Home inFocus The Dragon Awakes: China’s Ambitions in Northeast Asia

The Dragon Awakes: China’s Ambitions in Northeast Asia

RADM James R. Stark Fall 2019
A Japanese government aircraft flies over the Senkaku Islands (Photo: Kyodo News)
A Japanese government aircraft flies over the Senkaku Islands (Photo: Kyodo News)

This summer, an unusual gathering took place at Hudson Institute, a leading Washington think tank. Retired senior officers from the armed forces of the United States, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan gathered to participate in a multinational tabletop exercise—a war game played out in seminar form. Their goal—to explore multilateral responses to China’s growing campaign to expand its influence throughout East Asia, especially in the maritime domain. While it is not uncommon for U.S. officials to meet separately with their Japanese, Taiwanese, and South Korean counterparts, what made this latest effort unique was the fact that senior and highly respected national security experts and practitioners from three of America’s staunchest allies and partner Asian nations were interested in collaborative multilateral approaches rather than just bilateral solutions. This raises the question of China’s goals in this sensitive region. What are its legitimate concerns? Why are its neighbors reacting so strongly to Chinese pressure? And why is China pushing so hard to control its neighboring seas and expand its influence into the Pacific and Indian Oceans?

China’s Position

China’s geostrategic position has both strengths and weaknesses. It possesses a strong interior position with large inland areas from which it can operate its forces. As a land power, this works to its advantage. However, China’s access to the high seas and its most important trading routes are hemmed in by the First Island Chain—the islands stretching from Japan down the Ryukyu chain to Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia, all the way around to Singapore and Malaysia. These islands create a virtual barrier to naval expansion, threatening China’s most important sea lines of communication and, if controlled by its enemies, allowing them to interdict China’s critical trade routes and threaten its forces and shipping in the East and South China Seas. The same island chain can also be regarded as an obstacle to whatever ambitions China possesses in the mid-Pacific—or beyond. Consequently, China’s regional policies must be seen in light of its efforts to exert control of these offshore seas and the maritime traffic which transits through them, and to push the United States far from China’s coasts back to the mid-Pacific.

As China’s economy boomed in the 1990s, its leaders also began a steady expansion of their military capabilities. Instead of a massive, low technology peasant army, China’s military forces—the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—implemented an impressive naval and aviation building program. China’s military modernization aims to make its armed forces as technologically advanced as  and with greater numbers than its potential enemies—particularly the United States.

The PLA and its branches (the PLA Navy and the PLA Air Force) have been expanding for more than 20 years. Today they have advanced fourth and fifth generation fighters, thousands of long-range cruise and ballistic missiles, and a rapidly expanding navy of increasing technological sophistication. China has used its massive intelligence apparatus to steal U.S. and European military and commercial secrets, allowing it to leapfrog the long, costly process of weapons development and used pirated Western technology to field its own advanced systems. China’s naval forces are building aircraft carriers, nuclear and conventional submarines, amphibious assault forces, and several new types of air defense and anti-surface destroyers and frigates. Without question, China’s navy is a very formidable force.

China has also used a series of new technologies to develop an integrated surveillance system to effectively monitor the seas out to several hundred miles from its coasts. At its most basic, this system includes fishing vessels, small coastal freighters, and large commercial vessels whose concerted efforts can locate foreign ships. Their reports are backed by sophisticated space-based sensors, coastal and airborne sensors, long-range over-the-horizon radars, and advanced listening posts all tied together to provide a near-real-time picture of all shipping inside the First Island Chain and beyond.

This advanced intelligence system is coupled with and provides targeting to China’s strike weapons, consisting of thousands of short, medium- and long-range precision-targeted missiles along with advanced tactical aircraft and missile-equipped medium bombers. These military forces are backed by state-directed fishing and commercial fleets, maritime security forces, and a large and well-armed coast guard. The result is that China can threaten any ship or aircraft operating within hundreds of miles of its coast. It uses this capability to back its relentless policy of expanding its maritime frontiers. As a political statement, China wants to ensure that Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea all realize that it can now cut them off from their markets and allies.

Now that China has become the world’s second largest economy, its leaders intend to regain their historical position, impose their will on the region, limit the economic and political choices of their neighbors, and use all elements of national power to establish China as Asia’s acknowledged hegemon—the first among equals. Beyond that, China wants to use its economic strength as a path to become a dominant global power.

This does not, however, mean that China intends to embark on a path of military conquest. While it will fight if necessary, China prefers to attain its goals by outmaneuvering its opponents employing a highly effective indirect strategy which it refers to as “the three warfares.” The first element of this trio is psychological or political warfare, aimed at disrupting an opponent’s decision-making capability. It uses diplomatic and economic pressure, rumor, threats and false narratives to undermine an enemy’s ability to conduct operations by deterring and demoralizing its military and civilian populace.

The second component is media warfare, aimed at exerting long-term influence on global perceptions and attitudes. It uses all instruments of propaganda – print, visual and Internet, along with international academic programs and widespread support for pro-Chinese advocates overseas to influence domestic and global opinion to support China’s policies and undermine opposition to China’s actions.

The third component is legal warfare, the use of international and domestic law to claim the legal high ground and assert China’s interests. It seeks to undermine established Western legal structures and impose a uniquely Chinese approach to international legal norms. China has been quite successful in all three of these areas. And we see these elements at work as China harnesses all the resources of the state and applies them to the execution of its policies.

Taiwan’s Position

In Northeast Asia, China’s three neighbors, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea each face different situations. Since it was occupied by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist troops in 1949, Taiwan has been seen by the Communist Chinese on the mainland as a breakaway province that is only temporarily separated from its parent. And mainland China has been largely successful in imposing this “one China” policy on all but a few other nations of the world. In fact, Taiwan also supports this one China policy, but with a markedly different interpretation—that the Republic of China (Taiwan) is the legitimate government of all China. In the succeeding decades, Taiwan has become a vibrant economic success story and a well-functioning and at times turbulent democracy.

The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) has consistently maintained that a formal declaration of independence by Taiwan would result in Chinese military action to reunite the two states. The PRC has backed up its words with significant military force. China’s extensive naval building program, coupled with a rapidly developing land-based missile force and a modern, highly capable air force have dramatically expanded its ability to carry out its threats. Despite the fact that both nations are closely tied economically, each is prepared to employ military force to support their differing positions.

Since 1979, the United States has recognized the PRC as the sole legal government of China, with Taiwan as a part of China. Accordingly, Washington does not support Taiwan’s independence. However, America maintains strong unofficial relations with Taiwan and has consistently supported the sale of arms and technology to help Taiwan maintain its defenses, the most recent of which is the $8 billion-dollar sale of 66 American F-16V fighter jets that will materially improve Taiwan’s air defenses. The American position on fundamental elements of Taiwan’s diplomatic and security policy is ambiguous. If Taiwan were to declare independence unilaterally the American response is unknowable. But if China were to invade absent such a declaration, the United States would likely provide military support to the Taiwanese.

The net result is that Taiwan, despite its expanding ties with the mainland, is continually under the shadow of Chinese invasion. Separated from China by the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait, Taiwan would be a difficult challenge for any invader. The Taiwanese military has small but well-trained forces who could inflict severe losses on an invading army. Their U.S.-equipped air force, indigenous anti-ship coastal defense missiles, and large ground force reserves would be a formidable foe. The United States no longer routinely sends forces to Taiwan itself, but periodically sails naval vessels, including carrier strike groups, through the Taiwan Straits as a clear signal of our interest and ability to influence events in the region. Although assisting in a defense against a Chinese invasion would be a difficult task, U.S. forces could have a major impact. And that alone has the potential to deter a Chinese attack.

Japan’s Position

Japan’s relationship with China is quite different from that of Taiwan. Unlike Taiwan, which was treated relatively benignly by Japan during the Second World War, mainland China was brutalized by the invading Japanese armies. The reluctance of Japan to admit to and apologize for these war crimes has kept this issue alive long after it could have been resolved. Consequently, there is an element of emotional antagonism between the two nations that colors all their relations. Just as China has pushed the boundaries of accepted international law and practice in the South China Sea, it has also laid claim to important areas in the East China Sea that are currently under Japanese administration. Foremost among these are the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu to the Chinese), part of the Ryukyu chain stretching south from Japan to Taiwan.

The Senkakus are uninhabited islands at the southern end of the Ryukyus. Their history is complex, but fairly straightforward after they were annexed by Japan in 1895. After the Second World War, they were administered by the United States until control was turned back to Japan in 1972. Large potential oil and gas reserves were identified in the waters off the Senkakus in 1969, and beginning in 1972, both Taiwan and China began pressing their own claims to the islands. The apparent disinterest of China and Taiwan prior to this discovery is one of the arguments Japan uses to support its claim.

More recently, China has been much more aggressive in asserting its position. It regularly sends scores of fishing vessels, backed by armed coast guard ships, to operate inside the nearby seas and the islands’ territorial waters. Chinese military aircraft make incursions into Japanese airspace over the islands and are often chased away by responding to Japanese fighters. And Chinese warships increasingly use the waters off the Senkakus as they transit past the First Island Chain into the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Korea’s Position

Unlike its neighbors to the south and east, South Korea has no major maritime security issues with China. As a result, tense maritime interactions between the two states are not a problem. Instead, South Korea’s primary security concerns are laser-focused on North Korea. While it has relied primarily on U.S. backing for its security since the Korean War, South Korea began to expand its ties with other regional powers starting around 2000. By 2004, its trade with China was growing rapidly at the same time that U.S power and interest in the Far East was beginning to be perceived as declining. Moreover, North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles has meant that South Korea has looked to Beijing to reign in the North, even as it looks to Washington to provide it security guarantees.

This relationship has been rocky due in part to China’s inability to completely control North Korea’s actions. Most recently, South Korea’s agreement in 2016 to accept U.S. THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) anti-ballistic missiles on its soil angered the Chinese. In response, the Chinese government encouraged action to punish South Korea by popular boycotts of Korean products, a sudden rise in administrative problems for Korean-owned businesses in China, and a precipitous fall in Chinese tourism to South Korea.

By late 2017, relations started to improve once again as China became more flexible on accepting the THAAD presence and South Korea’s president indicated there would be no additional THAAD deployments. The result is that South Korea continues to walk a tightrope seeking to balance its traditional reliance on the United States to augment its own substantial military forces, with its desire to expand its profitable trade relations with China, and at the same time depend on both to moderate the actions of North Korea.

United States’s Situation

The United States is in the awkward position of trying to balance the growing threat of an ever more powerful China with the need to provide credible support for American allies in East Asia, all while its own military forces are stretched thin around the world and Washington is confronted by competing budgetary priorities at home. One of the biggest problems for the United States is that China is increasingly perceived as a rising power, while the United States is viewed as a declining power struggling against the tide. Anything that undercuts U.S. leadership in Asia, such as the precipitous withdrawal from the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, only exacerbates this problem and creates doubt among our allies.

Today, the U.S. Navy is more powerful than its Chinese counterpart. But that too is changing. The U.S. Navy currently has around 280 ships that are hard-pressed to meet their commitments around the world. The Navy aspires to expand to at least 355 ships, but that is very questionable given current budgetary pressures. Experience tells us that planned growth always seems to be just around the corner, a goal that stays just beyond reach—and in the current situation, the 355-ship goal requires support by presidents and Congresses for more than 30 years to succeed.

China, on the other hand, is developing impressive multi-mission naval platforms and is building them at an impressive rate. The PLA Navy in 2015 had 397 vessels (331 surface ships and 66 submarines). By 2030, it is forecast to have 531 vessels (432 surface ships and 99 submarines). It is also important to recall that the U.S. Navy has worldwide commitments, whereas the PLA Navy is concentrated in China’s coastal seas. The net result is that, in the event of a crisis in the Far East, the United States will not have the luxury of stripping all its forces from Europe or the Middle East, resulting in a lopsided Chinese numerical advantage in naval forces at the outset of a confrontation.

For now, the U.S. Navy has an advantage in experience, doctrine, and tactics. But it is seeing its technology edge decline and is rapidly falling behind in numbers. China, on the other hand, has made its naval and maritime forces the cornerstone of its plans for global expansion. It has the resources to support this effort, it has begun deploying its ships to gain experience in distant operations, and it is already using these forces to pressure its Asian neighbors. It must also be noted that China has very effectively employed its non-naval assets such as its coast guard, fisheries patrol, police and commercial fishing vessels to pursue its policies, a technique known as “non-militarized coercion.” In a nutshell, China has become a very formidable foe.

While all this might appear to paint a very negative picture, the United States is still in a very strong position. But to take advantage of our strengths, we must do a better job of employing all our assets. This means the United States has to refocus its efforts in the Far East. The first step has already been taken. That is to acknowledge that our policies of the past three decades—based on the assumption that an increasingly capitalist economic system would eventually moderate the communist government in Beijing and could even lead to a democratic system with Chinese characteristics—have been a failure. Our past policy of engagement and a search for a win-win accommodation has allowed China to become much more powerful. China’s dynamic economic growth has financed its military expansion and enabled its centrally managed economy to penetrate important strategic markets around the world. That may now be changing since, at long last, the U.S. government seems to have awakened to the danger from China.

To be successful, the United States needs a more closely coordinated, multi-faceted approach that ties together our policies both across our own government as well as with our allies. It requires strong public diplomacy to call attention to China’s human rights violations against its own population, its flouting of international legal norms, and its bullying of its neighbors. It also means pushing back against China’s theft of U.S. intellectual property, its use of unfair trade practices, and acknowledging the danger it poses to American business and workers. On the military side, the U.S. must continue regular reconnaissance missions in the region, along with periodic freedom of navigation operations. We should also reemphasize our strongest asset—our alliances and friendships with key Asian nations—to include diplomatic and economic cooperation along with military activities. And we need to continue to bring in other supportive nations such as the United Kingdom, France, and India to help augment our policies.

In the diplomatic arena, we must insist on multilateral approaches to resolving international issues to prevent China from using bilateral negotiations to isolate and overwhelm its weaker neighbors. In the economic sphere, we must maintain strong, high profile U.S. support for multilateral institutions including ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), the Asian Development Bank and APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) countries. And we should join the Transpacific Partnership to regain our role as the “go to” nation in the Far East, backed up with stronger U.S. government support for investment in the region.

America’s future in the Far East will be challenging. Yet we have all the tools to succeed. The United States has been a Pacific nation since the U.S. Navy established a Pacific Squadron in 1821. We remain so today with a long history of close relations with key allies in the region, highly trained, experienced military forces, and a vibrant democratic tradition. We must do more, but that is certainly not beyond our grasp. The future is still in our hands.

RADM James Stark, USN (Ret.) served on destroyers and cruisers and in Washington on the Navy HQ Staff and National Security Council. He was President of the Naval War College.