in the South China Sea. Some of that tension stems from serious high handedness by Beijing, which demands that each country involved negotiate separately with China. This past July, China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi sounded almost imperial when addressing their protests: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”

The spat gave Washington an opportunity to extend its support to countries in the region, including Vietnam, which has welcomed U.S. naval vessels back to Cam Ranh Bay and carried out joint military maneuvers with their old enemies.

Beijing views U.S. efforts to “mediate” disputes in its core areas as part of a campaign to encircle China with hostile bases and allies. The United States has more than 100 bases in Japan, 85 in South Korea, plus ones in the Philippines, Guam, and even a few in Central Asia.

“If you are a strategic thinker in China, you do not have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to think that the U.S. is trying to bandwagon Asia against China,” says Simon Tay, chair of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

In the case of the 1996 Taiwan incident and the recent South China Sea territorial disputes, military threats ended up backfiring for both China and the United States. The Clinton administration’s gunboat diplomacy ignited China’s naval building program that now presents a regional challenge to the United States. And China’s cavalier approach toward its south Asian neighbors gave Washington an opening and handed Beijing a diplomatic setback.

Likewise China’s prickliness with India over their mutual border has given Washington greater influence in New Delhi. A recent dustup between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyus islands has pushed Tokyo closer to Washington.

The Limits of Military Force

Military threats, even veiled ones, generally end up blowing up on whoever makes them. In part, this is a reflection of the difference between the world of 1914 and today. Back then imperial adventures generally brought benefits. Today the terms “adventures” and “overreach” are almost synonymous.

The United States has the most powerful military in the world. But its sojourn in Iraq has been a strategic disaster, and it’s bogged down in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. It could probably win any conventional battle on the planet but increasingly cannot win a war. It could flatten Iran, but does anyone believe the Iranians would then surrender? It would be far more likely that the consequent jump in oil prices would topple economies across the globe.

In contrast, the Chinese recently cut a deal for Iraqi oil and Afghan minerals, all without losing a single soldier. They also invested $120 billion in Iran’s energy and became Tehran’s number one trading partner.

While the United States was building new military bases in Central America and firing up its Fourth Fleet to rattle sabers in Latin America, China was toppling the United States as the continent’s major trading partner.

The recent U.S.-China summit went smoothly, countering the rhetoric that the two giants were on a collision course. Although Washington and Beijing found much to agree on and tip-toed past what they did not, tension remains.

Both sides must not let their respective military staffs determine the course of relations between the two nations. Regardless of the language they speak, every admiral wants a new ship and every general wants a new missile. The military’s job is to win wars — and that requires lots of things that go bang.

But these days things that go bang are increasingly expensive and more likely to cause grief than win laurels.

Conn Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus. More of his work can be found at Dispatches From the Edge.