Monday, April 11, 2005

"Crouching Tiger, Swimming Dragon" 

Nayan Chanda, former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, considers Chinese ambitions in the western Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf in today's New York Times. Chanda remembers that it has been six hundred years since the last Chinese navy visited the region, when it sent massive ships (five times the displacement of Portuguese vessels 100 years later) and perhaps 25,000 sailors into the Indian Ocean, penetrating as far as Madagascar. That era of Chinese expansionism ended abruptly with the death of the Ming emperor Yongle.

Now, China is moving back to the region. It has signed a deal with Pakistan to deepen the port at Gwadar to accommodate much larger ships. Not surprisingly, the idea that the Chinese navy might have a base so close to the mouth of the Persian Gulf is at least a little unsettling to Washington, Tokyo and New Delhi. Both the United States and Japan have gone to war to prevent a rival from choking off their supply of oil, so they have seen this problem before. New Delhi does not like anything that even looks like support for Pakistan, and China has otherwise been working to box up India.
Analysts see Chinese-operated listening posts in Myanmar's Coco Islands, China's support for a port near Yangon for handling 10,000-ton ships (of which the Burmese have only a few) and another deep-water port at Kyaukpyu in western Myanmar, Chinese aid to the Bangladeshi port of Chittagong and plans to improve Cambodia's Sihanoukville as part of an incremental effort to build a "string of pearls" presence on the Indian Ocean rim.

Chanda recognizes that the project at Gwadar looks destabilizing, but argues that it may simply be to improve China's energy security:
China's thirst for energy is dictating its turn to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Since 1993 China has been a net oil importer; as its need has grown to 40 percent of total consumption, so has its dependence on oil from the Middle East. Eighty percent of China's oil imports pass through the Malacca Straits, the closing of which would wreak havoc upon the Chinese economy. To reduce this dependence, China has been working to build alternative supply routes through Myanmar to the south and Pakistan to the west. A road, and eventually a pipeline, from Gwadar could give China an alternative energy route that it urgently needs and spur the development of its westernmost provinces. Hence its plan to provide more than a billion dollars in aid and loan guarantees for building at Gwadar.

So far, China is working to diffuse the tension with India. Today, for example, China and India agreed to form "a strategic partnership", which could have significant implications for the security of both countries. But will that "partnership" increase, or decrease, the propensity of China to send its navy into the Indian Ocean? Is this agreement reassurance that China will stay away, or did India just trade away its ocean in return for security along the 2500 mile border that the two countries share?

China's economy is almost uniquely dependant on imports of raw materials, and even food. That dependance increases China's requirement that it control its sea lanes. Even if it never would have built a blue water navy to deal with Taiwan, it may now to ensure that no other naval power -- and there is only the United States -- can cut off its industrial oxygen. The economist David Hale has written an outstanding, factually intensive essay on this topic. Hale argues that China is feeling increasingly insecure about its ability to secure adequate supplies of raw materials -- China has already deployed 4,000 troops in the Sudan, for example, to protect its investment in an oil pipeline which it developed there with Petronas of Malaysia -- and that it will build a navy to protect its economic lifelines unless offered an alternative. Hale argues that the United States should learn to manage and guide Chinese intervention, rather than hoping to prevent it or contain it.
The challenge for the U.S. will be to demonstrate that it can accommodate China’s need for raw materials and play a cooperative role in helping Beijing to assure adequate raw material supplies. The U.S. has always supported a policy of open sea lanes and protecting private property. The U.S. should now reassure China that it will use its own military forces to assure the safety and security of Chinese vessels and others carrying critical raw materials. The U.S. should also attempt to collaborate with China in developing a common policy for third world countries. As with the Sudan, it is not difficult to imagine countries as diverse as the Congo, Papua New Guinea, or even Saudi Arabia turning to China for help in suppressing rebellions or protecting political elites. In the past, the U.S. would have reacted adversely to the deployment of Chinese troops anywhere. But as a result of China’s new role in the global commodity markets, the U.S. will have to recognize that China has new security concerns which it should attempt to manage rather than simply reject.

Is Hale's suggestion -- that the United States should soothe legitimate Chinese insecurities rather than confront them -- realistic? Why would the Chinese believe an American security guarantee? Even if it were credible over the short-term, why would China believe it over the long term? Still, Chanda notices that in spite of the worry, the Chinese navy has yet to materialize:
The fact remains, however, that with the exception of the Chinese "fishing trawlers" occasionally found mapping the ocean floor (information needed by submarines), the Chinese Navy has yet to show up. So for now, instead of raining on China's parade at Gwadar, India and the United States should welcome China's contribution to expanded maritime commerce and the additional sense of security that Beijing might derive from it.

Hale and Chanda are both optimists, or at least present themselves as such in these articles. However, whether or not China builds its navy, there is no advantage for American security or the U.S. economy in fostering Chinese insecurity.

UPDATE: More than a week ago, Dr. Demarche kindly invited me to participate in a blog burst on China. Consider this my very late entry, perhaps to be added belatedly to the long list of other participants.

UPDATE: My related post on the rearmament of China and the Taiwan security guarantee.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Apr 12, 01:47:00 AM:

The construction of the German Imperial Navy played a huge role in the run up to the Great War.

The first order of business for us, is the removal of that provision within the Japanese Constitution that limits military expenditure to 1%.

THEN, we need to closely cooperate with them, and the Aussies on a mutual Pacific rim strategy.

We need that F-22, and we neeed lots of 'e.

And then, prepare for the worst. For I don't share the economic rationalists conclusions on the emergence of the Chinese superpower.

They are killing off little girls, they crackdown on religioius dissent, they see the lowly Falun Gong as a threat, and they are awash in cash and beginning to walk with a swagger.

They're going to do something stupid, bank on it.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 13, 04:20:00 PM:

I agree they are a very dangerous force right now, and working on getting more dangerous- particularily to us. Many in Washington share this concern and in our briefs, China is taking an increasingly prominent position as a threat. They aren't the bumbling Navy they once were, and they know it. In fact, they are a little too confident and arogant in their powers.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 13, 06:33:00 PM:

The Chinese navy is no more a threat than the Chinese air force for reasons having to do with Chinese society. The Chinese political system is so fundimentally corrupt that it pollutes everything it touches and most especially military procurement and training.

I spoke of his in a post to Winds of Change in 2003.

See this:

The Myth of Chinese Air Power
by Trent Telenko at June 13, 2003


I also added the following in the comments section from an even earlier piece of mine Jerry Pournelle put up on his site here:


"Even assuming a "Paramount Leader" could arise to control the factions in the near future, the Chinese still couldn't pull off any of these strategies. The PLA Air Force is known as the "Center of Corruption in the PLA," according to James Dunnigan. The independent budget and testing oversight that force test after test of American weapons is lacking in the PLAAF. Tests are expensive and an embarrassing lost of face if they uncover failure. Testing is kept unrealistic, and done as few times as possible, as a result. A good historical analog is the performance of both American torpedoes and the U.S. Naval Ordnance branch early in WW2.

Then there is the final threat to this scenario: the Chinese version of the "DOT COM" brain drain. The foreign joint venture companies are raiding the Chinese military industrial complex for talented engineers and managers.

The brain drain of the "Dot Com" economy is blamed for several recent U.S. space launch failures. Reports are that the same is happening to the Chinese military in a much more threadbare industrial economy, as its technological culture is "one deep." That is a major drag on any Chinese military buildup and ensures what they build cannot be maintained.

"Building missiles" does not mean, "building missiles that work." This is a fact the Chinese are well aware of in light of their reaction to the possibility of American strategic missile defenses.

The wonderful thing about building ballistic missiles rather than a large air force or navy is that you can parade junk and it looks threatening. That is why American ballistic missile defenses are so fundamentally unacceptable to the Chinese. They neutralize the implied political threat those missiles represent, and destroy Chinese illusions of power because they will believe our defenses work while their missiles won't. When you combine the brain drain problem with the rampant corruption loose in the Chinese PLAAF, and lack of direction above, the odds approach certainty that any long-range missile built by the Chinese, and launched by the regular military under combat conditions, will fail.

Remember that even in our checks and balance driven procurement system, the USA did not build reliable SLBM/ICBMs during the Cold War.

The Polaris missile had corroded safety interlocks that rendered its nukes inert until the mid-1960s. A Titan 2 missile blew up because someone dropped a tool on a fully fueled missile in the 1980s. Only 3 of 7 "combat ready" Minuteman were successfully launched from active silos in early 1980s realistic tests ordered by then Defense Secretary Casper Weinburger - realistic compared to the standard phony tests from Vanderberg AFB silos of carefully reworked Minuteman ICBM's. Our MX Peacekeeper ICBM's were rendered unusable for half a decade because of a defense contractor defrauding the government with faulty guidance gyros.

The kicker here was that the Soviets missile serviceability rates were half what American ballistic missiles were.

If we had such problems, and the Soviets' were far worse, how reliable will Chinese ICBM's be? How much of drain on China's economy will an attempt to build lots of land-based ICBM's be?"

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Jun 23, 08:46:00 AM:

There are no Chinese troops in Sudan guarding pipelines. I work out here & have been around the oil producing areas and never seen any nor have the dozens of other expats who have surveyed, driven, flown and worked the whole area. Where did this myth come from?  

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