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Assessing the Military Balance in the Western Pacific with Dr. Toshi Yoshihara

By Cris Lee

CIMSEC was pleased to be joined by Dr. Toshi Yoshihara of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). Professor Yoshihara is a long-time expert and well-published author on Asian security topics, Chinese naval capabilities, and Chinese maritime strategy. We are interested in his thoughts on recent security trends and what kind of calculus should be taken into account when analyzing the military balance in the Western Pacific.

Cris Lee: Thank you for joining us, Dr. Yoshihara. Could you please tell us a bit more about yourself?

Toshi Yoshihara: I’m currently a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and I’ve been at CSBA since 2017. I study Chinese military strategy and doctrine, Chinese maritime strategy, Asian security affairs, the overall military balance in Asia, and U.S. maritime strategy in Asia.

Before joining CSBA, I was the inaugural John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Naval War College. As an endowed chair, I helped to support research on—and the teaching of—all things Asia at the war college. I was also a professor of strategy in the Strategy and Policy Department at the Naval War College, where I taught strategy for over a decade.

I’ve been looking at Chinese military and defense issues since the late 1990s, so this is an area of great interest to me. It’s a real pleasure to join you today.

Cris Lee: Thank you. Dr. Yoshihara, you’ve studied Chinese military and maritime issues from the beginning of what we could call a distinct and recent modernization period that goes on to this day. You’ve also observed in your writings that there needs to be an understanding in fundamentals, and how to understand these changes through certain analytical perspectives.

Could you introduce us to what you think we should understand when understanding the military balance in the Pacific, and when measuring up American maritime capacity in the Pacific versus that of the Chinese?

Toshi Yoshihara: I think it’s very important to take into account a variety of factors. The first variable is the bilateral naval balance between China and the United States. The Sino-U.S. naval balance, in part, involves surface ships, submarines, naval aviation units, the combat logistics fleet, and so forth on both sides. But, this does not fully capture the balance. China also possesses other elements of seapower.

China’s shore-based military power is integral to this overall balance, including: shore-based aircraft armed with long-range anti-ship cruise missiles and shore-based cruise and ballistic missile forces. Anti-ship ballistic missiles, such as the DF-21 and the longer-range DF-26, can reportedly strike large surface combatants at great distances. These land-based capabilities enable China to impose its will on its adversaries at sea by launching striking power from the Chinese mainland.

I think it’s worth thinking through the operational scenarios, particularly for U.S. naval forces, should the United States decide to intervene on behalf of its regional allies and friends, including Japan and Taiwan. It’s worth thinking through contingencies in which U.S. naval forces could come under withering firepower from sea and from ashore.

But, the military balance still represents only a partial picture. We have to consider the non-military implements of Chinese military power. The China Coast Guard—the so-called “white hulls”—constitutes a frontline force in the maritime domain. China’s maritime militia is also a critical component of its first line of defense. It’s thus important to think about the military and the non-military balance, and to think about how they mesh together in order to fully comprehend the overall balance.

When considering the military balance, we also have to think more broadly about the fundamental asymmetries between a local power and a global power. The United States is a global power that must defend its interests globally. It therefore needs a global navy that conducts a whole host of missions worldwide. In practice, only a fraction of a fraction of the U.S. Navy is ready for action in Asia. The rule of thumb is that the U.S. Navy deploys a third of its forces at any given time, owing to maintenance and workup cycles. Of that third, only a portion of those forces is in Asia at any given time while the rest of the fleet is operating elsewhere around the globe. By contrast, China, the local power, can devote the bulk of its forces in its own backyard. I think this asymmetry puts the naval balance in perspective.

However, another asymmetry—the role of allies and friends—works in favor of the United States. Washington boasts many high-quality, like-minded maritime allies around the world. Think about Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Taiwan. Extra-regional powers, including India and even Britain and France, are also turning their attention to the Western Pacific. The naval balance looks very different when considered in the context of coalitions. But, this by no means suggests that we can take our allies for granted. On the contrary, we need to continue to cultivate close operational ties with our allies to maintain our collective competitive edge.  

Cris Lee: Starting with the 1990s and going to the late 2010s you studied the Chinese Navy which encompasses essentially the bulk of their present period of modernization. How far has the Chinese Navy come in terms of capacity and what they can do now, and how this has affected the military balance?

Toshi Yoshihara: What we’ve witnessed, particularly over the past 10-15 years, is an extraordinary transformation of the Chinese Navy. China already has the largest navy in Asia. This has been the case for quite a few years. Some earlier estimates predicted that the Chinese Navy will be the largest navy in the world by 2020 and that, by 2020, it will be the second-most capable expeditionary force, second only to the U.S. Navy. More recent estimates have concluded that the Chinese Navy has already surpassed the U.S. Navy in size.  

By my own calculations, in 2007, China had about seven surface combatants that could be considered modern by western standards. By 2017, that number jumped to around 80. By the end of 2018, based on my calculations, China could have more than 90 modern surface combatants. This represents a remarkable shift in the naval balance. Given the inherently capital-intensive nature of navies, this massive buildup not only reflects China’s ability and willingness to pour resources into seapower, but it also reflects a long-term strategic will to the seas.

From a historical perspective, this kind of buildup happens infrequently. Its infrequency can be measured in generational terms. Comparable frenzied naval buildups took place prior to both world wars. Historically, when these buildups have occurred, they have preceded great power competitions and global wars. We thus have to pay close attention to China’s remarkable transformation .

It is not just the Chinese Navy. China’s maritime law enforcement fleet is also the largest in Asia. In fact, it is larger than all of the other Asian maritime law enforcement fleets combined. And China’s fleet is still growing.

From an operational perspective, China has modernized its navy, in part, to fight the U.S. Navy in a war at sea. The Chinese Navy’s heavy focus on anti-surface warfare and the development of a large family of long-range anti-ship missiles are powerful indicators. As Admiral Harry Harris, the former commander of Pacific Command, noted in congressional testimony, China is “outsticking” U.S. forces, meaning that Chinese anti-ship missiles far outrange those of their American counterparts. In other words, Chinese missile salvos could reach our forces well before we can get within range to hit back.

At the same time, it’s not just hardware. The Chinese Navy has been honing its skills as an expeditionary force. China has conducted uninterrupted naval operations in the Indian Ocean for a decade, making it a legitimate Indian Ocean power. It now has a base in Djibouti, allowing China to have a permanent presence in a region that was once the exclusive preserve of Western seapower. Over the past ten years, the Chinese Navy has dispatched flotillas to “break through” the first island chain—the transnational archipelago stretching from Japan to Indonesia—into the open waters of the Pacific on a regular basis. These sorties have demonstrably enhanced the tactical proficiency of Chinese naval forces.

It was not so long ago that a U.S. surface combatant could transit the entire length of the South China Sea without running into a Chinese counterpart. Today, a U.S. warship steaming through the South China Sea would just as likely be met and trailed on a continuous basis by modern Chines surface combatants, some of them superior to our warships in anti-surface warfare. This is the new normal. This is something we have to come to terms with.

Cris Lee: With regard to that evolved capacity, how do you think perspectives have changed on the Chinese Navy, particularly those of its peers and the U.S.?

Toshi Yoshihara: I think our attitudes have changed quite a bit as a result of China’s naval transformation. Let me take you back to the 1990s. In the 1990s and well into the 2000s, condescension characterized our views of the Chinese Navy. A running joke that could be heard in the hallways of Washington think tanks was that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would be akin to “a million-man swim.” This evocative image of a million-man swim reflected America’s patronizing views of the Chinese military at the time. It was widely assumed that the Chinese Navy was not even a match against the Taiwanese Navy, much less against Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force. Moreover, some asserted that China would struggle to become a regional navy well into the early decades of the 21st century.  

Today, it is no longer controversial to describe China as a serious seapower. It is widely accepted that China is a genuine maritime power capable of challenging the United States and its interests in Asia. Indeed, by many non-military measures, China is already a leading maritime power. Its merchant fleet and fishing fleet are already among the largest, if not the largest, in the world. Its sprawling and massive port system along the mainland coast has surpassed the world’s leading ports, such as those in Singapore and elsewhere.

Yet, a kind of smugness still persists. We still come across inapt tactical comparisons between U.S. and Chinese forces, a misplaced sense of our operational virtuosity at sea, and musty assumptions about our ability to command the global commons and about our ability to stay ahead in the competition. What these assessments miss, in my view, is the dynamic character of the rivalry. China will pose a far more complex set of challenges at sea than is generally assumed. A clear-cut conflict with a discernible beginning, middle, and end—during which the United States can amass leisurely its military power for a decisive operation—is not the most likely scenario. China will likely employ a mix of military and non-military means in the twilight between peace and war. These so-called gray-zone tactics are designed precisely to constrain, or preclude altogether, our ability to employ our military capabilities and to offset our technological and operational superiority. Side-by-side comparisons of individual naval platforms and comforting narratives about how many more carriers we have compared to the Chinese are at best simplistic, if not misleading.    

Cris Lee: So this kind of smugness, does it reflect an old lineage of thinking that involves assumed U.S. maritime supremacy? How does that kind of assumed supremacy continue to affect American maritime approaches for the Pacific? What problems arise because of that?

Toshi Yoshihara: We need to strike a balance between underestimating and overestimating China. Each fallacy creates its own set of analytical problems. Underestimation certifies institutional inertia and deepens our comfort with the status quo. The siren song of our accustomed supremacy at sea is really hard to resist. The logic goes like this: since we’ve been unbeatable following the Soviet Union’s collapse, our presumption is that this dominance will stretch indefinitely into the future.

The temptation to rest on our laurels is risky. It might mean that we won’t act fast enough in the face of the China challenge. It might mean that we won’t be able to resource our Navy and our sister services enough to meet the threat. Such complacency might mean that we could be surprised at the tactical and strategic levels. Indeed, the Chinese have consistently sprung surprises on us with their many technical and tactical developments.

Overestimation creates its own set of analytical dysfunctions. The storyline goes like this: “China’s going to be too strong and there’s nothing we can do about it. We might as well learn to live with a very powerful China. To do so, we need to accommodate China’s interests and ambitions now. We should cut a deal and reach a grand bargain with China before its too late such that China becomes so strong that it can dictate terms to us and our allies.” This is a kind of preemptive surrender.  

These polarized views and their policy implications are not helpful. Rather, we need to think productively about China in ways that neither downplay its strengths and its ability to challenge the United States at sea nor overlook some of its structural weaknesses.

Cris Lee: Have you seen these perspectives impact the Pacific in recent times and how a rising China’s changing capabilities have impacted policy?

Toshi Yoshihara: A key danger is the growing mismatch between American commitments and resources. When our resources are inadequate to meet our commitments to defend Asia, we have a situation akin to bluff. The bigger the gap, the bigger the bluff waiting to be called by our adversaries.

A related danger is the declining confidence among our allies and friends about the credibility of our commitments. If our allies and friends begin to doubt our security commitments to the region, they may begin to make their own calculations, pursue their own independent policies, and perhaps even cut their own separate deals with China, accommodating it or bandwagoning with it. Some may embark on an independent strategic path, such as going nuclear. Many of our Asian partners and friends, including Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, are all latent nuclear powers.  

There is still an opportunity to restore balance to our commitments and resources. But time is running short.

Cris Lee: I imagine that it would be really difficult to make friends if they view our commitments as wavering in the Pacific.

Toshi Yoshihara: This commitment-resource gap has wide-ranging ramfications beyond the military competition. Our diplomacy, for example, is only as credible as the hard power that underwrites that diplomacy. A growing gap may erode our ability to persuade our Asian allies to act in the best interests of the region. This gap thus has as much to do with the larger diplomatic-political competition that is unfolding in Asia today as it does with the naval rivalry.

Cris Lee: What are the most important aspects that need to be tackled in order for the U.S. to retain its traditional maritime advantages in the Asia-Pacific? What policies and ideas could be pursued to that end?

Toshi Yoshihara: Rather than delving into the operational and tactical aspects of the competition, let me outline some of the larger prerequisites for strategic success.

First, we need to acknowledge that we face a competent, resourceful, and determined competitor. China’s rise as a seapower has already challenged our cherished beliefs and deeply-embedded assumptions about U.S. naval prowess that have persisted over the past three decades. It will—or ought to—force us to think about scenarios that we have not had to seriously ponder since the end of the Cold War. Conditions that we took for granted, such as uncontested command of the seas, are likely things of the past. Indeed, we need to think hard about a future in which a serious contest for sea control could take place in multiple theaters and across different operational domains at the same.

Second, in this far more competitive strategic environment, we need to get reacquainted with risk as an integral component of our statecraft. For too long, risk aversion characterized our calculus. We feared taking actions that might provoke China. We thought risk was, well, risky. This aversion to risk in turn fostered timidity, paralyzed decision making, and encouraged inaction. China, for its part, took calculated risks, pursued its ambitions, and changed facts on the ground in a resistance-free environment. Just look at China’s island-building campaign in the South China Sea. Xi Jinping took a calculated risk—at first not knowing what the Obama administration would do in response—and it paid off. We need to reciprocate Chinese risk-taking. Indeed, we need to do more to impose risk on China in the maritime domain and other areas of statecraft. Only when we approach risk as a normal way of doing business, just as the Chinese have treated risk, can we stay competitive.    

Third, we need to think more productively about the strengths and weaknesses on each side and exploit them to our advantage. They need not be strictly material. The intangibles matter, too. To leverage our inherent strengths, we need to revisit basic principles. We need to return to—and embrace anew—our Navy’s raison detre: to fight and win wars at sea. That is the foundational purpose of our naval power. We need to tap into our enduring strategic traditions that appeal to our way of warfare at sea. That means, in part, restoring our offensive-mindedness at sea and the derring-do that has been the hallmark of our Navy. The surface fleet’s concept of distributed lethality and its implementation are important initiatives in this context.

On the flip side, we need to assess enduring Chinese weaknesses. What can we do to take advantage of those weaknesses? Are there ways that we can tap into enduring Chinese fears to shore up deterrence? In reading the Chinese literature, I have come across repeated references to a longstanding Chinese psychological fear: the fear of being closed off from the seas and of being encircled by a hostile coalition of maritime powers. It seems to me that we should do whatever we can to play up those fears. In this context, we should take a page from the Chinese themselves and adopt anti-access measures at sea that target these psychological fears.

Finally, we need to work with our allies. I think this is one of our true competitive strengths. Frontline states like Japan can impose all sorts of costs and risks on the Chinese. Japan’s Southwestern Islands, which stretch offshore from Kyushu to the northeast coast of Taiwan, could play host to formidable anti-access weaponry. A string of anti-access bubbles along those islands would make large parts of the East China Sea extremely hazardous for Chinese air and naval forces. Think about stretching this anti-access bubble down through Taiwan and down through the Philippines. We could have a very formidable defensive architecture that would give the Chinese serious indigestion in wartime. Should cross-strait deterrence fail, for example, the United States and its allies could open up a massive geographic front that entangles China in a series of peripheral fights, drawing Beijing’s attention away from the main target, Taiwan. The very possibility that a Chinese military operation could trigger such a horizontal escalation would go far to shore up deterrence. Favorable geography and well-armed allies can thus be fused to shift the terms of competition in our favor today and into the future.

Cris Lee: Before we take our final leave, could you describe your recent work and anything else you would like to share with our audience?

Toshi Yoshihara: I’m very pleased to announce that the second edition of Red Star Over the Pacific will be published in December 2018. This is a major revision of the first edition. About 70 percent of the content is new.  This partly reflects just how rapidly the Chinese Navy has developed since the first edition was published.

When the book came out in 2010, many of its arguments, including the idea that China is going to become a serious seapower, were greeted with skepticism, if not hostility. The critics implied that we were overinflating the threat. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we arguably didn’t go far enough in describing the Chinese military challenge in the maritime domain. Today, the notion that China will be a permanent factor in maritime Asia is more or less conventional wisdom.

In addition to capturing the rapid development of Chinese seapower, we frame our overall argument within the larger context of Chinese grand strategy. I’m very excited about this upcoming publication and I hope it will be well-received among colleagues, friends, and other analysts in the strategic community.

Cris Lee: Dr. Yoshihara, thank you so much for your time. This has definitely been a thought-provoking discussion.

Toshi Yoshihara: Thank you.

Toshi Yoshihara is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). Before joining CSBA, he held the John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the U.S. Naval War College where he taught strategy for over a decade. He was also an affiliate member of the war college’s China Maritime Studies Institute. Dr. Yoshihara has served a visiting professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University; the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California, San Diego; and the Strategy Department of the U.S. Air War College. He is co-author of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy, which has been listed on the Chief of Naval Operation’s Professional Reading Program since 2012. The second edition is forthcoming in December 2018. Translations of Red Star over the Pacific have been published in China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Germany. He holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, an M.A. from the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and a B.S.F.S. from the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. 

Cris Lee is the Senior Producer of the Sea Control podcast. 

Featured Image: Chinese Type 055 destroyer (Liu Debin for China Daily)

Will the Revamped Xiangshan Forum Displace the Shangri-La Dialogue?

By Tuan N. Pham

Earlier this year, the author published an analysis comparing and contrasting the 2017 and 2018 Shangri-La Dialogues (SLD) in terms of Chinese themes, narratives, responses, and outcomes; and more importantly, surmising what message Beijing was trying to convey and assessing what the message portends for the United States, the Indo-Pacific, and the world.

The author posited that Beijing views the SLD as a confrontational international forum used by Washington and its allies to unfairly criticize (and contain) China. But despite the critiques, Beijing may also see some value, but not the overwhelming need, to participate in these multilateral dialogues and perhaps begrudgingly accept criticism in these forums as a natural outgrowth and accepted cost of its rise as a global power.

That said, Beijing may one day conclude with respect to opportunity cost that the juice may not be worth the squeeze. Why bother with the seemingly biased and fading SLD when it can focus instead on building up its own Xiangshan Forum (XF)? The regional forum is widely regarded in Beijing as an increasingly viable and desirable counter to the SLD. The forum can function as the security component to the ambitious and expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and more significantly, an integral part of a strategic agenda (the Chinese Dream) to displace the extant Western-oriented world order with one lacking dominant U.S. influence. If so, one can expect soon a resurgent, revitalized, and revamped XF after an unexpected and self-imposed one-year hiatus. The decision to temporarily suspend the XF is not clear. If indeed Beijing did decide to use the XF in the aforementioned manner, then the pause may be a deliberate structural reset to re-orient itself to a new role.  

None had to wait long. On 30 August, the Chinese Defense Ministry announced that the China Association for Military Science and the China Institute for International Strategic Studies  will co-host the 8th Beijing Xiangshan Forum (BXF) in Beijing from 24-28 October, 2018. Therefore, it is useful to examine the “restated” goals and objectives and discuss what it may mean for America, the region, and the international community.  

Restated Goals and Objectives

The theme of this year’s forum is “building a new-type of security and partnership featuring equality, mutual trust, and win-win cooperation.” Participants include defense authorities, military leaders, representatives of international organizations, former military and civilian officials, and scholars from 79 countries. They will meet and discuss ideas for new approaches to international security governance, terrorism threats and countermeasures, prospects for maritime security cooperation, and United Nations peacekeeping operations. Participants will also exchange perspectives during various special sessions and panels on the new dynamics in Northeast Asian security, ways and means of addressing the security issues in the Middle East, military and security confidence-building measures in the Asia-Pacific, and artificial intelligence and the conduct of warfare. Beijing hopes the forum will “further strengthen strategic dialogue and communications, accumulate consensus, deepen practical cooperation, and find ways to jointly respond to global challenges and jointly maintain peace and stability.”

The theme of the previous 7th Xiangshan Forum held 11-13 October, 2016 was “building a new type of international relations through security dialogue and cooperation.” Participants from around 60 countries discussed the role of militaries in global governance, responses to new security challenges in the Asia-Pacific through cooperation, including maritime security cooperation, and counterterrorism policy. Additional panel discussions included major power relations and global strategic structure, globalization versus deglobalization and the implications for international security, latest developments in terrorism and creative approaches to cooperation, and maritime crisis management and regional stability. Beijing had hoped the forum would “strengthen mutual trust, accumulate consensus, promote regional security cooperation, and jointly maintain regional peace and stability.”

All in all, the language and tone of this new forum is more assertive and forward-leaning than previous forums – reflective of a more confident and insistent China, who seems determined to move forward from Mao’s revolutionary legacy and Deng’s iconic dictum of “hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile, and never ever claim leadership” and now to promote abroad “socialism with Chinese characteristics in a new era (Xi’s Thoughts).” The plenary and special session topics underscore Beijing’s aspiration to be a respected global leader who has a say (and sway) in world events and issues, and perhaps lay the groundwork to eventually displace the extant Western-oriented world order with one without dominant U.S. influence in accordance with its strategic plan for national rejuvenation. If so, the forum is a convenient and opportune platform to offer developing countries an alternative economic and political choice of Chinese “benevolent” governance involving mutual friendship but not encumbering alliances (economic development with supposed political independence). In other words, developing countries in Africa, Central Asia, South Pacific, and South/Central Americas should take heed and carefully consider the Chinese model – a rising power and growing economic juggernaut that feels it does not have to make political accommodations to others.

Of note is the last panel topic on artificial intelligence. There has been plenty of reporting on robust Chinese investment in this emerging technology, particularly in the area of military applications. Some have even speculated that China has already surpassed the United States, and strongly urge Washington to make up for lost ground. If so, could this be Beijing trying to allay these growing concerns? China may be attempting to get ahead of the strategic issue by shaping and influencing international legal frameworks and accepted norms of behavior on the future development, deployment, and employment of artificial intelligence capabilities.

What to Expect

The BRI – Beijing’s trillion-dollar, transcontinental infrastructure enterprise to elevate Chinese global economic and political standing – needs an accompanying and complementary security framework with Chinese characteristics to guarantee the BRI’s continued expansion and future sustainment. The BXF is that security framework. The forum and the BRI (with its hidden nationalist agenda and subdued geo-strategic implications) promote and advance a new global political, economic, and security order under Beijing’s terms. Together, they constitute a new Chinese strategic approach that calls for the balanced integration of interests. These include long-term overseas economic development and concurrent domestic security reforms intended to safeguard and enhance the internal apparatuses of China’s socialist and authoritarian system until it can be the center of that new Beijing-oriented global order. 

Hence, in the coming years, expect China to subtly undermine the SLD while incrementally building up the revamped BXF as evident by the new competing theme to that of the extant SLD’s theme of “building confidence and fostering practical security cooperation by facilitating easy communication and fruitful contact among the region’s most important defense and security policymakers.” The scope, nature, and extent of China’s present participation in the SLD can best be summed up as taking the middle road (hedging). Beijing wants to respond to any policy criticism and challenge any narrative counter to their own at the forum, but does not want to openly endorse or promote the SLD. Beijing seems content for now to send a relatively lower rank delegation head to the SLD, limit its role in the special session, and reserve the right to speak at the higher visibility plenary session when warranted (only individuals of full ministerial rank can speak in plenary).

This hedging posture may transform over time to more of a balancing one that will directly challenge the SLD for regional preeminence. If so, Beijing will slowly draw down its participation in the SLD, while subtlety pulling away the other participants through a calibrated program of incentive (carrot) and intimidation (stick). First to go will be the regional countries already in China’s growing sphere of influence (Laos, Cambodia), and then other countries within region and the world, possibly similar to how Beijing picks off countries that formally recognize Taipei. Those that are contemplating withdrawal from the SLD may face increasingly forceful political and economic persuasion (coercion) to do so as part of a pressure campaign, while those that will continue to participate in the SLD will receive growing political and economic backlash as part of a retribution campaign. Countries saddled with BRI-related debts will face the most risk, and in time they may be given a stark binary choice – bend toward Beijing’s will or face economic consequences.

Beijing may also establish its own version of the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise to further advance the security component of the BRI. China and the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members states held the first-ever ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise (table-top) in Singapore on 2 August, with plans to hold a follow-on field exercise in China involving navies from all the participating countries later in October. If successful, Beijing may make this a recurring exercise and gradually expand its scope, nature, and extent of the exercise to eventually rival that of RIMPAC.

At the end of the day, the strategic conundrum for the United States will be whether or not to participate in the BXF if invited by China. There are two schools of thought on this matter.

Those in favor may argue non-participation would be a miscalculation. By not participating in the BXF, Washington would cede the strategic narrative and initiative to Beijing. Specifically, the United States would yield to China and like-minded nations a public platform to stake out their strategic positions unchallenged; and lose an opportunity to counter Chinese strategic messaging and further encourage China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system.

Those not in favor may suggest that in the early years of the BRI, Washington policymakers faced political and economic pressures to join the ambitious Chinese infrastructure project over the worrying prospect of being left behind. Contrary to conventional wisdom at that time, the U.S. government resisted the clarion call and chose not to join. In hindsight, the decision was the correct call given the political and economic difficulties that have emerged from the project. The same logic and rationale should be applied to the BXF. Resist the strong temptation to join in the false hope of changing  or reforming the BXF from within, and instead challenge the forum by continuing to offer countries an alternative security framework (such as the SLD) to accompany the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) economic strategy.

Conclusion

In terms of great power relations Beijing views itself as a destined rising power and Washington as an inevitable declining power. And both are seen as being interlocked in a strategic competition for regional and global preeminence. In this competition the Chinese BRI and BXF and its opposing counterparts – the FOIP and SLD – are the preeminent and enduring platforms in these contested economic and security battlespaces, respectively. The victor of this great power competition will determine not only the future course of the Indo-Pacific, but perhaps also the world.

Tuan Pham is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own.

Featured Image: Seventh Xiangshan Forum (South China Morning Post photo).

The Decisive Fleet Engagement at the Battle of the Yalu River

By Aidan Clarke

When war broke out between Japan and China in 1894, few expected a Japanese victory. Qing China had undergone its period of self-strengthening and modernization for much longer than the Japanese Meiji modernization period, had invested more money in its naval  programs and platforms, and the Japanese Navy was supposedly outmatched both qualitatively and quantitatively. However, at the Battle off the Yalu River the Japanese defeated the Qing Northern Fleet in a decisive battle. So what went wrong in Qing self-strengthening? What left the Chinese so vastly unprepared for naval conflict?

Upon a close review of both primary and secondary sources, three key answers emerge. Firstly, the lack of a unified Chinese Navy under the Qing Empire proved fatal in the First Sino-Japanese War. Second, corruption and inefficiency in the institutions of the self-strengthening movement ensured poor commanders and a lack of equipment in the Beiyang Fleet. Finally, Japan’s unified command, professional officer corps, rigorous training, and use of French Jeune Ecole tactics won the day.

Naval Power and Combat in the Sino-Japanese War

Li Hongzhang, the Chinese scholar, diplomat, and military leader, remains a critical figure in understanding the self-strengthening movement in China. He led modernization efforts across the Qing Empire, setting an example through his own Huai Army and the Beiyang (Northern) Fleet. Regional armies and fleets like the Huai and Beiyang soon became the model on which the Qing Empire built its new armed forces in the wake of the Taiping Rebellion. This practice would prove to have fatal consequences during both the Sino-French and Sino-Japanese Wars as factional politics would override any sense of national duty in the Northern and Southern Qing Fleets.

On paper, the Qing Navy dwarfed that of the Japanese in 1894. The total size of the Chinese fleet at the time was “about 65 large ships and 43 torpedo boats.”1 By contrast the Japanese could boast just “32 warships and 23 torpedo boats.”2 These numbers bely the true strength of each fleet however, as “China’s navy still had a fourfold division in the Beiyang, Nanyang, Fujian, and Guangdong Fleets.”3 This division was foolhardy for several reasons. For one, it meant that the Chinese were never able to apply overwhelming force or superiority in numbers during battle. Despite the fact that the Beiyang Fleet was the largest of the regional fleets, and technically could match the size of the Japanese Navy, during the decisive Battle off the Yalu River, the Japanese had an 11 to 10 numerical advantage.4

The biggest problem the division created was that each fleet was regionally loyal and lacked loyalty to a central command or state. During the Sino-French War, the Qing Southern Fleet was annihilated by a French surprise attack. The Beiyang Fleet did little to help the Southern Fleet in this predicament, as “Li Hongzhang only sent two of the ships requested from his Beiyang fleet, and he withdrew these from the battle by asserting that the Japanese threat in Korea mandated their return north.”5 While this may have seemed a prudent maneuver at the time, allowing Li to protect two of his modern ships from senseless destruction, it cost him in the future. Just as the Beiyang Fleet had protected its own ships during the Sino-French war, in the Sino-Japanese war “the Nanyang officers now got their revenge on the Northern Fleet by keeping the Southern Fleet out of war with Japan for the most part.”6 

Factionalism went beyond simply Northern versus Southern Fleet rivalries, as it even existed within the fleets themselves. Regional factions seem to have particularly irked Ding Ruchang, Li Hongzhang’s commander-in-chief of the Beiyang Fleet, where “there were many officers from Fukien in the navy, Ting Ju-ch’an (Ding Ruchang), being a Huai-chun man and being placed above them, found that his actions were constantly being circumscribed.”7 This reflects the latent issues of the regional army system as it created centers of power aside from the Emperor or the state. This in turn meant that there was a lack of loyalty, discipline, and efficiency in the fleet, all flaws that were exposed in the Battle off the Yalu River.

Another major issue faced by the Beiyang Navy was the corruption rampant in the late Qing empire. This was a major disappointment, since to many observers, the institutions behind the Self-Strengthening movement were initially very successful. The Japanese only began producing large scale warships some 15 years after the Qing successfully did so at the Jiangnan Shipyard. Even then those ships produced in Japan could not compete with those produced at Jiangnan where “In terms of armaments, those manufactured at the Jiangnan Arsenal were by and large superior to Japan’s.”8 The Fuzhou Shipyard, located further south, was even bigger, and where Dr. Benjamin Elman even refers to it as “probably the leading industrial venture in late Qing.”9 However, this success was not to last. Chinese regional leaders were skeptical of Li Hongzhang and the naval board, and refused to pay anything more than the bare minimum required for the basic maintenance of the fleet. They were wary of the naval board because, “its ineffectual Manchu director, Prince Chu’un, and his successor, Prince Ch’ing were unable to administer its funds properly and could not prevent the Empress Dowager from diverting the funds for other purposes.”10 Another observer commented that “the Admiralty has had big sums paid to it yearly the last ten years and ought to have a balance of 36,000,000 taels, and lo! It has not a penny, having allowed the Empress Dowager to draw on it for the many whims she has been indulging in.”11

Worse still was the impact the corruption within the Qing government had on the commanders of the Beiyang fleet, particularly those in command at the Battle off the Yalu. Even before the war this appeared to be a common concern amongst observers of Asian naval affairs, with one newspaper article commenting that the commander-in-chief of the fleet, Admiral Ding Ruchang, was not adequately trained for his role, “Ting (Ding), whose knowledge of naval matters does not fit him to do any of the real work.”12 Another article states that when compared to Japanese officers, the officers of the Beiyang fleet “labored and still labors under disadvantages arising out of birth, habit, and system.”13 The Qing Empire’s insistence on maintaining Chinese essence while embracing Western characteristics meant that soldiers and sailors remained undervalued in society, while Confucian scholars with little experience in war or tactics found themselves in positions of leadership. These ideas are reflected in secondary sources as well, with one going so far as to say that “Li Huang-Chang had characteristically staffed it (the Beiyang fleet) with ‘needy relatives and greedy henchmen.’”14 While the aforementioned article does seem to take a Japanese viewpoint, the author is correct in noting that Admiral Ding had no experience as a naval commander regardless of his past as an excellent cavalry commander under Li. In the end, the author’s label of Ding as “gallant but incompetent” seems to be fair.15

The ordnance supply officer for the Beiyang Fleet was Li Hongzhang’s son-in-law, Chang P’ei-lun, who Professor Wiliam Lockwood refered to as a “champion swindler.”16 He describes the cost of Chang’s corruption, whose ordnance department regularly filled shells with sand, and “When the shooting began, the Chinese fleet found that its total supply of ammunition amounted to fourteen shells per gun. Two 7,000-ton ironclads had only three shells in all for their 10-inch guns.”17 Benjamin Elman also notes that the Chinese were “hampered by woeful shortages of ammunition” at the Battle off the Yalu and that “Some were filled through the black market with cement rather than explosives.” Elman argues that this “suggests serious corruption problems in Li Hongzhang’s supply command.”18 Not only did this corruption limit the Chinese fleet’s ability to fire its guns during the battle, but having a limited number of shells also prevents effective live-fire gunnery training.

Japanese cruiser Matsushima pictured in 1896. Matsushima served as flagship of the Japanese Union Fleet at the Battle of the Yalu River. (Wikimedia Commons)

This lack of practice was certainly reflected in the opening exchanges of the battle, as the Chinese opened fire first, “The Chinese Admiral opened fire at a range of 6,000 meters (about three and three-quarters miles), the shot on both sides falling short, the effective range being around 5,000 meters.”19 The primary armaments of the main Chinese battleships fired 197 rounds, and scored just 10 hits.20 When they did hit, they knocked the Japanese flagship out of the battle, but they simply did not hit often enough to have a decisive impact. Overall, the Chinese fleet “scored about 10 percent of her tries. The Japanese, on the other hand, with their quick-firers scored about 15 percent of their tries.”21 While the Japanese ratio does not at first look overwhelmingly favorable, the Japanese guns had three times the rate of fire of their Chinese opponents, meaning that they were more accurate even as they fired many more shots.22

In perhaps the most staggering display of outright corruption, at the commencement of hostilities between China and Japan, Elman tells of an observer who noted that Chinese ships had about half their crews, while the salaries for the crews were still being paid in full.23 These gross indiscretions helped doom the Beiyang fleet at the Battle off the Yalu River. Underequipped, undertrained, understaffed, and with the wrong men at the helm, the battle could only go one way.

What is staggering is that for every institutional shortcoming suffered by the Chinese, the Japanese could point to an institutional success. While the Qing were unable to coordinate or consolidate their forces under a single command, the Japanese fleet was always unified, and trained extensively together as a single fighting force. This goes a long way to explaining the contrast in the conduct of the two fleets during the battle. While the Chinese opened fire from the extreme range of 6,000 meters, a Japanese account holds that the Japanese fleet held its fire until it had closed the distance to just 3,000 meters. Furthermore, the Japanese carefully coordinated their fire, “All the big guns on the Japanese vessels were directed towards the upper decks of the Ting Yuen (Dingyuan) and the Chen Yuen (Zhenyuan), the rest of the Chinese ships being fired at with guns of smaller caliber.”24 This tactical decision showed remarkable forethought on the part of Japanese commanders who knew their lighter weaponry could not hope to penetrate the armor belt of the two Chinese battleships. Although it is likely these sources were carefully checked by the Japanese government (who provided the authors with sources and documents), this tactic is borne out as fact by the reports which indicate that Admiral Ting was injured in the early stages in the battle, as Japanese fire crashed into the bridge of his ship and took out the signals mast, leaving him unable to communicate with the rest of the fleet.

Battle map of the fleet combat action at the Yalu River, 1894. By J. Hart, based on sketch by Philo N. McGiffin, 1895. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Japanese remained steadfastly disciplined throughout the battle while chaos reigned in the Chinese formations. This is due to the fact that while the Chinese had neither the funds nor the supplies for extensive training the Japanese prepared for war by “incessant training at sea. Special importance was devoted to gunnery, torpedo work, and steaming efficiency.”25 Another major failing of the Chinese fleet was the reluctance to create a true naval academy and professional officer corps. The Japanese did not hesitate to do so, forming a naval school in 1866. The Japanese naval academy had existed for nearly thirty years by the time the Sino-Japanese War began. Using graduates from the school Japan had built a professional officer corps, and could count on well-trained commanders throughout the fleet.

Chinese officers on the other hand, could boast of no such training. While some, like Captain Deng Shichang of the Zhiyuan, (who was recognized for his heroic conduct during the battle) had spent time overseas evaluating foreign fleets, they constituted a small minority, negating their impact in the chaos of battle. The vast majority of Chinese officers were trained in the Fuzhou arsenal, and “some observers described the Fuzhou-trained officers as cowards.”26

Chinese battleship Ting Yuen which participated in the Battle of the Yalu River. (Wikimedia Commons)

Many naval scholars suggest the Chinese focused too heavily on building ships while neglecting the training of their sailors. “The material growth continued at a rate more impressive than that of the Japanese Navy, obscuring the fact that the Chinese were doing little right other than acquiring more warships.”27 In Power at Sea, Lisle Rose attacks the Chinese mindset more directly, “China had chosen to concentrate on material power, Japan on the intelligence of its men behind the guns and in the engine rooms.”28 Perhaps the Chinese determination to adopt Western technology but maintain a Chinese essence blinded their mindset in this instance. The Japanese had no such pretensions, and strove to learn as much as possible about French Jeune Ecole tactics. Designed to help smaller fleets confronting a numerically and technologically superior enemy, these tactics were perfect for the young Japanese Navy. The Battle off the Yalu should be viewed as a textbook example of the Jeune Ecole in use against a quantitatively superior fleet.

Conclusion

The picture which emerges after an examination of the two fleets on the day of the Battle off the Yalu River yields up a stark contrast. The Chinese had more ships, thicker armor, and bigger guns, but were led by corrupt and incompetent officers, faced a dire shortage of ammunition, and had no overall strategy or tactics. Against them was a far smaller Japanese navy, designed and built around a cutting edge strategy taught to them by French officers, with a professional officer corps and years of extensive training at sea under their belts.

During the period from 1850-1941 practically every naval officer and expert was writing about the “decisive battle” that would invariably occur on the high seas in the next great war, where one fleet’s massive battleships would meet the others, and the two would go toe to toe just as Nelson and Villeneuve had at Trafalgar. This “decisive battle” seldom occurred however, with opportunities missed at Jutland, Heligoland Bight, Doggers Bank, Leyte Gulf, and more. But this decisive meeting of capital ships did occur at the Battle of the Yalu River and the Battle of Tsushima. This makes the Battle of the Yalu River one of the most fascinating moments in naval history.

The question of why the Qing failed despite their extensive modernization efforts and why Japan was so much more successful has occupied the minds of many historians throughout the years. Perhaps we have an answer in the form of Chinese failure to consolidate their regional fleets, rampant corruption, poor training, and inadequate personnel. These deficiencies were all exposed by a superior Japanese Navy off the Yalu River in the final, decisive battle of the Sino-Japanese War.

Aidan Clarke is an undergraduate student at Furman University, double majoring in History and Politics and International Affairs, with an interest in naval affairs. He has previously researched the U.S.-Soviet naval showdown during the Yom Kippur War, and is currently conducting a research project on the Russo-Japanese War.

The author would like to thank Dr. Lane Harris of the Furman University History Department for his assistance on the research and writing of this paper.

References

1. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Herbert, Hilary A. “The Fight off the Yalu River.” The North American Review, vol. 159, no. 456, Nov. 1894, pp. 513-28. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

5. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

6. Ibid.

7. Spector, Stanley. Li Hung-Chang and the Huai Army. Washington UP, 1964.

8. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

9. Ibid.

10. Spector, Stanley. Li Hung-Chang and the Huai Army. Washington UP, 1964.

11. Ibid.

12. “THE SOUTHERN CRUISE OP THE PEIYANG SQUADRON.” The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941) [Shanghai], 6 June 1890. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

13.“THE PEIYANG SQUADRON.” The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941) [Shanghai], 29 June 1894. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

14. Lockwood, William W. “Japan’s Response to the West: The Contrast with China.” World Politics, vol. 9, no. 1, Oct. 1956, pp. 37-54. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

19. “Summary of News: LATEST INTELLIGENCE HANDS OFF! RUSSIA IS FIRM LOCAL NEWS FROM HOME THE BATTLE OF PINGYANG THE NAVAL FIGHT AT THE YALOO THE MOOR APOLOGISES LOCAL NEWS FROM HOME TO REASSURE JAPAN BAD NEWS FROM ST. PETERSBURG THE MILITARY CONTRIBUTION OF THE STRAITS SETTLEMENTS THE JAPANESE AT HAIYUENTAO THREATENING NEWS THE NAVAL FIGHT OFF THE YALOO GREAT FIRE AT MANILA THE NAVAL FIGHT AT THE YALOO THE SAFETY OF THE TRANSPORTS THE NAVAL FIGHT AT THE YALOO.” The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941) [Shanghai], 28 Sept. 1894. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

20. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Eastlake, Frederick Warrington, and Yamada Yoshi-Aki. Heroic Japan: A History of the War between China and Japan. London, Sampson, Low, Marston, & Company, 1897.

25. Rose, Lisle A. The Age of Navalism, 1890-1918. Missouri UP, 2007. 3 vols.

26.  Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

27. Sondhaus, Lawrence. Naval Warfare, 1815-1914. E-book, New York, Routledge, 2000. Warfare and History.

28. Rose, Lisle A. The Age of Navalism, 1890-1918. Missouri UP, 2007. 3 vols.

Featured Image: The Battle of the Yalu River by Kobayashi Kiyoshi. (Wikimedia Commons)

Is the Belt and Road Initiative Too Big to Fail? Pt. 2

What could and should the United States do if the Belt and Road Initiative collapses? 

By Grant Newsham and Tuan Pham

Part one of this two-part series discussed the growing concerns of a Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) bubble that may burst, and that China’s hurried and reckless BRI investments through the years are beginning to drag down its already slowing domestic economy.

So to advance the strategic dialogue, let’s assume that the BRI bubble has, or is close to bursting, and is exacerbated by a weakened Chinese economy and a destabilizing trade war. In part two, each author individually offers his perspective on what America could and should do (and conversely not do) as the result thereof. 

Opportunities – What to Do 

Pham: Make the most of the strategic opportunity and build more economic leverage on the issues of China’s unfair trade policies and practices, discriminatory trade barriers, unequal trade balances, forced technology transfers, and intellectual property rights theft. Leverage the recent U.S.-European Union agreement to ally against China which has nearly broken the world trading system. Then, convert the accumulated economic leverage into additional political leverage in the geographic spheres of North Korea, South China Sea (SCS), East China Sea, and Taiwan and contested domains of space and cyberspace – similar to how Beijing uses the BRI. When appropriate and expedient, rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership to complement the other U.S. instruments of national power; bind America to the other regional economies; blunt the other Chinese economic initiatives like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; and ultimately offer an enduring alternative to the BRI. From there, use the added influence to further encourage and challenge China to become a more responsible stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system and uphold the international rule of law and respect for global norms (human rights, freedom of navigation, etc.); and in the long-run, possibly consider a grand bargain to adopt mutual agreements and avoid another Cold War (no large-scale conflict directly between the two sides, but each may be supported by major regional “proxy” wars) and the Thucydides Trap (a rising power challenges a dominant power leading to a great power competition for preeminence).

Of note, the concept of the Thucydides Trap has detractors who understandably and fairly warn against the Chamberlain Trap (avoiding conflict through concessions) and cite the years of ill-advised U.S. acquiescence and accommodation (strategic patience and wishful thinking) in the SCS. Nevertheless, no matter which side one takes on this philosophical debate, the reality remains that China and America are interlocked in a strategic competition for regional and global pre-eminence. So, how best to contain and manage this competition and keep it from escalating into a “no-win” conflict?

Newsham: Recognize that China’s objectives with the BRI are ultimately political. BRI is one front in an existential, multi-front campaign to displace and overtake the United States – and America’s pernicious notions of individual liberty, rule of law, and equality among nations – that have served the world well for the last 70 years.

As such, the U.S. Government (USG) ought to do several things with the BRI in mind. First, develop and implement a political warfare effort that exposes the BRI as ultimately a combination of colonialism and loan-sharking. As often as not, BRI investments and projects are over-priced, poorly thought out, and shabbily constructed; and benefit China and Chinese companies more than the recipient countries. 

Toward this end, the USG might also profitably direct its vast intelligence resources toward exposing the corruption and payoffs that are part and parcel of Chinese business and government efforts connected with the BRI. The USG bringing charges against Patrick Ho, a former top Hong Kong official, for bribing African officials on behalf of a Chinese company shows what is doable. Locals who resent Chinese heavy- and under-handedness will welcome exposure of such improprieties.

Second, keep trade pressure on China in response to longstanding unfair trade practices. This pressure – and attendant reductions in the foreign exchange needed to keep the Chinese economy chugging along – reduces funds available for BRI activities – to include investments, bribes, and bailouts. It’s ironic that U.S. and Western businesses have effectively funded the BRI efforts – not to mention China’s military development.

But it’s not enough to criticize China and the BRI – even if well founded. Indeed, one must admire China and Chinese companies’ willingness to get involved in countries where American companies refuse to go. The USG needs to work closely with the private sector and change the “risk profile” for American companies so they might show some initiative and go where Yankee Traders of old used to go. And since this is ultimately a political struggle, why not link the public-private partnership effort with that of allied countries such as Japan, Australia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and others?

In summary, recognize the BRI for what it is, expose its vulnerabilities and rapacious aspects, keep trade pressure on China and thus reduce the foreign exchange available for its BRI activities. And as importantly, the United States and like-minded countries need to offer a better alternative.

Challenges – What Not to Do

Pham: In light of the deepening economic stagnation, the present risk of domestic political instability may drive Beijing’s future foreign policy. Economic prosperity (purse) and nationalism (people) – buttressed by the People’s Liberation Army (gun) and propaganda (pen) – have long been the principal sources of legitimacy, credibility, and stability for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As the prosperity and nationalism wanes, President Xi Jinping (undisputed core leader of CCP) may increasingly rely on propaganda and security – tempered to a certain extent by fiscal constraints – to maintain the party’s (and his own) power and influence over the masses. In other words, make people look outward at the forest and not inward at the trees.

But here lies the strategic quandary for U.S. policymakers. The tricky part is to avoid strategic overreach and to find the right balance of making the most of the strategic opportunity without  triggering the CCP to a tipping point that elicits a strong nationalist response (including military confrontation).

Newsham: Don’t bail out Xi and China if they’ve been overextended on the BRI. They won’t appreciate the gesture. The more problems Beijing has with financially draining overseas ventures – and the inevitable local opposition they provoke over time – the less China can concentrate its efforts on military development and bringing its regional neighbors to heel while being able to take on its declared main enemy – the United States. It also dispels the image of inexorable Chinese domination.

Don’t try to calibrate just the right mix of pushback and engagement (to include on the BRI) that will make Beijing become a “responsible stakeholder.” Why should it? China has done well enough over the last 40 years without adjusting its behavior. Robert McNamara also tried “calibrated” pressure with North Vietnam. It didn’t work very well. Instead, stand up for America’s own interests and keep the pressure on.

Don’t consider the chance for a few American firms to make some money on BRI projects to outweigh the existential threat the CCP-led China poses to the free, liberal world order. And don’t forget that today’s China holds over one million people in internment camps and is trying to do the Uighurs what King Edward the First tried with the Scots. It is also a repressive security state along the lines George Orwell wrote about and where modern technology is creating new and unprecedented tools of oppression. At the end of the day, regardless of the highways, ports, and bridges it might build (for a considerable price and of questionable quality) in far-flung places, it should always be remembered that the BRI is an outgrowth of a staunchly authoritarian and repressive regime. 

Conclusion 

China risks big with the BRI, and accordingly, could lose big if indeed the declining trend lines are proven correct. If so, how does it impact Beijing’s strategic ambitions for national rejuvenation and ultimately global preeminence? But more importantly, how could and should Washington make the most of the strategic opportunity?     

Grant Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine Officer and a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.

Tuan Pham is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The personal views expressed therein are their own. 

Featured Image: Officials attend the groundbreaking ceremony of the rail project linking Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima, on Dec. 21 in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand. (Photo by Yukako Ono).