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Vol. 75/No. 5      February 7, 2011

U.S. rulers, allies turn
attention back to China
(feature article)
Washington is renewing its strategic military focus on China as its most formidable economic and military rival for the foreseeable future. Beijing has been steadily building up its military capabilities and taking bolder steps to assert control over waters surrounding its eastern and southern coasts.

The U.S. rulers’ focus on China—a prominent feature of the William Clinton and George W. Bush administrations prior to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—marked U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates’s mid-January trip to China, Japan, and South Korea. The trip was accompanied by a slew of articles and editorials on recent advances in Chinese military technology.

Gates met with Chinese president Hu Jintao and top Chinese military officials during his three-day visit to Beijing. Hours before his meeting with Hu, the Chinese air force staged the first test flight of its prototype stealth fighter jet.

The talks represented the first such meeting since Beijing suspended military-to-military dialogue about a year ago, in response to Washington’s $6.4 billion weapons sale to the government of Taiwan. “United States arms sales to Taiwan seriously damaged China’s core interests and we do not want to see that happen again,” said Chinese general Liang Guanglie at a joint press conference with Gates in Beijing January 10.

The following day Gates told the media in Beijing that he did not think any reevaluation of U.S. policy toward Taiwan was “going to happen anytime soon.”

During the January 10 press conference both Gates and Guanglie described military dialogues as useful in lessening chances for “misunderstanding or miscalculation” by either side. But the Chinese government gave no answer to Gates’s proposal to continue the talks on a regular basis.

Among points of contention displayed during Gates’s trip was control of the seas surrounding China, where both the U.S. and Chinese militaries have stepped up activity in the last year.

Beijing conducted a series of high-profile naval maneuvers in the South China Sea and East China Sea last April. These included a mock attack on Taiwanese air bases, and assertive drills through international waters in proximity to Japan’s southern Okinawa island chain and Taiwan.

Washington’s most recent provocations took place in December when the U.S. Navy carried out a series of live-fire exercises with the South Korean military in waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula. While officially aimed at North Korea, most of the maneuvers were conducted in the Yellow Sea, flouting Beijing’s objections and sending a message to the Chinese government.

During his trip Gates made a number of references to Washington’s concerns over North Korea and the degree of Beijing’s cooperation with Pyongyang. In Beijing Gates said, “With the North Koreans’ continued development of nuclear weapons, and their development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States.”

Beijing lays claim to a great swath of the Yellow, East China, and South China Seas. These waters encompass Taiwan as well as several other island chains used by the Chinese navy—islands whose Chinese claims are disputed by the governments of Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.  
New challenge to U.S. Navy
Over the course of Gates’s trip to China and Japan he made clear that Washington has no intention of compromising its long-asserted “right” to deploy naval forces anywhere in the world. With the expanding capabilities of the Chinese armed forces, the U.S. military is facing a challenge to its domination of the world’s seas for the first time since the end of World War II. During a press conference with his counterpart in Japan, Gates stated, “The United States will sustain its military presence in Northeast Asia and look to enhance it in Southeast Asia and will firmly defend the principle of freedom of navigation.”

The U.S. military budget is estimated to be roughly 10 times that of China, with a larger and more advanced arsenal. The Chinese navy is growing and improving at a fast pace, but is still no match for the strength of U.S. naval forces.

Despite the naval and air power disparity, Beijing is already able to threaten U.S. ships in its claimed waters. The Chinese military has what the Defense Department describes as “the most active land-based ballistic- and cruise-missile program in the world.” In 2007 Beijing blew up an old weather satellite with a ballistic missile, demonstrating its ability to knock out communications systems vital to modern warfare.

Recently Beijing deployed the world’s first antiship ballistic missile, dubbed the “carrier killer.” Considered by the U.S. military to be in the “initial operational” stage, its specific design makes it very difficult for a U.S. carrier to defend itself against an accurate strike.

Also of particular concern to Washington is China’s advancing communications and cyber-warfare technology, providing greater access to marine intelligence and possibilities for disrupting U.S. military communication systems.

The U.S. rulers’ refocus on China coincides with Washington’s escalating war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S. presence established there has opened the door to greater influence along China’s western border. As an integral part of the war effort and long-range objectives to contain China’s economic and military power, Washington is strengthening its alliance with the rival governments of Pakistan and India.

In relation to China, Washington’s strategic course in the Indian subcontinent is part of a larger picture that includes partnerships with Beijing’s rivals to the south, in Vietnam and Taiwan, to the east, with Tokyo and Seoul, and the south Pacific with the governments of Australia and New Zealand.  
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