The Game No One Wants China To Start

4 Mar

China Navy CartoonAt first glance, China’s naval buildup is frightening (via Foreign Policy).

A report posted on the website of the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, the largest state-owned shipbuilder, this week said the Ministry of Science and Technology had approved funding to its 719th Research Institute for two research projects, including core technologies and safety studies for nuclear-powered ships, as well as technical support for small nuclear reactors.

The shipbuilding giant is also the top contractor of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and took charge of the refitting work for China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.

Military experts said the report indicated that Beijing was formally kicking off its plan to develop indigenous nuclear-powered carriers.

Fortunately, according to Andrew Erickson, China is becoming a less opaque about its budgeting priorities.

As this article will demonstrate, however undesirable to foreign observers the PRC’s military build-up may be, the trajectory of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is increasingly amenable to external analysis: it is focused primarily on explicitly identified contingencies and is not particularly surprising. To be clear: to say that China’s military trajectory is not as mysterious as is commonly believed is not to say that the PLA’s growing capabilities should not be an issue of concern to other states or that China’s military has achieved a sufficient level of transparency; nor is it to deny that some of China’s recent rhetoric and behaviour toward its neighbours in East Asia has had a deleterious effect on regional stability. Nevertheless, inferences about China’s strategic intentions and judgments about the appropriate policy response should be based on a full consideration of the available data, rather than focused only on the concerns raised by what some might term the “known unknowns” about China’s military trajectory.

To be sure, remaining uncertainties are significant. The lack of reliable open-source data, and infeasibility of confirming the veracity of those data that are available, hinders efforts to determine total military spending figures and intra-PLA spending priorities and capabilities. Given this reality, such figures are best estimated deductively from doctrine and inductively via an examination of procurement patterns of specific platforms and weapons systems. Specific estimation is extraordinarily complex and depends on data typically unavailable to scholars. For these reasons, linkage of funding estimates to specific capabilities is beyond the scope of the present study.

Good news, China is no different than any other intelligence target; bad news, be wary, South Korea, Japan and all the flora and fauna in the near seas.

Yet, American allies are to a certain extent trapped in a certain strategic dynamic that should prompt caution, not alarm. Again, if one thinks states are aggressive, maximizing wannabe hegemons than ignore the following. States’ priorities are defensive, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get mired into a downward feedback loop.

The naval situation along the coast of China could be charitably described as a ‘nonlinear dynamic’; a variable subject to a multiple of causes and self-reinforcing effects. Others would use the term ‘confusing mess’. Each of the countries that interact strategically with China in the East and South China Seas has a submarine capability of some description, and most are expanding those forces. China itself is engaging in the expansion of its submarine forces. In order to understand the impact of this, it is necessary to understand the strategic system in which these forces operate, identify the variables in the situation and explore the risks and consequences that are likely from their interaction. I will begin by describing the capabilities of these forces and states that interact in the South China and East China Seas, as not all submarine platforms are designed for the same role. Secondly, I will discuss why these states are seeking to develop their capabilities in these areas. Finally, I will explore the relation between deterrence and anti-access.

In his work on a potential U.S.-China conflict, Aaron Friedberg asks the question: ‘is conflict with China inevitable?’ While an answer to this question is perhaps too ambitious for this paper, Friedberg’s method is pertinent to unpacking this topic. Core to his analysis of the Chinese security environment and its future is the concept of feedbacks.[1] Certainly, over time feedbacks loops are possible; using the analogy of liberalism, domestic economic growth, democracy and international trade can be seen to become a feedback loop. From such a view, to borrow the old Marxist phrase, it is no accident that prosperity and democracy are correlated. What becomes clear from this is the interaction of variables, both independent and dependent. By studying these variables we can see how independent and reinforcing positions create the international system.

As a concept, anti-access is primarily defensive in orientation. It is, in effect, the application of force to deny operational space to one’s enemy. In this context, defensive simply means that one is responding to the forces of the other and seeking to both counter them and deny them access to territory. In the case of China, that strategy focuses on the East and South China Seas. Certainly, we can envision circumstances in which area denial can be strategically offensive, but it remains primarily an action contingent on the capabilities of another. Interesting, this conceptual separation between offense and defense is not found in the Chinese understanding of the anti-access strategy.[2] The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) planners who have approached the topic call their position ‘active defense’.[3] Anti-access as a concept does not really exist within the Chinese literature. Chinese authors certainly reference Western works on the subject, and the term aptly describes the Chinese doctrine that focuses on defeating militarily superior opponents.[4]

From the Chinese point of view, the greatest conventional threat is from the military preponderance of the United States. In order to provide the most descriptive analysis to the strategic situation between the United States and China, it is important to acknowledge the wider developments in Chinese defense capabilities. Within these changes to the force structure and capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army, Navy (PLAN) submarines play only one part of a broader strategy. The submarine forces within the PLAN are part of a three-component expansion of anti-access capabilities.

The other components are missiles and carriers, BTW. The author goes on to suggest an alternative framework by which China, the United States, and regional middle powers are susceptible to a multi-layered series of feedback loops.

If, however, anti-access is a contingent strategy, dependent upon the forces of another, such forces can usefully be described as dependent variables. The key to contextualizing a security dilemma is to identify the independent variable. In the case of the South China Sea, the PLAN finds itself engaging in a reactive manner to the force power of the USN, the increasing capabilities of the PLAN, however, has caused the USN to develop a counter-doctrine.[9] What then develops is an interaction between dependent variables, creating feedbacks that reinforce the other. In the case of the regions under discussion, the deployments of the other are being reacted to, in order to pursue or counter a strategic advantage of the other. Each, by acting defensively, creates the interaction of two dependent variables, causing feedbacks that can lead to escalation: the very definition of a security dilemma.

On top of this there are a number of other relationships that fortunately do not stack up into a quantum of regional power, but they do exacerbate the feedback problem.

Additionally, the PLAN faces the reality that its forces have become an independent variable for other states in the region; regardless of whether these forces are seen as a threat, states that wish to develop their own security are forced to respond. Vietnam, for example, is purchasing six capable Kilo Plus Class Diesel submarines from Russia.[15] Although the threat Vietnam represents to China is asymmetric, they increase the cost of conflict. Japan is also increasing its submarine fleet by six to a total of twenty- two.[16] This trend, found in the case of Vietnam and Japan, can also be seen in Australia, which is seeking to double its submarine numbers to twelve boats.[17] The Philippines is also seeking to field its first submarine in the next eight years, and Malaysia has purchased two submarines from France and Italy.[18] A major expansion of the submarine capabilities of the Republic of Korea is underway with the order of nine modern German-designed submarines, which will effectively double the total number of submarines.[19] India is also expanding its submarine forces, building on a base of ten Kilo-Class submarines, it has also leased two Russian Akula-2 Class nuclear attack submarines and is now purchasing six more from France and Italy.[20] From these figures, it becomes evident that there is a noticeable amount of submarine expansion occurring in the region. The focus on quiet, short-range boats indicates that a large amount of these purchases are being made to operate in the South China and East China Seas; given that the limited range precedes long range deployments.

From the widespread increase in submarine acquisition, it is clear that other states are reacting to the expansion of capability by the PLAN.[21] It is evident that Chinese defense modernization and expanding interests are causing feedbacks within the regional system PLAN expansion might be a contingent reaction to the USN’s preponderance in power, but other states are in turn responding to China. As such, the security dynamic that includes the United States and China has created security dilemmas throughout the region. As each state seeks to preserve its own security, it undermines the security of others. Given the territorial disputes and historical factors at work within the region, the area is especially susceptible to the creation of these security dilemmas. The interaction of these variables does, however, help us to structurally interpret the security system in which they operate.

I find security dilemma discussions illuminating if somewhat challenging. What’s missing from this discussion is any insight into what bureaucracies and human players are thinking.

So, we know the problem, but can we stop dancing fast enough when the music stops? What was that line from War Games? “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

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One Response to “The Game No One Wants China To Start”


  1. * China to buy super quiet Russian submarines to counter US aircraft carrier | CHINDIA ALERT: Hidden Dragon, Crouching Tiger - 11 March 2013

    […] The Game No One Wants China To Start ( […]

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