Inside the Ring: Danger of China conflict grows

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As China steps up sovereignty claims over disputed waters in Asia, U.S. military forces face the growing risk of conflict with the Chinese military, according to a draft congressional report.

“Through its diplomatic actions and the rebalance to Asia, the United States has signaled its intent to strengthen its relationship with partners and allies in East Asia,” the forthcoming report of the U.S.-China Economic Security Review Commission states.

“However, China’s military modernization, coupled with the potential decline in U.S. power caused by sequestration, is altering the balance of power in the region and reducing the deterrent effect of the rebalance policy. The risk is therefore increasing that China’s coercive approach to its sovereignty claims will lead to greater conflict in the region.”

China is using its military forces to coerce Japan into giving up claims to the Senkaku Islands, and is also pressuring the Philippines to renounce its claims to the Spratlys in the South China Sea. Both regions are believed to harbor valuable undersea oil and gas reserves.

The report said the sovereignty disputes in the East and South China seas are not new. But it warned that “China’s growing diplomatic, economic, and military clout is changing the regional security architecture.”

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“It is increasingly clear that China does not intend to resolve those disputes through multilateral negotiations or the application of international laws and adjudicative processes, but [it] will use its growing power in support of coercive tactics that pressure its neighbors to concede China’s claims,” said the report’s chapter on Asian maritime disputes.

The late draft is dated Oct. 21 and the final report is set for release Nov. 20. A copy of the draft was obtained by Inside the Ring. A commission spokesman said the final report could change slightly from the draft.

“The commissioners are very concerned about the way that the [Defense Department] budget and force structure is shaping up,” said a source close to the commission.

“We were pretty strong on the need to maintain a credible naval and air presence in the Asia-Pacific and to live up to the Pentagon’s shift to a 60 percent force concentration in Asia. Obviously 60 percent of 200 ships is less than 60 percent of 300, and it looks like the [People’s Liberation Army] is moving toward a 300-ship navy.”

The report said China is fueling maritime disputes domestically through “ardent popular nationalism” and by asserting its claims are “central” to national security.

Key triggers to a future conflict are the Chinese system’s weak crisis-management structure and apparent divisions between the powerful Communist Party-controlled People’s Liberation Army and government Foreign Ministry.

In January, the Chinese navy came close to triggering a naval shootout after a Chinese frigate locked its weapons radar on a Japanese ship. U.S. officials said it was the closest to a shooting incident since China began aggressive maritime actions several years ago.

The report concludes that “Beijing’s tendency to demonstrate resolve in its maritime disputes; its large and complicated political, foreign affairs, and military bureaucracy; and its inconsistent adherence to internationally accepted norms of air and maritime operations may contribute to operational miscalculations in the East and South China seas.

“Unyielding positions on sovereignty and nationalist sentiment surrounding these maritime disputes increase the risk of escalation from a miscalculation at sea to a political crisis,” it said.

To reduce the war risk, the commission will recommend that the U.S. Navy increase its presence in Asia to 60 ships by 2020 and rebalance regional home ports in Asia to 60 percent by the same year.

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About the Author
Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

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