At West 2011 in San Diego today, Adm. Tim Keating, USN (Ret.) and Dr. Xinjun Zhang, a Chinese professor and lawyer discussed U.S.-Chinese relations. A fascinating and well moderated dialog overseen by David Hartman ensued. Adm. Keating, just as current U.S. leaders, continued to emphasize the need for greater transparency, particularly in terms of Beijing’s military intentions. Transparency and mutual understanding (as well as functional hotlines and direct, efficient counterpart-to-counterpart communications – also emphasized by Adm. Keating) are absolutely desirable and important for conflict management and the reduction of both the risk of conflict and the prospects for escalation in a crisis.
But suggesting that the U.S. is unclear about what China’s intentions are with regards to its DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile seems like a bit of a red herring. Despite some difficulties in diplomatic and military-to-military dialog, Beijing’s behavior and military efforts are perfectly comprehendible and understandable. China’s longstanding and comprehensive efforts towards anti-access and area denial capabilities are clearly and undeniably directed at the U.S. Navy and its dominance of the world’s oceans. The lifeblood of the Chinese economy and the economic system that forms a key foundation of domestic stability and regime survival in the country is an ever increasing flow of imports – imports of raw materials and energy resources from overseas sources. Beijing, quite naturally, sees this confluence of sea-borne commerce of foundational national significance and the dominance of the world’s oceans by a potential adversary (Adm. Keating succinctly characterized the U.S.-Chinese relationship as one of “strategic mistrust”) as a significant vulnerability.
And this is the heart of the problem. The U.S., with good cause, does not intend to surrender its capability to dominate the world’s oceans – particularly the blue water. The Chinese, even with considerable improvement in relations in the future, will continue to consider the lifeblood of their national livelihood being guaranteed by the goodwill of the United States as a vulnerability and will quite naturally seek to reduce that vulnerability.
Adm. Keating’s “strategic mistrust” is not simply a symptom of a failure to communicate. It is also a symptom of an inherent and inescapable conflict of fundamental national interest. That conflict of national interest need not characterize the larger political, economic and military relationship between Washington and Beijing. But it warrants and requires more open acknowledgement and discussion.
The U.S. tends to see China’s anti-access and area denial efforts in terms of this map:
But the Chinese see themselves trapped geographically behind the Korean peninsula, Japan (the Ryukyu Islands in particular), Taiwan and the Philippines. And they rightly recognize the raw capability of the U.S. Navy not to close with Chinese shores, but to interdict maritime traffic at the choke points this geography creates from well beyond the First Island Chain, so they see themselves struggling to ensure their ability to protect their own freedom of access and maneuver simply in two battleboxes — much less beyond:
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