The USNI/AFCEA Thursday Breakfast Roundtable; “China: Friend or Foe?” provided a highly informative analysis of the history, present, and possible future of US-China relations.
The discussion was moderated by David Hartman, former award-winning host of NBC’s Good Morning America. The roundtable consisted of Dr. Jacqueline Newmyer, President of Long Term Strategy Group, LLC, and accomplished scholar, and RADM Mike McDevitt, USN (Ret.), Director of the Center for Naval Analysis Strategic Studies.
After a concise summary of the history of US-China relations since the late-18th Century, China’s complex and evolving relationship with the US was defined as being that of a partner, economic rival and competitor, and potential military adversary, particularly with reference to Taiwan. Dr. Newmyer observed that, despite a tendency to think to the contrary, the shaping of China as modern industrial and military force is out of our (US) control.
To the moderator question of the significance of US relations with China, Dr. Newmyer pointed out that China, alone among the world’s nation-states, has openly expressed a goal of challenging the United States in the competition for influence. Admiral McDevitt offered that the Obama Administration has inherited a foreign policy success in Asia, with US relations being very good with all of the major powers in the region.
When examining a decades-long “grand strategy” of both China and the US, Admiral McDevitt opined that the US desired to retain both an economic presence and a military footprint in the region. China, in the opinion of both participants, desired to maintain stability and security, avoid isolation, and maintain a certain level of friendly dependence to China among her neighbors. Chinese national security strategy is not, however, a public proclamation and must be gleaned through nuances of words and actions of her leadership and diplomats.
Dr. Newmyer warned that US Naval presence is shrinking proportionately vis-à-vis Chinese and Indian Naval strength, and we are in danger of losing our historical role in Asia if such presence is not maintained in sufficient strength to allow the US to be a counterbalance to China among other Asian countries.
Both guests pointed out that the modernization of the PLA has included naval forces, with guidance in doctrine coming from both US and Soviet sources to be adapted to Chinese methods. China has become notably more focused on maritime issues, building a naval capability (submarines, maritime reconnaissance, land-based aircraft carrying cruise missiles, MIRV-tipped TBMs) that can effectively deny US access to areas near her waters, raising the possibility that the US Navy might find coming to the aid of an ally against the wishes of China much more difficult than previously estimated.
Discussion of the Chinese political and economic system was heavily flavored by the current global economic downturn. As both Dr. Newmyer and ADM McDevitt discussed, the People’s Republic of China remains politically Communist, with the sole organization of any consequence being the Party. The Party has moved to quash any real or perceived attempts to create organizations outside of itself. The Party remains anti-cleric, and has been extremely effective in decapitating any and all dissent that might threaten its primacy.
China was described as being a Communist country with a capitalist economy. Inherent in that seeming anachronism is the fact that the Party no longer draws its legitimacy from any Marxist or Maoist philosophy, but rather from the promise of economic prosperity. The current economic situation has the potential to create serious problems for China’s party elite. Even before the downturn, questions were raised regarding the ability to sustain double digit growth, and doubts about the fragility of a manufacturing economy tailored to a purely export market remain.
The last major point the roundtable made, again discussed and assented to by both participants, was that of China’s view of the use of military force as an instrument of foreign policy. Her record since 1949 shows a surprising number of conflicts, each initiated by China, when she struck first and unexpectedly. These were:
- 1950 Intervention in Korea against UN/US forces
- 1962 Sino-Indian conflict
- 1969 Sino-Soviet border war
- 1979 Invasion of Vietnam
- 1988 Naval action off the Spratly Islands
China’s “militarized responses” show her willingness to use the military instrument as diplomacy, rather than after failure of diplomacy. The US should remain cognizant of this willingness and keep eyes cast toward China’s actions and intentions in Asia and elsewhere.
The roundtable discussion provided a great deal of insight into the challenges of maintaining relations with China. China remains a complicated and multi-faceted issue. US foreign policy needs to tread carefully regarding this emerging superpower.
My participation in several Title X war games in recent years has witnessed a rather naïve and ill-advised willingness on the part of even senior officers to wish to “co-opt” China into US-led efforts in an area of US vital interests. The discussion this morning should be cause for extreme caution regarding such ideas. It is not clear who will be co-opting whom, in the long run. Such decisions, even when US and Chinese interests seem to align, need to be very carefully considered as a function of US foreign policy at the highest levels, most definitely beyond even the considerable authority of a Combatant Commander. The US long-term goal of remaining engaged militarily and economically in Asia and elsewhere will depend on coexistence with this sometime ally, rival, and potential enemy.