As China Plans for War, the US Renames its Battle Plan

The Pentagon has relabelled its battle plan for fighting China in the Western Pacific.  The battle plan formerly known as AirSea Battle is from now on to be known as “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons.”  This is very good news because the use of the term Global Commons in the title goes to the heart of what is at stake for the United States and the rest of the free world.

China is intent upon starting a war with Japan and seizing a large patch of ocean in Southeast Asia.  What most people don’t realise about the Chinese nine-dash-claim of territoriality in the South China Sea is that it is not so much about gaining area and resources but excluding others.  Commercial operators might not be affected and don’t care about filling in forms and asking permission to cross the sea or sky.  The Chinese claim, if enforced, would stop any other country’s warships and military aircraft from crossing the South China Sea. Vietnam, which is 1,200 km long, would be restricted to a strip along their coastline that gets as narrow as 92 km.  For Malaysia, their operating strip would be as narrow as 44 km, as shown by these maps from page 5 of State Department Report No. 143:

The Chinese claim to the South China Sea is meant to be a permanent and irrevocable humiliation to the countries of Southeast Asia.  Notions of protecting trade routes and so on are just so much nonsense.  It is all about China feeling better about itself because it is able to humiliate its smaller neighbours.  And the United States too.

By the time China showed up in the Spratley Islands, all the good islands were gone.  Taiwan and the Philippines had airstrips on the only islands large enough to take airstrips.  Vietnam has some substantial bases on its islands.  So China had to start with reefs that were submerged at high tide. 

China’s aggression is fuelled by its rapid economic growth of the last 15 years.  But there are signs aplenty that the economic miracle is running out of puff.  The Chinese economy took off after their accession to the World Trade Agreement in 2001.  China became the world’s preferred subcontractor.  Electronic components made in Japan, Korea and Taiwan are imported into China and put into plastic cases.  The salad days of China’s export-driven growth ended in 2006 when exports as a percentage of GDP peaked at 39.1%.  That has subsequently fallen to 26.4%. 

But the world can only take so much of China’s exports and that point has been reached.  China’s market share of global trade reached 12% in 2011 and has stalled at about that level.  That follows railway freight in China, which doubled between 2003 and 2011 but has stalled since.  Previous premier Wen Jiabao said in 2013 that China’s growth is “unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable”.  It may also be illusory.

The last time an Asian economic powerhouse was perceived to be overtaking the United States was Japan in 1990.  That Japanese growth turned out to be another real estate bubble.  It is most likely that China’s bubble will go the same way.

We don’t have to spend too much time on economic statistics to divine China’s future.  All we have to do is note what the Chinese themselves are doing, which is leaving.  As John Lee notes, the richest 1% of households (2.1 million out of a total of about 520 million households) own 40-50% of the country’s total real estate and financial assets.  This is the result you would expect from a state-sanctioned kleptocracy.  These wealthy people are voting with their feet.  In a survey last year of almost 1,000 Chinese each worth over $16 million, nearly two-thirds had made arrangements to leave the country permanently or were planning to do so.  This group are particularly well-informed on China’s prospects, with 90% of the 1,000 polled being officials or members of the Chinese Communist Party.  These are people who have stolen what they can and now think that wealth preservation is more important than hanging around to steal some more.  The rats are leaving the sinking ship.

Whereas Wen Jiabao was a Shakespeare-lover, his successor, Xi Jinping, has been more inclined to ‘disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage.”  The sudden increase in Chinese aggression in the Senkakus in late 2012 coincided with Xi Jinping becoming General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.  Around that time, Xi also took control of a special maritime command group responsible for territorial disputes in the East China Sea, according to sources citing Taiwanese intelligence.  Though the rate of Chinese incursions into Japanese territory has dropped off, they still stay exactly two hours before leaving.  The Chinese have possibly calculated that this causes the maximum aggravation to the Japanese relative to effort.

Xi Jinping is now also President of the People’s Republic of China, Chairman of the Central Military Commission and Chairman of the National Security Council.  In a number of edicts, he has tacked hard left politically and is railing against foreign influences in Chinese society.  Under the guise of fighting corruption, he has instituted a reign of terror equivalent to the Stalinist purges of the 1930s.  Or perhaps they are just recycling more recent Chinese history.  To quote long-time China watcher Anne Stevenson-Yang in late 2014:

What’s really going on is an old-style party purge reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s with quota-driven arrests, summary trials, mysterious disappearances, and suicides, which has already entrapped, by our calculations, 100,000 party operatives and others. The intent is not moral purification by the Xi administration but instead the elimination of political enemies and other claimants to the economy’s spoils.

Given that President Xi is quite happy to kill thousands of his countrymen to consolidate his political position, the lives of foreigners would be the merest trifle.

So a war is coming.  China is intent on it and there is nothing any other party can do about it.  The question from here is what is the likely timing?  As a thankyou to China for supporting Russia in its annexation of Crimea and parts of the eastern Ukraine, Russia is selling China six battalions of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles for $3 billion.  Delivery is to be in 2016.  The S-400 has a range of 400 km (more than twice that of the Patriot missile) and travels at 2,000 metres per second.  A launcher based on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratley Islands would cover the southern end of Palawan Island where the Marines are building a few bases.  A launcher based in the Nanji Islands would cover the Senkaku Islands. 

The S-400 would give China a big advantage against the United States and its allies and it is tempting to think that China won’t attack until the systems are delivered and operational some time in 2016.  However Egypt attacked Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 ahead of getting delivery of more advanced weaponry from the Soviet Union.  Israel had thought that the war they could see coming wouldn’t start until new weaponry was in place. 

The event that might be shaping the Chinese timetable could be the finding of the International Law of the Sea Tribunal on the Philippines’ claim against China over the South China Sea.  This is likely by December 2015.  It helps China’s position if they are always the aggrieved party and China may want to change facts on the ground to make the Tribunal’s decision redundant.  If so, that explains why China’s island-making is currently so frantic.

It is easy for a nasty and belligerent country like China to start a war but what of the aftermath?  If China gets to retain the Senkakus and its bases in the Spratley Islands, then it wins and a Chinese version of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere will be imposed on the region.  For the United States and its allies to win and establish a permanent peace, then the Chinese have to be scraped off their newly dredged-up islands in the Spratleys at least.  Those islands, having been created, will now have to be occupied to the end of time.  Otherwise China will be back to create trouble again.  So the United States will get a new airbase at Fiery Cross Reef and a defensive box of bases around it.  It will be like a smaller version of Guam slap bang in the middle of southern Asia, with no sovereignty problems.  But the United States will count its dead in this most unnecessary war and not thank China for the island’s creation. 

David Archibald, a visiting fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., is the author of Twilight of Abundance (Regnery, 2014).