Crouching Tiger: China Acts, America Dithers

Will there be war with China? That may well be determined by which presidential candidate wins the White House this year, and what policies the new administration adopts.

The threat of conflict is real. Cambridge University’s Stefan Halper does not wish to “alarm people,” but he soberly notes the “profound differences” that China is “prepared to settle by force.” Harvard’s Graham Allison likewise warns of a “Thucydides Trap,” in which a rising China plays the upstart Athens to America’s Sparta, and fear leads to an arms race and war. Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies hedges this bet: “The US has to contemplate a future with China that will probably be benign but could very well be difficult, intense, and, in the extreme scenario, hostile.”

If a rapidly militarizing China seeks only to protect its homeland and the global trade routes it needs to prosper, the world can probably relax. But if China is also committed to expansionism and seeks to push the US military out of the Asia-Pacific region and take territory and resources from its neighbors, there may be conflict on the horizon.

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Beijing’s sense that a rapid military buildup is necessary to defend its homeland is rooted in China’s “Century of Humiliation.” From the 1830s until the end of World War II, foreigners, from the British, the Russians, and the Japanese to the Germans, the French, and the Americans, committed brutal acts—rapes, beheadings, port seizures, land grabs. To Toshi Yoshihara of the US Naval War College, “the historical lesson the Chinese have learned is ‘never again.’ Never will China be weak because this is what invited foreign aggression.”

That China’s military buildup is necessary to defend its trade routes is likewise historically based. Even as Deng Xiaoping began China’s remarkable transformation in the 1970s from a socialist, autarkic, and continental power into the global trading force it is today, his naval commander, Admiral Liu Huaqing, began to build the modern navy Deng’s new mercantilist China would need. In this sense, Liu was what Yoshihara and his coauthor James Holmes from the US Naval War College have called a “Mahanian” figure, an allusion to Alfred Thayer Mahan, the 19th-century American military theorist who pioneered the concept of global naval force projection as critical to economic prosperity.

Liu first articulated the three-step Mahanian strategy China appears to be following today. In step one, China breaks the bonds of the First Island Chain, which runs from the Kuril Islands and Japan through the center point of Taiwan and across the Luzon Strait to the Philippines and down to Malaysian Borneo. As Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation notes: “If the First Island Chain is in the hands of countries antagonistic towards China from Beijing’s perspective, then it is a barrier to China’s ability to reach the open ocean.”

In step two, China breaks through the Second Island Chain, which runs from the Kuril Islands to New Guinea, directly through the anchor of American power in Asia, the island fortress of Guam.

Finally, by 2050, China becomes a global blue-water navy projecting its power around the world.

If China does indeed succeed in controlling the waters of the Asia-Pacific, it will only do so through the defeat—or acquiescence—of the United States. Of course, any such outcome would open the door to aggressive and revisionist Chinese behavior toward its neighbors, in much the same way a revanchist Russia now bullies Eastern Europe.


Much is at stake strategically and economically in this new “great game.” Strategically, whoever controls the South China Sea’s gateway to the Indian Ocean, through the narrow and perilous Malacca Strait, also controls Southeast Asia—and perhaps East Asia, too, given that much of the oil that lights the lamps of Japan and South Korea must first pass through the South China Sea.

In addition, the modern “silk and spice” trade accounts for a third of global shipping, while the waters of the East and South China Seas are also home to fertile fishing. Meanwhile, beneath more than a million square miles of seabeds may lay petroleum reserves comparable to the Persian Gulf’s.

In the South China Sea, China has already “salami sliced” the Paracel Islands from Vietnam and flaunts floating oil rigs flanked by flotillas of Chinese warships in waters claimed by Hanoi. China has similarly taken Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines and remains locked in a long-term battle over Second Thomas Shoal. China even eyes the rich gas fields of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands—almost 1,000 miles from the Chinese mainland.

In the East China Sea, Japanese military forces likewise remain locked in an upward-spiraling dispute over the Senkakus, five small rocky islands with a landmass of less than two square miles. This bitter confrontation, tinged by ultra-nationalism, has already led to mass anti-Japanese riots on the Chinese mainland, as well as moves toward an increased war-fighting capacity on the part of Tokyo, and threatens to draw US forces into the conflict.

Many observers seem befuddled by China’s increasing aggressiveness over such small “rocks in the sea.” However, the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Treaty entitles nations commanding any such habitable rocks to a full 200-mile “exclusive economic zone” that conveys natural resource rights to the holder. Thus, as the Cambridge scholar Stefan Halper explains, a continental power like China can greatly extend its maritime rights in “concentric circles” with a “leapfrog effect” simply by taking control of small, disputed islands.

The Law of the Sea Treaty has also greatly complicated US-China relations. China takes the novel position—nothing in the treaty supports it—that freedom of navigation and overflight by military vessels and aircraft are restricted not just within a nation’s 12-mile territorial limit but also within the 200-mile zone. If China’s “closed seas” doctrine were accepted, this would give China control over the most lucrative trade routes in the world.

This jurisdictional clash has already led to numerous confrontations, from China taking hostage the crew of a downed US reconnaissance plane in 2001 to a more recent provocative barrel roll by a Chinese fighter jet over a Navy patrol aircraft. On the high seas, Chinese forces have similarly buzzed the unarmed USS Impeccable, an ocean surveillance ship, and attempted to block the USS Cowpens, a guided-missile cruiser, from operating in international waters.


One key reason nuclear bombs never fell during the Cold War is that the US and Soviet Union talked. For example, the American president and Soviet premier shared a “hotline” starting in 1963, and naval commanders regularly engaged in “bridge to bridge” communications.

No such “circuit breakers” exist today between China and the United States. Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Kurt Campbell frames the strategic divide this way: “The United States is all about showing what we’ve got. Look how powerful we are.” China, by contrast, “seeks deterrence often through uncertainty, leaving potential adversaries with questions as to just how capable they are.” David Lampton of Johns Hopkins University adds: “So we have us believing clarity leads to deterrence and China thinking that obscurity and non-transparency will.”

There is a similar strategic divide when Chinese and US military ships find themselves in close proximity—as they are increasingly wont to do. From the American perspective, bridge-to-bridge communication is critical to prevent miscalculations. To China, Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt of the US Institute of Peace explains, such communications are “seatbelts for the speeders.”

Indeed, Chinese military commanders believe it is good for their American counterparts to worry about what a Chinese response might be since this will make them more cautious. They sometimes seem oblivious to the fact that, as Campbell says, “things can get out of hand.”


The twin pillars of Chinese military strategy—area denial and asymmetric warfare—likewise point to possible conflict ahead.

Mark Stokes of the Strategic Studies Institute translates anti-access and area-denial practices as “interdiction.” China’s goal, according to Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is to “prevent other countries, particularly the United States, from having the capability to intervene in waters or airspace near China in a crisis.”

China’s companion asymmetric warfare strategy is “not seeking to counter the United States military on a one-on-one basis, as occurred during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union,” according to Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon. Instead, “the Chinese are developing niche weapons systems.” Toshi Yoshihara, the War College scholar, says: “Part of the dark beauty of China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy is that it relies on really very striking cost asymmetries. For example, an aircraft carrier costs billions of dollars while a salvo of Chinese missiles is priced in the millions; and it may take only one Chinese missile getting through to score a mission kill. It’s not a competition the US can win. The Chinese can build many more missiles than the Americans can build capital ships.”

Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace describes China’s heavy reliance on tip-of-the-spear missiles to attack targets in all dimensions as “the poster child of asymmetric warfare.” As he explains, “The key thing ballistic missiles and land-attack missiles bring to the table is suppressing air defenses. Once you suppress air defenses, then you can bring in conventional fighter bombers.” “So if you’re in Taiwan, or you’re in Japan, or even if you’re in Vietnam,” says Dan Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute, “you face the prospect of Chinese missiles that can hit you. So every time you’re negotiating with the Chinese, you have a gun to your head.”

It’s not just China’s neighbors who are at risk. Lyle Goldstein of the US Naval War College sees China’s new highly maneuverable, hypersonic airborne glide vehicle as particularly threatening to US forward bases and aircraft carriers because of the “immense speed that it re-enters the atmosphere.” Gertz elaborates: “All of our missile defense capabilities are designed for ballistic missiles and other targets that have a fairly predictable trajectory. Once you have a maneuvering warhead that’s traveling at up to ten times the speed of sound, it has made our missile defenses relatively ineffective.”


China’s inventory of sea mines—the largest in the world—and its burgeoning submarine fleet fit hand-in-glove with these strategies. The purpose of mine warfare is not to sink ships per se but rather deny access through a combination of psychological terror and the lengthy time required to effectively sweep mines. (During the Gulf War, for example, despite expensive US minesweeping efforts, two Iraqi mines costing less than $50,000 each scored a mission kill on a billion-dollar cruiser, the USS Princeton.) Bernard Cole of the National Defense University views sea mines as a particularly difficult hurdle in any Taiwan scenario because Taiwan has only two major ports. Says Yoshihara: “If the Chinese can conduct the first move, and sew mines in the approaches to those ports, Taiwan would essentially be sealed off. There are no other alternative ports that would be able to provide the sufficient throughput [i.e., free travel] to keep Taiwan going.”

China’s mines work synchronously with China’s diesel-electric submarines. Virtually all of China’s new subs (by 2020, according to Pentagon estimates, Beijing will have amassed the world’s largest fleet, at some 69–78 boats) are equipped with foreign air-independent propulsion systems—and many of its old subs are being retrofitted. Notes Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center: “Conventional diesel-electric submarines are already very quiet and difficult to find. With air-independent propulsion, they become phenomenally more deadly, especially to American aircraft carrier battlegroups.”

Yoshihara envisions a nightmare scenario of forward-deployed Chinese conventional submarines lying in wait for an American carrier strike group and then launching their long-range, anti-ship cruise missiles in “salvo fires” to overwhelm fleet defenses. Such a scenario not only recalls Joseph Stalin’s adage that “quantity has a quality of its own,” but also calls into question the widely held belief that the technological superiority of the American military machine will always triumph.

Princeton’s Aaron Friedberg offers this sobering perspective: “The American intelligence community has been surprised by the quality of the systems the Chinese have been able to field, and part of the reason is that they’ve been stealing intellectual property.” As a result, China can now produce drones identical to their American counterparts. It has also begun to field the most advanced fighters, like the Chengdu J-20, decades before the Pentagon expected; and, unlike budget-constrained America, which cancelled its own advanced fighter, the F-22, China will churn out massive numbers of whatever weapons systems it chooses in much the same way America once did during World War II to overwhelm the often technologically superior German forces.


China has also openly embraced a two-pronged “carrier killer” strategy to deny US forces free access to the Asia-Pacific while moving into disputed islands in the East and South China Seas, into the hills of North Korea, and even into the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as “Southern Tibet.”

How will the peace be kept under these mounting pressures? America has certainly made a big bet on the power of economic engagement to transform China from a belligerent, authoritarian regime into a peace-loving liberal democracy. However, as Ian Fletcher of the Coalition for a Prosperous America notes: “Economic growth in China has not led to its becoming more democratic. It has simply led to a more sophisticated, better-financed form of authoritarianism.”

What is needed is a more textured understanding of the role of economic interdependence in deterring—or creating—conflict. If a country like China is heavily dependent on trade for goods vital to national security, that country may actually be more likely to go to war as economic interdependence rises. Such interdependence helped lead Germany—fearful that both France and Great Britain would deny the food, iron ore, and oil it needed to prosper—to attack in 1914. Nor was this simply German paranoia: France and Britain both openly discussed embargoes leading up to the war, in much the same way analysts like T. X. Hammes of the National Defense University today recommend the “economic strangulation” of China in the event of a conflict.

The Princeton scholar Aaron Friedberg’s cautionary note about trade may be worth recalling here: “Countries that have intense trading relationships do not necessarily have good strategic or political relationships; and, historically, countries with intense trading relationships have sometimes gone to war with one another.”

As for the nuclear deterrence argument, Carnegie’s Ashley Tellis counters that China’s emergence as a credible nuclear power actually increases the risk of conventional war “because China has steadily acquired the capabilities to prevent the United States from coming to the assistance of its friends in Asia.”

Toshi Yoshihara explains the stability-instability paradox underlying such risk: “If the Chinese can superimpose their anti-access strategy, that might create strategic space for China to conduct conventional offensive military operations within the Asian maritime theater. And so, having nuclear weapons does not necessarily ensure that there will be no war. It simply opens up different avenues for different kinds of wars.”


If we cannot count on economic engagement, trade interdependencies, or nuclear weapons to deter conflict with China, what other pathways to peace remain? Some will no doubt say that instead of pivoting to Asia, the US should stay at home and leave the region to the Chinese. But as Forbes columnist Gordon Chang has pointed out: “America’s first line of defense is not Alaska and California but rather South Korea and Japan,” and America’s forward bases play an important strategic role in missile detection and defense. It is also useful to remember here that America is, and ever has been, a trading nation; and a freely accessible Asia offers the most rapidly growing markets in the world.

Barring a neo-isolationist retreat, what must our policy be? Any answer must begin with the observation that if America merely seeks to match China bullet for bullet, the result will likely be an escalating arms race that either bankrupts one or both countries or ends with a very big bang.

Michael Pillsbury, a Pentagon analyst, offers a sobering warning: “If we face a thousand Chinese anti-ship missiles, there’s no way to stop them all. The world we’re moving toward is a world in which the Chinese economy has surpassed us and is growing toward being twice as powerful as us. That means if they want to, their defense spending can be focused on us; and it can exceed our defense spending.”

How can our next president deal with this growing Chinese encirclement? The answer lies in what the Chinese themselves call “comprehensive national power,” a concept deeply rooted in Sun Tzu’s famous maxim that “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” As Wu Chunqiu of China’s Academy of Military Science puts it: “Victory without war does not mean that there is no war at all. The wars one must fight are political wars, economic wars, science and technology wars, diplomatic wars. Although military power is an important factor, in peacetime it usually acts as a backup force.”

Consider, for example, the national synergies required just to build a nation’s “backup” military capabilities. Such synergies begin with a strong economy, capable of both manufacturing weapons and generating tax revenues to pay for them. However, to have a strong economy, a nation must have a highly skilled work force—and therefore an equally strong education system.

At the same time, rapid innovation and technological change can only take place in the presence of a financial system delivering the capital investment to drive research and development, and a tax system rewarding entrepreneurship. Nor will any domestic economy prosper without ready access to foreign markets. Such access not only requires strong alliances among trading partners. It also demands freedom of navigation, which brings the synergistic process right back to the need for a strong military to keep the seas and skies open for trade.

David Lampton, the Johns Hopkins scholar, says that when American power is healthy in this comprehensive way, the Chinese will respect the US. If America declines, however, “the Chinese are going to be more difficult to deal with.”

Still, a nation with a strong economy, a fine education system, a stable political order, a wealth of natural resources, and a superb labor force that is poorly armed will still be easy prey for any well-armed adversary with malicious intentions. Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security describes the kind of “balanced force for the 21st century” America needs “in large enough numbers” to achieve peace through military strength: “I need my carriers, aircraft, and submarines. I need stealth, and I need to be able to patrol the sea lines.  At the same time, I need to keep investing in cyber and space technologies and unmanned aerial vehicles and long-range unmanned systems because those technologies could be game-changers.”

Aaron Friedberg of Princeton believes it is equally critical to reduce the vulnerability of American forward bases in Asia through a four-corners strategy of hardening, dispersing, diversification, and force restructuring.

“Hardening” means moving fuel supplies and weapons caches deep underground, siloing aircraft, and pouring literally tons of concrete on literally tons more of steel rebar to fortify runways and buildings, barracks and piers.

“Dispersing” means redeploying both bases and ships in ways that “would make targeting a much more complicated issue for the Chinese.” Toshi Yoshihara recommends, for example, dotting Japan’s Ryukyu Islands with an archipelago of much smaller facilities rather than just offering big bull’s-eyes like Okinawa and Guam.

“Diversifying” means expanding American bases and facilities into countries not currently hosting a large American presence, like the Philippines and Vietnam. Says Dan Blumenthal: “If Chinese decisionmakers have to think about hitting many targets in many countries, that is a far bigger deterrent than just having to hit a few bases in Japan or a US aircraft carrier.”

Friedberg also wants to turn the asymmetric warfare and area-denial tables right back on China through force restructuring. Here, James Holmes recommends moving away from those sitting-duck carrier strike groups beloved by the Navy’s top brass to an array of Virginia-class attack subs deployed across the major chokepoints of the First and Second Island Chains.

As for other weapons systems, one of the biggest questions facing the next president is likely to be the need for a new long-range strategic bomber. A $21.4 billion development contract was awarded to Northrop Grumman last October, but questions remain as to how many might eventually be built—and who ascends to the White House in 2017 will certainly matter. As Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute has stated in making the pro-bomber case:

Our youngest B-52 bomber is fifty years old and we’ve had close to three generations of pilots flying the same planes—grandfathers, fathers, and sons. They are wonderful airplanes, but they can’t survive against today’s automated missile defense systems. Plus, we only have twenty B-2 Stealth Bombers, and they’re getting old as well. So we need a new bomber, and we need the F-35 in far greater numbers to be able to clear the ground and the skies if need be, and we need to do this as much for military reasons as for political reasons; and it’ll actually bring more stability to Asia, not less.

Beyond these concrete steps, Georgetown lecturer Phillip Karber calls for a policy of “reciprocal response” vis-à-vis China: “You go into arms control and you reduce your forces, then we reduce our forces. You start doing provocative things like adding more and more missiles and threatening our bases and our allies, we will respond.”

Ironically, even though such threats make this a good time to build up alliances, false promises and neglected relationships has squandered the opportunity.

Consider the Obama administration’s failed “pivot” to Asia, announced with fanfare in 2011. The Pentagon is supposed to increase the percentage of its total naval fleet in the Pacific to 60 percent by 2020. However, because that fleet continues to shrink, the US will actually have fewer ships in total numbers in Asia in 2020 than when the pivot began in 2011. “As diplomatic and deterrent signals go,” says James Holmes, “this makes the pivot a pretty bush-league thing.”

Pat Mulloy, a former member of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, takes criticism of the White House’s military-centric pivot one step further, claiming the pivot strategy reveals a more fundamental lack of understanding about America’s pressing need to rebuild comprehensive national power. Advises Mulloy: “Now the president says we have to pivot toward Asia because we have a rising China. But China is rising because we’re running massive trade imbalances. So wouldn’t it make more sense to simply rebalance our trade deficit and not continue to have American consumers feed China’s rise? That would be the truly smart way to pivot towards Asia.”


To peacefully counter the serious economic and security challenges posed by a rapidly rising China, there must first be political consensus. However, achieving any such consensus will be difficult in an open democracy where economic interests are divided by their stakes in the China trade, lobbying groups would rather fight each other than band together in common cause, an authoritarian Chinese government is able to exert significant media control over the China narrative, and both Western journalists and American universities engage in systematic self-censorship.

In truth, this “house divided” assessment goes a long way toward explaining why democracies in the West, and America in particular, have been so slow to respond to a revanchist China. If this head-in-the-sand perspective persists, however, the story can only end badly. 

Peter Navarro is a professor at the University of California–Irvine and the author of the book this essay is based upon, Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World.  

Author’s note: The experts quoted in this essay were interviewed by the author for the book and companion documentary film series Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World. The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author and not necessarily the interviewees.

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