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.

Personal note:

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.

Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Foreign Policy

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  • Harlan B. Miller

    From the email “West 2009 OnScene Report Day 2”

    “Hartman detailed a brief history of our modern-day relationship with China, which can be traced back to the invasion of Pearl Harbor during World War II. The next day, the Chinese joined the U.S. Allies and declared war on Japan.

    However, a period of civil war in China followed, culminating with the nationalists being moved off the mainland to Taiwan in 1959. Poor relations persisted for a couple of decades, broken by President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 and the establishment of full diplomatic relations eight years later. Since then, our relationship with that country has been strained at times because of the incident at Tiananmen Square, reports of human rights violations, and other problems.”

    If that is really what Hartman said, why wasn’t he laughed off the stage? Of course a major cause of Pearl Harbor was our support for China in the war with Japan starting in 1931. And of course the civil war goes back nearly as far. Like the start of the Sino-Japanese war, he dates Chiang’s defeat ten year too late.

    I hope this is just very, very sloppy reporting.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Harlan Miller,

    Mr. Hartman detailed the time frame of the Chinese Civil War correctly, so the “1959” was a typo to be sure. He and the roundtable also did mention the Chiang/Mao struggle pre-war, correctly citing the conflict as beginning in the early 1930s.

    However, the assertion that our support for China was a “major cause” of Pearl Harbor is certainly highly debatable. Once could certainly argue that, in keeping with the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and China proper in 1937 (to include that dsame year the attack and sinking of the US gunboat PANAY), the attack on Pearl Harbor was another step in a path of Japanese aggression to establish the “Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. To wit, Japan would have been at odds eventually with the United States (and Great Britain) whether or not we supported China in the 1930s.

  • Despite a friendly relationship throughout the Hong Kong region there has been a decidedly frigid temperature during the 90’s and beyond. More than a rival for the available oil market, China has done much more than takeover our local Walmarts. They attempted to manage the port of Long Beach harbor, assumed command of the Panama Canal, and have plans for manufacture of supersonic fighters. Their satellites circle the earth, rockets push huge loads into space, and technology encircles our San Jose. As she unsuccessfully drills for oil in the Gobi Desert, keep close track of her warships, submarines, troops and aircraft.

  • How large is China’s Army?
    How many ships/type in the Navy?
    What are TBMs?——Ballistic Missiles
    Do they have any Hospital Ships?
    Are there true “Nationalists” left on Taiwan?
    What relationship, if any, is there between China and North Korea?

    Thank You, Woody Sanford