Many analysts argue that China will supplant the United States as the dominant world power, or at least soon emerge as a peer superpower competitor. The Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) expects that China will overtake America as the world’s largest economy by 2016.
What we are likely to see, however, is not a “rise” of Chinese power, but a “surge”—a temporary situation of perhaps twenty to thirty years. Demographic, economic, and political factors will all combine to create a ceiling on Chinese power and ultimately cause it to decline. China’s population is aging and will soon start shrinking. Because of this, in part, its economic growth is slowing. Few countries have attempted to expand their military power under such conditions, and those that have—like the Soviet Union—generally failed, sometimes catastrophically. Two to three decades is a big window for U.S. leaders to address, but viewing it as a window puts the situation into perspective.
Getting Older and Smaller
While its “one child” policy has reduced China’s population growth successfully, long-term unintended consequences are beginning to emerge. According to the 2010 census, nearly 14 percent of Chinese were over age 60, and one in ten were over 65. This trend will rise to 20 percent by 2030 and 25 percent by 2050. The median age in 2050 will be 49 in China, compared to 40 in the United States.
Spectators wave to the Chinese Navy destroyer Qingdao while mooring at the pier in Pearl Harbor in 2006. (Photo: U.S. Navy)
Not only will China have more elderly people, it will have proportionately fewer young people to support them. In 2010, there were 116 million people aged 20 to 24; this will fall to 94 million by 2020 and 67 million by 2030. Over the next 20 years, the ratio of workers to retirees will drop from 5:1 to 2:1. This means that China will get much older before it enjoys a developed economy capable of supporting an aging society. China’s economy is large in absolute terms, but it is still quite poor per capita. Even by 2030, this is expected to rise to only 32.8 percent of the U.S. level.
Within the not too distant future, China’s population will not only be older, it also will be smaller, with a fertility rate among the lowest in the world, standing at 1.4, compared to the developed world’s fertility rate of 1.7 and the U.S. fertility rate of 2.06. The UN forecasts that by 2050 China’s total population will fall below 1.3 billion, and by 2060 below 1 billion, assuming the fertility rate remains at around 1.5 to 1.6.
Historically, an aging population with a shrinking workforce correlates with slower growth and, indeed, data suggest that China’s days of double-digit economic growth are ending. From 1979 to 2011, its GDP grew by an average of 9.9 percent per year, meaning that China’s economy doubled in real terms every eight years. Yet in 2012, this growth had already slowed to 7.8 percent. Growth is expected to slow from 2013 to 2020 to around 7 percent per year, and drop further down to averaging 3.7 percent per year from 2021 to 2030.
Recent studies by the U.S. Federal Reserve Board suggest that this growth could even drop to less than one percent under some conditions.
Slower economic growth generally means a country has less capacity with which to expand its armed forces, and demographics will soon collide with China’s recent plans to expand its military. It is hard to predict when China’s military might be used in a conflict, but some scenarios of concern include:
- A unilateral attempt by China to resolve its claims on Taiwan;
- Internal ethnic or regional unrest;
- Disorder resulting from a lack of economic opportunity and from extreme inequality between regions;
- Disputes with its neighbors over territorial waters;
- An effort to pressure the U.S. and its allies in a larger dispute by shutting off sea lanes and interfering with trade.
In any of these situations, U.S. military forces might be needed in the Far East to ensure stability or provide relief, and China might use its own forces to resist. The concern is that Chinese forces could have an advantage because of their proximity and their growing capabilities. Since 2001, average military spending by China has increased by 15.6 percent per year, doubling the size of its military budget every five years. China announced that its 2013 military budget was around 720.2 billion yuan, or roughly $114 billion.
Independent analysts suggest that China is actually spending much more. Chinese military spending officially accounts for about 1.2 to 1.5 percent of GDP, though these analysts suggest it is probably only closer to 2-3 percent.
China’s recent force modernization suggests that it is developing a capability designed to prevent American and allied intervention in any conflict between China and its neighbors. Highlights include:
- The People’s Liberation Army—Navy (PLAN) boasts the largest force of naval combatants in Asia, and recently commissioned its first aircraft carrier. It is expected to have an operational carrier wing this year.
- China has developed medium-range ballistic missiles, such as the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) designed to destroy American aircraft carriers from a range of 1,500 km.
- The People’s Liberation Army—Air Force (PLAAF) is fielding modern, 4th generation stealth combat fighters such as the J-20 and J-31 and has one of the largest forces of advanced surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems in the world, including Russian SA-20 and indigenous HQ-9 battalions.
- The land force is the largest in the world, and has become an effective mechanized force, emphasizing the ability to deploy long distances quickly and adopting improved command-and-control (C2) network capabilities modeled after the United States military.
- China has made significant strides in space and cyberspace systems, testing and improving its anti-satellite missile (ASAT) capabilities, and fielding its own Beidou navigation GPS system for commercial and military use.
- Its cyber network attack and espionage units have received significant attention over the years, with recent attacks on and exfiltrations from U.S. government agencies, universities, defense contractors and media outlets.
These developments are troubling from an American viewpoint, but demographic factors are creating a “ceiling” on China’s power and ultimately will cause it to enter a period of decline in the next 20 to 30 years. Despite problems of its own, the United States is in a far better position demographically and militarily to remain the dominant power.
An American “countersurge” strategy emphasizes deterring China’s use of force during the critical period when its power approaches that of the United States, or to defeat China’s military power and provide security to our friends and allies in Asia. To be successful, American capabilities must meet the following criteria:
- They must be affordable and available in the short term;
- They must address the strategic environment—specifically, a primarily maritime environment characterized by long distances and a dispersed area of operation.
- They must counter China’s regional advantages and its potential use of asymmetric offensive capabilities;
- These capabilities should be supported and enabled by political and diplomatic relationships focused on the region;
- They must protect essential lines of communications to sustain a military presence in the region and support our allies.
Look West and South
China’s decision to provoke territorial disputes with its South and East China Sea neighbors and expand its maritime reach into the Indian Ocean presents strategic opportunities to America. The United States should first look west to India, China’s historic rival. India has watched China expand its maritime presence into the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. China has invested in port facilities in the region and increased its naval presence under the guise of counter-piracy operations.
India is, and will remain, a land power and its bureaucracy hinders its strategic agility, making cooperation difficult. The United States can, however, seek to improve her capabilities against China’s growing air power and ballistic missile capability. India has a nascent cyber capability, and while likely years behind China and Russia, would welcome engagement in this area.
A countersurge strategy would also require the United State to make an admittedly tough decision to shift resources from the northern Pacific to the south. China has provoked Japan and South Korea with its territorial claims and, more recently, extension of an air defense zone in the East China Sea.
Japan and South Korea represent the “northern flanks” of a countersurge strategy, while India represents its western rear. Japan and South Korea are the closest American allies in the region and they continue to modernize their maritime capabilities. Japan faces a unique challenge with her constitutional prohibition against offensive platforms. However, it appears as though that is beginning to change with the tense territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands. South Korea remains under a direct existential threat from North Korea. Both Japan and South Korea are at risk from North Korean and Chinese ballistic missiles and cyberattack. Missile, air, and cyber defense capabilities are key areas that America can continue to engage and develop jointly.
The situation in the south is more pressing. The Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam have much smaller economies on which to support a military buildup. Fortunately, they appear ready to accept U.S. assistance. The Philippine government, stinging from recent territorial disputes with China on Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Reef in the Spratlys, is eager to reopen military facilities to a U.S. Navy and Air Force presence and use. (U.S. Special Forces have already been operating in the Philippines at the request of the government, assisting in its counter insurgency operations against the Islamist insurgency in the southern islands.) Re-establishing large military bases—politically infeasible for both governments—is unnecessary.
Similarly, Thailand and Vietnam have held discussions with DOD about increased port visits, joint maritime surveillance flights, and expanding joint military and humanitarian exercises. Malaysia has shown an interest in increasing its purchase of Western arms and expanding military ties with the United States. Given its command of the Strait of Malacca, and border with America’s important friend Singapore, U.S. planning should consider how to take advantage of these overtures.
Anti-submarine and maritime patrol capabilities will be necessary to counter China’s growing submarine threat. Regional allies represent key staging areas for airborne intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) platforms as well as logistical hubs in the event that China uses force to seize one or more contested islands. Coastal defense cruise missiles (CDCMs) are hard to detect, mobile, and could make any PLAN sortie outside its missile and air coverage dangerous. The United States could also provide training, equipment, and regular exercises that would make clear to Chinese leaders that they would face difficulties controlling the sea lanes or territories thousands of miles away from the coastline.
America’s most important relationship will be with China itself. And China has its own internal competing interests, many of which are keen on reducing tensions regionally, slowing its military expansion while improving its domestic economy and continuing to integrate into the global system. America should press economic and political liberalization and the rule of law, while anticipating that China would continue to improve its relations with Russia, often to oppose U.S. and Western interests. The Russian and Chinese militaries will continue to cooperate under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Council, and at the very least give the appearance that each side would aid the other in the event of hostilities.
The United States benefits from a “geographic conduit” into the region that could support the logistical requirements of a countersurge strategy. A series of small island protectorates still remain U.S. territories. These islands run from Hawaii to Guam and Micronesia, and could serve as an “over the horizon” presence. The U.S. Marine Corps, during exercise “Geiger Fury 12,” hastily refurbished the old World War II era bases and runways at Tinian Island near Saipan.
The exercise was “designed to recreate a mission where Marines have to land in a relatively remote area and establish an airfield that can refuel aircraft.” These former bases can also serve as staging points and logistic hubs for prepositioned war material, as well as sanctuaries for military assets that need to disperse.
Military Capabilities Required
The United States possesses credible forces in the Western Pacific that can protect freedom of the seas while limiting any conflict with China to her own seas.
China’s Navy and A2AD systems will be its center of gravity in any conflict with the United States and allies. Therefore, military capabilities need to be built around how to neutralize or destroy them. Maritime, air, and cyberspace power will be the principal tools, and while the technology will continue to advance considerably, the operational concepts will not. The “struggle for mastery of the local seas” will require several capabilities, outlined below.
The U.S. must be able to control the flow of commerce through the Strait of Malacca, China’s most critical economic vulnerability. Operationally, this will require the Navy and Air Force to conduct maritime reconnaissance and interdiction missions with sufficient forces and forward basing. It can also apply economic pressure and incentives to international shipping companies and insurers by declaring that any merchant transporting goods to China will be subject to search and seizure, while offering to purchase those goods if the merchant will transport them to an American or allied-controlled port facility for offload. Inhibiting the flow of commerce through the Strait may also force the PLAN to sortie beyond the air and missile protection it enjoys in the first island chain and come out into the open where it can be engaged.
America will need to fight for, win, and exercise control over the regional seas, eventually within the first island chain. This will require the ability to detect, deter, and if necessary destroy enemy combatants. America should leverage its advantage in undersea warfare by shifting more submarines to the Pacific.
This would present a direct counter to China’s ability to encircle and blockade Taiwan while also putting its coastal cities and ports at risk of cruise missile attack. Attack submarines also remain the biggest threat to China’s growing ballistic missile submarine fleet.
Much planning has also gone into the development of small, fast anti-ship- missile-equipped surface combatants, both manned and unmanned. While in and of themselves, they would not represent a deterrent, combined with improved land-based and overhead tracking systems and rail-gun technology, they could present a credible threat to China’s doctrine of “overwhelming” targets with multiple cruise and ballistic missiles, as well as unmanned attack platforms.
The U.S. military must be able to operate in a non-permissive electromagnetic environment, being able to conduct offensive operations while maintaining command and control to prevent escalation. At the same time, it must continue to improve its counter-ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance) capabilities. Military planners will have to consider how best to ensure units can hide, fight, and survive. Operational and tactical commanders cannot expect to have ready communication available for reach-back support and guidance. No doubt Chinese commanders will face the same issues, so the risk of miscalculation and escalation will be high.
Related to this, the military will need to rely on its organic ISR space-based systems, and its networked operations will be sorely tested, as will China’s. Commanders will need to use their own combat sensors to gain and maintain contact with the enemy.
Theater and unit commanders must operate independently, using their own judgment, experience, and training. Strategic commanders in Hawaii and Washington, D.C. will have to learn how to provide guidance on war aims while not needlessly becoming involved at the operational and tactical levels of war. America’s military, especially its Navy, always has prided itself on its tradition of independent operations far from home. It will require a “reverse cultural change,” to move away from its current risk-averse mindset that stifles command and initiative.
China’s military and political planners will use cyberspace capabilities, perhaps just prior to the initiation of conflict, in order to blind, disrupt, deceive, or cripple America’s command and control. Military planners must not only harden America’s cyberspace infrastructure but also develop the capability of operating on and within China’s cyberspace networks. America must consider how to penetrate China’s network defenses to deliver its own cyberspace effects, putting at risk China’s ability to control the flow and access of information to the Chinese people.
Allies and friends in the region will depend on America to defend them from China’s arsenal of short-to-intermediate range ballistic missiles. Operationally, the military must be able to detect, intercept, and destroy ballistic missile systems, as well as attack hardened missile launch facilities—some deep within Mainland China. This can include both kinetic and non-kinetic options. China’s integrated air defense system and A2AD system requires networks for example, which is an opportunity for cyberspace exploitation.
These capabilities and operational requirements are needed now and into the near future if the United States is to take advantage of this window of opportunity. American national security and defense planners must rethink the priorities of the past 30 years and political leaders should possess a broad understanding of an end state. The most preferable is a China that has accepted international rules and norms while the United States remains the predominant power and regional security guarantor partner. However, achieving this end state may require conflict. Consequently, the United States needs to be prepared to conduct offensive operations, defend its allies, and present a credible use of force should political relations sour.
What we are seeing today is not the “rise” of China, but a “surge.” A series of economic, demographic, and social factors will conflate over the next twenty to thirty years to create a ceiling on Chinese power. China’s shrinking population and gender imbalance will play into larger social challenges, which will put significant downward pressure on economic growth. This, in turn, will force China to spend an ever higher percentage of its GDP on its military, thereby exacerbating its own “guns versus butter” conundrum.
The United States should view the coming decades into the mid-century as a window through which to consider the decisions it needs to make to shape the environment and preserve regional security and stability while continuing to integrate a declining China into the world system. It must be prepared to address the military capabilities it will require in the event of a conflict, along with the political and economic initiatives it needs to continue to influence the region.
Robert “Jake” Bebber is an information warfare officer assigned to the staff of Commander, U.S. Cyber Command. He earned his Ph.D. in public policy from the University of Central Florida. The views expressed herein are his own. This article appeared in a different form in Orbis.