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China's Strategists are Not Supermen

John Lee

As a fresh set of pictures of Chinese artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea hit the U.S. media in late June, a growing number of influential policy analysts in Washington were already lamenting the lack of an effective American response to growing Chinese power and assertiveness in East Asia. They claim that democratic governments must respond to the vicissitudes of public opinion and daily events, making far-sighted planning — let alone strategy — all but impossible.

Analysts such as Michael Pillsbury, author of “The Hundred Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower,” are warning that China is far more strategic-minded and disciplined when it comes to planning for the future.

They argue that authoritarian China has an inherent advantage over democratic rivals when it comes to strategic thinking and implementation. Unburdened by periodic elections, or even the need to explain policies to its citizens, Beijing can formulate a long-term strategy and execute it consistently over decades.

China is certainly pushing the envelope in the East and South China seas, and generally getting away with it. But this probably says more about the Obama administration’s unwillingness to support its “pivot to Asia” rhetoric with robust action than it does about the superiority of strategists working away in China’s Zhongnanhai government compound.

The pessimistic view ignores the fact the U.S. still enjoys a dominant global military advantage, while the chosen trajectory of China’s rise is meeting more rather than less resistance. If what we are seeing in the East and South China seas is Beijing’s grand strategy in action, then perhaps autocrats are not the disciplined strategic geniuses they are made out to be.

Not so grand

Consider the background of China’s so-called grand strategy in the region.

Those praising China’s strategic approach and warning about its rise generally agree that Beijing’s plan is to ease the U.S. out of Asia, preferably without a shot being fired. Gradually extending its control of waters in the East and South China seas, and improving the capacity of the People’s Liberation Army to inflict prohibitive costs on the U.S. Seventh Fleet, will lead to success, these analysts believe. After all, without a fully engaged U.S. in Asia, there is no effective check against Chinese military power and the probable disintegration of the system of bilateral alliances forged after World War II.

From China’s point of view, so far so good. The PLA’s capacity to inflict losses on U.S. forces is growing rapidly, while China’s extension of its presence in the South China Sea has so far met little resistance. But if this approach appears to have worked well so far, that is because those responsible for implementing it are neglecting the fact that resistance is, in fact, increasing.

Consider the main strategic goal of almost every other country in the region, which is to prevent the rise of any Asian hegemon. Japan encountered this response in the 20th century. This explains the continued regional preference for the U.S. as Asia’s security provider. The U.S. is seen as powerful enough to act as a check against China, but not so powerful that it can readily ignore the wishes of key states.

In addition to its own base in Guam, the U.S. Seventh Fleet requires the use of foreign territories to support its regional deployments, including Japan, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. The acquiescence it needs from regional capitals places limitations on U.S. actions in the region. If it exceeds its mandate, U.S. forces may be asked to leave. As the example from the early 1990s of Subic Bay in the Philippines shows, American forces will do so grudgingly but peacefully.

In contrast, it is impossible to expel the PLA from Asia. It is no wonder U.S. allies and partners in the region have deepened their military relationship with Washington. Manila is slowly inviting back U.S. forces, while Hanoi — a former enemy — is welcoming American naval vessels to its ports.

Additionally, and with full U.S. blessing, the navies of Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and India are gradually banding together, possibly to resist China. Denouncing China’s “unilateral” moves to change the territorial and maritime status quo, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott signed an enhanced strategic partnership with Singapore on June 29, giving a hint of where things are flowing.

For every action, reaction

In quiet moments, Beijing must look upon this activity with frustration. Even as China emerges as an essential global economic player, it has no reliable strategic allies or partners to point to. In fact, as China becomes ever more important to economic prosperity in the region, its neighbors pull even closer to the U.S. and to each other in strategic and military terms.

If Beijing’s long-term plan is to enhance its ability to gain dominance and exercise strategic influence over other countries, then the strategy does not appear to be working. Rising economic powers tend to exert a strategic pull on those around them. In China’s case, one could make the argument that it is emerging as the most isolated rising power in history when it comes to translating economic heft into strategic leadership.

Finally, the alleged authoritarian advantage enjoyed by China comes at a cost of a political system at odds with the emergence of democracy as the only legitimate political destination for Asian countries.

Despite Beijing’s insistence that democracy is better suited to Western societies, democratic practices in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan disprove this self-serving thesis. Evolving or emerging democracies in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar further undermine this argument. The region expects those seeking leadership to exhibit habits of negotiation, compromise and transparency without automatic recourse to brute power or coercion. Authoritarian China has so far failed to convince its neighbors that political reform is irrelevant in developing these habits.

The perceived superiority of authoritarian China to conceive and implement long-term strategy is a seductive thesis, but one not supported by existing evidence. Its economic and military power is formidable, but not sufficient or being used in such a way to allow it to dominate Asia — now or in the foreseeable future. If strategy is defined as a plan to effectively achieve one’s ultimate objective, then it seems that those in Beijing are poorer strategists than we might think.

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