By Alec Veit
On February 28th, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) run newspaper, the Global Times, announced that Chinese military drills in the South China Sea would be conducted throughout March in response to US-led freedom of navigation (FONOPs) and surveillance operations. US FONOPs in the area started in 2015 as China begun increasing its territorial claim in the highly contested South China Sea through the construction of artificial islands. China now claims approximately 90% of the sea, but the US rejects such claims. These US operations and Chinese militaristic responses, among others, paint a foreboding picture: they are an indication of rising military competition between the world’s two biggest economies.
The bold moves by China can largely be attributed to its vast growth, especially in realist power indices such as economic and military might. Since 1979, China’s GDP growth averaged 9.5% through 2018 and its GDP has doubled every 8 years. This incredible growth has seen China become the world’s largest economy based on purchasing power parity, which measures how much can be bought in a country using a base currency.
In addition to its significant GDP growth, China now has the world’s second most funded military at approximately $261 Billion USD, despite only allocating 1.9% of its GDP to defense. Although China spends far less than the US $731 Billion USD, 3.4% of US GDP, it outspends all of its neighbours and has invested heavily into area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. According to many Chinese foreign policy scholars such as Xuetong Yan, such tactics see China establishing regional leadership through “solid strategic credibility” by offering the region security-related and economic benefits on China’s own terms. These decisions bring China closer to its goal of becoming the regional military hegemon.
China’s global, and especially regional, ascent, serves as a threat against US interests in the global order. Alongside economic issues, a number of political and diplomatic factors force a wedge between the two countries. China’s status as a revisionist power that seeks to delegitimise and alter the current international system, drives a lot of its behaviour. This includes a disregard for a rule-based international order set up by the West, a disregard for democracy and human rights, and predatory economic policies that give China power over many developing countries. In contrast, US legitimacy as a global superpower is structured around its commitment to the liberal world order and to its partners and allies. In order to sustain its legitimacy, the US has to stick to previous commitments made, such as supporting Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, as well as enforcing international law. This continues to push the US towards a clash with China.
The combination of all of the above drove the United States Department of Defense (DOD) to classify the relationship with China as a “reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” in 2018. This represents a shift in America’s strategic focus, and has seen more resources and attention being allocated to the Indo-Pacific.
In line with this new strategic focus and in order to support its global commitments, the US challenged Chinese assertiveness through military support of its allies. Such has been seen in a $1.8bn arms sale to Taiwan and F-35 jet sales to Japan, joint naval exercises with India, Japan, and Australia, FONOPs, and surveillance missions. All these decisions feed back into the US’ central goal of reasserting itself as the world’s sole superpower in spite of a rising China. This agenda, combined with the rise of potential flashpoints and deterrence efforts, is ultimately driving the US military to reconfigure its forces to prepare for great power conflict.
The first thing on the DOD’s mind is to counter strategic advantages the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) currently holds over the US. According to the DOD’s most recent annual report on China, the PLA has achieved parity and has even potentially exceeded the US in three key areas. The first is shipbuilding. The Chinese navy currently has 350 vessels compared to America’s 293, making it the largest navy in the world. Despite a US general qualitative advantage, the vast quantity of Chinese ships could still create problems.
Another advantage is in Ground-Launched Ballistic Missiles (GLBMs). With ranges between 500 and 5500 km, they pose threats to US aircraft carriers and bases in Japan, and potentially Guam. These are the main forms of American power projection, and a key advantage in a potential conflict insofar as they force the fighting to occur in China’s own backyard.
A final advantage is in its integrated air defense systems. The purchasing of Russian systems like the S-400, considered to be the most advanced air defense system in the world, is an attempt to match the far larger and more advanced US airpower. To go along with these advantages, China concentrates focus and assets in its immediate region, whereas the US maintains worldwide military commitments. Alongside these military gains, China has continued to increase its military budget. From 2020 to 2021, the Chinese government increased military spending by 6.6%. This expansion and modernisation of China’s military has seen it rapidly catch up to the US might.
To counter these threats, the Pentagon has requested an additional $20 billion to meet Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific. These efforts are reflected in plans to near double the number of US warships to 530, build new air defenses in Guam, expedite the development of the newest B21 stealth bomber to counter Chinese air defenses, and by securing new equipment for its Marine Corps, one the first branches to be deployed in a potential conflict.
A similar approach has been taken by China in its development of A2/AD strategies, for the sole purpose of stopping the US. It consists of the creation of the rocket force. This military development means China has become the only country with a force solely dedicated to missiles aimed to threaten US aircraft carriers and forward operating bases in Japan, Korea, and Guam. It is also seen in the establishment of its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in 2013 over much of the East-China Sea, including over disputed territories with Japan. The technology seeks to monitor potential incoming air threats and to establish a “Great Wall in the Sky”. As well as developing conventional defenses, China is committing to doubling its nuclear arsenal in the next decade, as well as refusing to join nuclear arms control talks until the US reduces its arsenal.
This cat and mouse game shows similar patterns to the start of the Cold War when the USSR, in an attempt to catch up to and eventually surpass US military prowess, detonated its first nuclear bomb in 1949. To maintain the status quo of post-World War Two US military supremacy and to force Soviet deterrence, the US simply developed more advanced technology than the Soviets. An example of this is the development of the far deadlier hydrogen bomb in 1952 in response to Soviet acquisition of atomic bombs, which further escalated the arms race and the threat of mutually assured destruction.
It is important to note, however, that the US-China rivalry is significantly different from that of the Cold War. The current rivalry is strategic in nature with both countries attempting to gain the upper hand in terms of legitimacy and negotiations in the Indo-Pacific. China, as put forth by Xi Jingping and various Chinese foreign policy experts, seeks zhongguo heping fazhan (peaceful development), whilst the US wants to sustain the status-quo and a decrease in Chinese aggression and assertiveness in the region.
Both have no intentions to go to war, but the danger of an arms race is the risk of military-industrial complexes developing and expanding, putting pressure on governments to pursue more aggressive foreign policy. The arms race also militarises the Indo-Pacific, increasing the likelihood of accidents, as seen in the USS Cowpens incident where the US cruiser was close to a collision with a Chinese destroyer. Potential accidents may provoke extreme actions from either governments which are both under pressure from hardline nationalists and inflating confidence in their own military’s abilities due to the rising prominence of their respective military-industrial complexes. This ultimately increases the likelihood of conflict due to the rise of realpolitik in all involved actors, naturally raising tensions. The rising probabilities of these events stress the need for both countries to back down on hardline approaches and to restrain aggression in negotiations.
Despite peaceful intentions, militarism and clashing geopolitical interests in the Indo-Pacific have the US and China caught in a breeding ground for a full-fledged arms race. The dangers of a more militarised and tension-driven Indo-Pacific exacerbates the likelihood of accidents and aggression. To minimise this risk, both countries need to rethink their stances in the region and go back to the drawing board to prevent a great power war on a scale not seen since World War Two.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.