the DF-21 road-mobile ballistic missileAt 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:

DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile

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:

china battle boxes

Posted by nhughes in Foreign Policy, Maritime Security, Navy

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  • OK, we now know the PRC’s capabilities and intentions. We also know the USA’s intentions and capabilities. Reducing tensions, etc is all well and good. However, if push comes to shove, how is the USA to counter and defeat PRC’s capabilities?

  • Matt Yankee

    What about their stated “core interests”?…Do we have a right to declare any ocean where we have vital shipping as our own exclusive ocean? All of a sudden South Korea’s Port of Incheon is only accessed through Chinese Waters? Isn’t that where MacArthur landed to re-take Korea?

    Concentration camps should be enough of a clue for their character. How can one react to peaceful religions with violence? Is the Dalai Lama going to bombard Beiging with a love potion weapon? If they treat their own people with ruthelessness, why do we expect them to treat foreigners any different?

  • Mike M.

    I’m disturbed by the similarities between modern China and Wilhelmine Germany. Germany built a fleet that threatened the British, and army that threatened the French and Russians, then let their demands for ‘respect’ and tactless diplomacy fuel a world war.

    China is doing the same thing, and I fear the same result.

  • Grandpa Bluewater


    The British policy was to maintain the largest, most capable, best trained and equipped Navy in the world, and maintain superiority by constant innovation and the fullest possible funding.

    That is not our policy.

  • Al L.

    These maps bring up something I occasionally think about. There is so much talk regarding China’s focus on influencing the the 2(or3 depending on definition, one is actually a bay) seas to it’s east. One commenter here even draws a parallel to Germany in the early 20th century. But just a few hundred miles south through any one of several relatively weak countries is the Indian Ocean.
    China’s move out into the water East is a concern. But are we giving too much weight to their moves to the wet East without considering those moves in the context of the moves or lack of to the land to their south?
    If China is a country interested in domination of a sort such as Germany in the 1st half of the 20th century or the USSR would the signal not be a move to the South and the Indian Ocean?

  • Matt Yankee

    The moves to the East may have something to do with focusing on their real threat which is from the US in the East. They would have to deal with India in the South before they would reach the Indian Ocean in which case they would just be fighting a two-front war with US intervention. I don’t think India or the US would sit pat and let China take a smaller country to the South without a fight.

    • Angus Matheson

      Their largest threats are: Russia going full ‘tard and trying to annexe some border region, India going full hindu-Indo-centric-revisionist-fascist, like an ultrarightwing iteration of the BJP (Think Indian Nazis) getting their own version of manifest destiny, and Western Cultural Memes.

  • Chuck Hill

    When they say they want to kick your ass out of their front yard, its not a problem of transparency.

    The Russians are hoping the Chinese will stay focused on the South and East. They don’t have much to stop a move North.

  • Derrick

    Thanks for the interesting and thought provoking article.

    Note the article, as well as a lot of the commentary, are all based on the assumption that mutual assured destruction will not come into play. I still firmly believe that if China did something stupid and exercised conventional military aggression beyond its borders, the US would probably respond with nuclear weapons. Plus Pakistan, Russia and India all have their own nuclear stockpiles. Given the numerical advantage the Chinese conventional forces have, the US would be pushed into using nuclear weapons really quickly. And nuclear weapons is something the US has in abundance.

    I am not sure how relevant China’s conventional forces’ numerical superiority is when every nation around it has nuclear weapons.

    • Angus Matheson

      That’s pretty much insane.

  • Grandpa Bluewater


    You seem to have overlooked the Korean War post Chosin Resevoir.

    Mutual and assured destruction with China ascending and the US descending? Over Korea? Japan? Vietnam? Nepal? For that matter, Saipan? Niether inevitable, nor likely. Bloody conventional stalemate and eventual negotiations were the way it went last time.
    No prediction possible, given a next time. Nukes, a last and reluctant resort.

    China, fortunately, has no wish to throw away the hard earned gains of over half a century, any more than the US wishes to lose the major cities of the west coast, or the national capital. The follow on events are unknowable. Both ruling castes remember Rumania, if only in their nightmares. Risk a revolution, with a wall or a lamppost their destiny? Mmmmm….Dunno.

    Deterrance. Not a game for table stakes.