Small Wars

This Week at War: China Rules the Waves

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Guang Niu/Pool/Getty Images
Guang Niu/Pool/Getty Images

Learning to share the oceans with China

On Sept. 22, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) released a report, Chinas Arrival: A Strategic Framework for a Global Relationship. Journalist and CNAS senior fellow Robert Kaplan, wrote a chapter in the report called "China’s Two-Ocean Strategy" (see page 45).

Kaplan asserts, "China is in the midst of a shipbuilding and acquisition craze that will result in the People’s Liberation Army Navy having more ships than the U.S. Navy sometime in the next decade." Since 1945, U.S. diplomatic and political strategies in Asia have been predicated on U.S. naval domination in the western Pacific and Indian oceans. The U.S. Navy’s control of seagoing lines of commerce from the Middle East to all points in Asia has been a major component of America’s alliance system in the region and its relations with potential adversaries. Kaplan’s essay reminds us that over the next decade or so, the rise of China’s naval power will scrap the assumptions underlying the United States’ Asian diplomacy.

According to Kaplan, the collapse of the Soviet Army in the 1990s removed China’s most significant land-based threat. With its territorial security established, China’s leaders could afford to spend money on naval forces. This shift coincided with the massive expansion of China’s international trade. Kaplan reminds us that China’s energy imports from the Middle East — which travel across the Indian Ocean, through the Strait of Malacca, and up the western Pacific — will double over the next decade or two. China’s ocean-going commerce currently receives protection from the U.S. Navy and its allies in the region. But as an arriving global power, China’s leaders are not likely to tolerate this vulnerability to potential U.S. leverage. China’s naval shipbuilding program indicates China’s response.

According to Kaplan, by 2015 China will surpass South Korea and Japan to become the world’s most prolific shipbuilder. China will achieve this position because its growing shipbuilding expertise will combine with its labor and capital cost advantages to make it the preferred shipbuilding vendor. China’s cost advantages in "metal-bending" industries will compare very favorably against U.S. naval shipbuilders who are best known for gross cost overruns, long delays, and problem-ridden deliveries. U.S. military acquisition officials have hoped that U.S. technological advantages will offset an adversary’s numbers. But such a focus on technology might be part of the problem, rather than the solution. Looking out over the next two decades, military shipbuilding trends do not favor the United States.

The solution is expanded diplomacy. Kaplan discusses how the United States and China will find common interests protecting shipping from piracy, terrorism, and natural disasters. In addition, China and the United States share an interest in keeping open the ocean’s lines of communication — both countries are highly dependent on trade and energy imports from the Middle East. With many common interests, China’s arrival as a naval power need not result in conflict.

But will the United States be able to maintain its Asian alliance system if its naval hegemony comes under challenge? Will America’s friends in Asia drift into China’s orbit if the U.S. military cannot maintain its investment in naval power? This decade’s land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have absorbed huge sums that might have otherwise gone into naval recapitalization. The looming fragility in America’s position in the western Pacific might be the best reason for it to wind up its affairs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pakistan under siege

Over the past 11 days, Islamist militants have conducted six major attacks in urban areas of Pakistan, killing scores of security personnel and civilians. On Oct. 16, militants conducted a suicide attack on a police station in Peshawar, killing at least 11 people. Just one day earlier, militants attacked three police facilities in Lahore, in Pakistan’s Punjab heartland. These events followed an Oct. 10 attack on the Army’s headquarters building in Islamabad, which resulted in a 20-hour hostage siege.

For almost two months, the Pakistani government has promised a large ground offensive against suspected Taliban support areas in South Waziristan. If the government was actually serious about such an offensive, it remains a mystery why it would choose to forfeit the element of surprise. Even if the military carries out the attack, we can be sure that it will now yield little.

Instead it is the militants who are on the offensive, and not just in the frontier and Pashtun areas of the country. The Islamists are in no position to seize control of the national government; indeed, the latest string of attacks has very likely energized the urban middle class to demand harsh action against the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda. Assuming that militant leaders anticipated this reaction, what is the objective of this latest urban terror offensive?

First, they may hope to boost the morale of their supporters in South Waziristan and elsewhere, hoping to steel their resolve before the looming Army offensive. Second, the militants might be hoping to deter the offensive, or at least persuade the government to make it a halfhearted affair. Finally, they may hope that the attacks sap the morale of the government’s soldiers, reducing their performance on the battlefield.

Pakistan’s deteriorating internal security is an extremely unwelcome development for U.S. policymakers. Some smart analysts have argued that one of the best reasons for the United States to make a large commitment to Afghanistan’s stability is to prevent a possible collapse in Pakistan, a far more strategically significant country. Yet it seems that the more the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan escalates, the worse things get inside Pakistan.

Correlation is obviously not causation. Should the United States dramatically scale back its effort in Afghanistan, it is hard to imagine that this would have any significant influence on Pakistan’s problems. The solutions to Pakistan’s internal security lie within Pakistan and not Afghanistan. Perhaps the latest wave of attacks will motivate Pakistani society to now face these problems head-on.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.