China’s South China Sea dominance is the price US pays for Iraq and Afghanistan

On today’s front page, M.K. Bhadrakumar parses the press statements following US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s New Delhi visit, noting that the Americans spoke grandly of “strategic convergence” (against China) while Modi maintained a deliberate ambiguity about the nature of India’s defense relationship with the US. I will offer a prediction as to what will come of China’s territorial assertions and America’s oppostion: China will get what it wants.

There won’t be a war, because there is no practical way to have a war, even if the US wanted to take the matter to the point of military confrontation. A nervous pilot might loose a missile at his opposite number, to be sure, but even a live fire incident will not ignite a broader conflict. There is a simple reason to be so confident about the outcome: American aircraft carriers, for decades the source of America’s hegemony in East Asian waters, are now vulnerable to Chinese surface-to-ship missiles and diesel-electric submarines. There is a good deal of debate about the effectiveness of China’s DF-21D “carrier killer missile,” which goes into space and heads straight down at its target, but the probabiity is that Chinese missile artillery can swamp a US carrier’s defenses. If missiles don’t get it, the subs likely will: running on electric batteries, diesel eletric submarines are extremely quiet, and have “sunk” American carriers in NATO exercises in the past.

The US is working on countermeasures, to be sure, but chronic underinvestment in cutting-edge defense R&D has left them underdeveloped and under-deployed. The Bush administration spent $1 trillion or so in Iraq and Afghanistan, mainly on personnel, and reduced defense R&D to accommodate its nation-building ambitions in the region. That was a bad trade-off. The US has little to show for its efforts except the chaos that has enveloped the Levant and Mesopotamia after the collapse of the Iraqi state. China has had time to close the technology gap with the US, and neutralize if necessary America’s principle means of projecting power in the region.

Washington is not happy with China’s territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea, nor should it be. The de facto seizure of the Spratly Islands humiliates American allies and violates norms of international good behavior. I am not happy about it. But there is no way to force China to stop, and no way to persuade it to stop.

This is not, as any number of analysts opine, the use of “Chinese nationalism” to take the population’s mind off slowing economic growth. “Chinese nationalism” is an oxyomoron; China is not a nation, but an empire that subjects nations to a common system of written characters and a central authority in Beijing. When the Chinese say that their “historic” borders are inviolable, what they mean, simply, is that the assimilation of the myriad ethnicities and language groups that comprise the Middle Kingdom is irreversible. If it could be reversed, the integrity of Chinese culture and the premises of Chinese civilization would be in jeapordy. One can argue about China’s “historic rights” to islands in the South China Sea, to be sure, but there is an element of a fortiori at work in Chinese thinking: if China will draw a hard line around uninhabited islands, all the more so will it resist centrifugal forces in Tibet or Xinjiang.

All of the talk about Indian-US strategic convergence, or an alliance with Japan and India against China, is only talk. India isn’t going to sent an aircraft carrier to face off the Chinese around the Spratlys. Japan isn’t going to sent missile ships to the Indian Ocean if India gets into a territorial spat with China in the Himalayas. If it did, what would it accomplish?

America won the Cold War in large part because the Russians knew that American avionics would give NATO control of the air in any prospective war; that the Pershing missiles in Germany and Italy gave NATO an advantage in any prospective nuclear exchange; and that the Reagan Strategic Defense Initiative portended a new range of technologies that Russia couldn’t match. China looked on from a distance and aligned itself with the dominant technological superpower.

If America wants to command China’s respect, it has to widen the technology gap, rather than watch it shrink. If China believed that its weapons systems were ineffective against American countermeasures, it would show far more caution. But the opposite is true: the technology gap is closing, and China knows it. America still has a technological lead and the resources to widen it–should it choose to do so. There is no obvious political constituency for such an effort though, and no prominent leader commited to doing so. A return to the Eisenhower-Kennedy-Reagan commitment to American technological superiority would also have enormously beneficial effects for America’s lagging productivity. But it is hard to persuade Americans that it is better to be tough than to sound tough.

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Categories: AT Top Writers, Spengler

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  • Dan Tac

    First of all, we all know China don’t have a single legal document to support its reclamation power trip, coz If I’m wrong then China would be acting like civilized humans. What do they have? So called nine-dash line claim.. Did they understood what it means? nowadays, If you don’t have the B as long as you have the P it will work for the meantime.

    We all know what China’s doing is WRONG! A civilized leader would go through process. I think if China will insist of being a land grabber then it will destroy all of their moral teachings. yeah… yeah… military power, can have all the military power like the german’s and japanese during world war 2…. History tends to repeat itself no matter you have the most advance arsenal, nature has its own way of getting back at you…” China may not surrender to Evil, but they had just traded sit with the devil “.

  • mulga mumblebrain

    US technological superiority isn’t coming back. Instead of endless aggression egged on by Israel-First Fifth Columnists determined to maintain US global suzerainty because as Ariel Sharon boasted, ‘We, the Jewish people, control the USA'(and Canada, France, the UK etc)why not try peaceful co-existence for a change. There are enough global disasters requiring international co-operation that need resolving.

  • Ashton Sun

    The Philippines need to shut up and stop crying like a baby for help from Washington, which is not going to happen, nor is it going to ease the situation.
    Historical reasons or not, China will not be submitted to this UN Sea Law thing, which is literally enacted by foreign lawyers in the US and at a time after WWII when there was still no Chinese navy presence in the region. This will not hold waters in Beijing. And the Philippines only want China abide this BS because in this particular case it might work to their benefits.
    Plus, superpowers will not be subjected to UN Laws!!! If it is the other way around, we would have already seen people like Mr. Bush, Mr, Blair, Mr. Obama be sentenced to death, or better yet, we wouldn’t even have all those mess and the killings and so much violence in the Middle East. Did the US thought about the UN Laws when they started the invasion in Iraq, the bombings in Libya? And the list goes on.
    What China wants is to sit down and talk and figure out a solution to solve the disputes, WITHOUT the involvement of Washington, that is. China is civilized enough to throw out nice diplomatic gestures. Had it been for the US, they would have already declared war with those tiny islands that are called the Philippines. Look at what they did to Latin America, and to their neighbor Mexico. The propaganda that China is aggressive is totally FALSE!
    And I heard from several Philippines even hope that there would be a war, even a thermal nuclear war, which breaks out in the South China Sea. This is insane and stupidity beyond words!!! If so, they would be the first to lose their homes and everything. Morons!

  • Val Cocora

    you have no idea about the American technological superiority.

  • China Lee

    The author forgot to mention that aircraft carriers are vulnerable to an EMP (ie. electro-magnetic pulse). A naval ship is dead in the water when all of its electronic systems have been fried by an EMP.

    After a few Chinese Multi-Megaton EMPs (with a 3,000-mile diameter each), there won’t be any operational enemy surface naval power. You can choose the Chinese DF-3A IRBM 3.3-Megaton thermonuclear warhead or the Chinese DF-5A ICBM five-Megaton warhead.

  • mulga mumblebrain

    The Philippine President Aquino comes from one of the elite families that rule the neo-feudal state. His grandfather was a collaborator with the brutal Japanese war-time occupation. So the sight of his standing next to Abe, the hereditary fascist Boss of the LDP regime in the one-party Japanese state, whose grandfather was Nobosuke Kishi a Minister in the Tojo war-time Cabinet, and comparing China to Hitlerite Germany was a very sick joke indeed. And the USA, of course, committed a genocide in the Philippines at the end of the 19th century, but that hardly matters to elite parasites like Aquino. The Yanks ALWAYS choose the lowest types as stooges.