Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates met with China’s Minister of Defense Gen. Liang Guanglie last week at the ASEAN defense ministers conference. Although the specifics of their agenda were unknown, China’s aggression and arrogance this year means there should have been no lack of talking points. Certainly, China’s unprecedented military buildup along with its illegal claims to the South China Sea should have been addressed head-on. However, it appears the main focus was on getting the Chinese to resume military-to-military relations and extending an invitation for Mr. Gates to visit Beijing in 2011.
It should be clear by now that China’s Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army refuse to value building military-to-military relationships as does the United States. The more we stress this goal, the more China is simply going to use it as a means to force U.S. concessions. For example, two presidents have failed to approve the sale of new F-16 aircraft and new conventional submarines to Taiwan in hopes that China will moderate its aggressive actions. China deftly employs the same psychology to prevent the United States from defending its interests in the useless six-party talks on North Korea while China’s increasing support for North Korea allows Pyongyang’s nuclear threat to grow.
On the other hand, China has no problem with advancing its priorities, which start with building the most powerful military in Asia as a direct challenge to the United States. In so doing, its intent is to place Japan, South Korea, Australia, India and other ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) nations in positions of strategic subordination as well as destroying the democratic system in Taiwan. Furthermore, from the 2020s onward, China intends to challenge the United States for global military supremacy. In short, China’s goal is to make the world “safe” for the continued survival of the Chinese communist dictatorship. China’s successes, if unchecked, will come only with diminished influence and freedoms for the United States as well as for our friends and allies.
So far in 2010, China in April conducted provocative naval exercises in the East China Sea followed by precipitating low-level clashes with Japanese fishing trawlers in August. In September, a Chinese trawler rammed two Japanese coast guard patrol boats in the Senkakus, stoking Chinese bluster when the captain justly was arrested. Further, China has made illegal claims to most of the South China Sea and then declared it to be a “core interest,” meaning it is on par with Tibet and Taiwan in importance. China’s continued military buildup opposite Taiwan, despite progress on economic and political relations, makes no sense unless China is preparing for war against the only Chinese democracy.
China also has expanded foreign military activities, such as maintaining constant naval patrols off Somalia, and a peace mission 2010 exercise in Kazakhstan in September that demonstrated heightened capabilities for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization alliance of dictatorships. Most disturbing was a late-September Chinese air force exercise with the Turkish air force (which included a stop in Iran) that probably compromised sensitive NATO air-war-fighting tactics. Such an exercise, when coupled with other unhelpful recent Turkish actions, raise questions about Turkey’s continued slide away from NATO. Certainly there is a need to review the decision to sell Turkey our latest F-35 stealth fighter.
As China faces no ostensible threat, its accelerating military buildup cannot be allowed to go unchecked. The Chinese have begun testing an ABM system at the same time suspicion grows that it is putting multiple warheads on its ICBMs, which should raise concerns over the START Treaty with Russia. China’s new naval base on Hainan Island for its nuclear-missile, nuclear-attack submarines and aircraft carriers threatens the critical sea lanes from the Straits of Malacca to our key Western Pacific allies. China’s anti-ship ballistic missile clearly is aimed at denying the U.S. Navy freedom of action in the Western Pacific. China has built more than 500 fourth-generation combat aircraft and is moving its fifth-generation fighter into testing. It also has accelerated construction of its first aircraft carrier. It also has launched a new conventional submarine with the possibility of two production lines. Finally, China is advancing its moon and space-station program, which likely will have military missions.
After a year of dallying, the Obama administration has started to stand up to China, but it is not doing enough. Its January arms-sales package to Taiwan was empty without F-16s and submarines. It laid down a marker on China’s illegal claims to the South China Sea by siding with the ASEAN nations, but this is only rhetoric until we revive a real, conventional military relationship with the Philippines, our only treaty ally in that region. Support for South Korea after the North Korean torpedo attack was wobbly in the face of Chinese opposition. To its credit, the administration backed Japan against Chinese intimidation in the East China Sea.
Deterring Chinese aggression will require much more. We need to increase our military capability in the Western Pacific, to include our own anti-missile and anti-ship ballistic-missile capabilities as well as enhanced anti-submarine forces. We should convert older ballistic-missile submarines with core life remaining to cruise-missile submarines, which is allowed under the New START Treaty.
Our message should be that the world’s leading democracy will not be intimidated or bullied by another communist threat. In addition to remaining militarily superior, the United States also can begin to organize multinational political and economic pressures that could help accelerate China’s evolution from communism. We led a similar campaign in the not-too-distant past.
Retired Navy Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.