Notwithstanding the facile talk of China’s “gains” from Donald Trump’s imagined withdrawal from the world, Beijing is no position to lead the world. Instead it is very close to imperial overstretch. A new U.S. strategic approach should hasten a Chinese reckoning with its geopolitical troubles.
Contrary to the recent, post-Davos “wisdom” about a new era of Chinese global leadership, things do not look good for Beijing. The Chinese economy continues to struggle and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Secretary-General Xi Jinping believes that China faces a deteriorating security environment. Even so, China continues to expand its grandiose foreign policy ambitions, slowly extending its control over the South China Sea while also planning to create a “New Silk Road” linking Asia with Europe. But China is biting off more than it can chew.
The CCP was founded on an anti-imperialist doctrine and is offended by the suggestion that it rules an empire. Nevertheless, it does. Indeed, China is the world’s last standing multi-ethnic empire. Its physical borders today mirror those of China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, whose emperors conducted the greatest imperial expansion in China’s history. From the 17th to 19th centuries, they succeeded in conquering Xinjiang, Tibet, Mongolia, and Taiwan. By virtue of these achievements, the Qing expanded the empire to a truly continental scale.
With the exception of Mongolia and Taiwan, all of the Qing’s imperial conquests, including Xinjiang and Tibet, are again under Chinese control today. And Beijing has regained de facto suzerainty over Hong Kong as it exerts close to total control over the city-state’s politics.
Finally, the international community long ago accepted the CCP’s position that Taiwan is part of China, never mind that this “claim” is mostly based on the Qing imperial conquest of the island more than a century ago. Beijing’s continued hold over its empire is unique in global affairs. For some context, imagine if Turkey still controlled the Ottoman lands of the Levant and the Middle East. Or for another comparative image, what if the Austo-Hungarian empire still controlled much of Europe?
Today the CCP’s desire for more territory does not stop with the old Qing maps. Though the Qing Empire was not a maritime power, the CCP has “discovered” new imperial territories in its surrounding seas. Chinese commentators frequently refer to China’s “three million square kilometers of blue territory,” which would incorporate “nearly 90% of the area within the major bodies of water within the First Island Chain, including the Bo Hai, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea.”
China has claimed everything within the “nine-dash line” as its “indisputable territory”—this arbitrary series of dashes on Chinese maps encompasses the South China Sea. To advance this claim, Beijing has built over 3,000 acres of new “island” bases and deployed military forces to help control the surrounding waters. It has set up a provincial administration to govern these maritime “territories,” which directs its fleets of maritime militias and law enforcement agencies to harass foreign vessels.
All told, China’s territorial claims now extend from the westernmost reaches of Xinjiang, bordering Afghanistan, to the easternmost point in the East China Sea. The sheer expanse of Beijing’s claims might explain why Xi is so pessimistic about China’s security. The PLA must defend an overwhelming amount of land and maritime territory from “enemies” foreign and domestic.
Nonetheless, Xi Jinping is pressing ahead with a key component of his national development strategy, called “One Belt One Road” (OBOR)—a network of economic infrastructure projects linking China with more than sixty Central Asian, Middle Eastern, and European countries. This plan is intended to proceed along two distinct routes. First, the Silk Road Economic Belt, consisting of rail routes and oil and natural gas pipelines, will stretch overland from China, through Central Asia to Eastern Europe.
Second, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, made up of a series of port projects, will extend through the Indian Ocean and into the Suez Canal to reach the Mediterranean Sea. The underlying promise of OBOR is that Chinese infrastructure investment can link together China’s maritime and continental interests. Xi wants this program to be his stamp on China’s future, just as Deng Xiaoping was known for the policy of “reform and opening.” In practice, China will have even more territory and assets to protect.
Where Are the Resources?
Xi faces substantial economic headwinds as China enters a period of long-term economic stagnation. After the 2008 financial crisis, the Chinese government conducted one of the largest stimulus plans in history, leading to overcapacity and debt. The PRC’s national debt is in excess of $28 trillion. In a further sign of financial deterioration, Beijing’s foreign exchange reserves have fallen from $4 trillion in mid-2014 to $3 trillion at the end of 2016. China’s GDP growth rate has slowed to as little as half of what it once was during the mid-2000s. Some believe that the statistics of recent years are falsified, and that the annual growth rate has been between 3 and 5 percent for at least three years. That still might seem high for a Western country, but for a China still under pressure to create employment and social stability, it spells trouble ahead.
In addition, China has a rapidly aging society as the result of decades of the One-Child Policy. The Chinese workforce continues to shrink annually and the expense of caring for hundreds of millions of elderly Chinese is overwhelming. Beijing will spend vast sums of money cleaning up its environment—remediating soil pollution alone could cost over $1 trillion. Even doing the minimum to address these social ills will strain China’s fiscal resources.
If Xi were to face a real cost-imposing strategic challenge from the United States, it is hard to see how he could continue to devote the necessary resources to all of his social and foreign policy aspirations.
The Costs of the Empire
In pursuit of his ambitious foreign policy strategy, Xi Jinping has urged the Party to think of China as both a maritime and continental power. The Chinese government has continued to devote resources both to China’s naval build-up and to its vast internal security enterprise. At its current buildup rate, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) could have 430 major surface combatants and almost one hundred submarines by 2030. It is on the path to possessing the world’s largest merchant marine and coast guard fleet as well. While the defense budget growth is slowing a bit, this past year the PLA still saw a budget increase of nearly 8 percent.
To advance (or, from Beijing’s perspective, protect) its maritime plans, China has increased the tempo of its maritime exercises. For example, it sent its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, through the Miyako Strait within Japan’s southern island chain, in December 2016, going beyond the first island chain to conduct drills in the Western Pacific. Its maritime militias and coast guard fleets maintain a steady presence around the Senkaku Islands. Chinese vessels continue to maintain a presence around the Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing seized from Manila in 2012. Meanwhile, PLA rocket forces continue to improve their lethal precision strike capabilities, with over 1,000 SRBMs alone aimed across the Taiwan Strait. The PLA’s military build-up and increased “presence missions” require substantial new budgetary outlays.
On China’s mainland, 800,000 People’s Armed Police (PAP) troops patrol the streets of Chinese cities to crackdown on protests and prevent violent uprisings, particularly in the western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. Within what is known as the “Han heartland,” the CCP faces unrest as well. In turn, Beijing has engaged in the harshest crackdown on social and political activity since the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Repression is expensive, as is running an empire.
Beijing’s Continental Consolidation
The tenacious efforts by both the Republic of China and the PRC to reacquire and consolidate the territory of the Qing Empire remains among the least studied phenomena in China’s strategic history. Instead, most observers of China accept the official narrative of China’s “century of humiliation.” While China was doubtless a victim of Western imperialism, when it comes to imperialism, it has been no slouch itself.
All efforts by China, including the OBOR plan, on the Asian continent are driven in part by the need to pacify its territorial periphery. A 2015 Chinese National Development and Reform Commission report states:
We should make good use of Xinjiang’s geographic advantages and its role as a window of westward opening-up to deepen communication and cooperation with Central, South and West Asian countries, make it a key transportation, trade, logistics, culture, science and education center, and a core area on the Silk Road Economic Belt.
There are doubtless many strategic and economic reasons for OBOR. Xi wants to put his stamp on China’s economic development strategy, rid his economy of overcapacity, create new export markets, and attempt to re-establish the centrality of the Middle Kingdom in world affairs. But the most pressing continental priority for Xi is to further integrate Xinjiang into China proper and keep potential “separatists” at bay.
This plan is all very expensive. If, according to Chinese estimates, all OBOR infrastructure investment were realized, the bill would be $6 trillion (not all paid by China, of course). The China Development Bank already has stated that close to $900 billion of projects are either planned or underway. China will finance OBOR projects through institutions such as the China Development Bank, the China Eximbank, the Silk Road Fund, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
This all sounded plausible while Beijing enjoyed double-digit economic growth for three decades. But now China must make hard choices about where to allocate its national security resources. Thus far, the United States has not hastened that reckoning. But China’s current imperial overstretch provides Washington with an opportunity to do so.
U.S. Strategy: “Foreclose Maritime Options, Encourage China to Go West”
As the Trump Administration rebuilds U.S. military forces and strengthens its alliances, there will be many opportunities to make maritime expansion less inviting and costlier for China. Put simply, China should be forced to play maritime defense. While still an emergent maritime power, China possesses many weaknesses that the United States should exploit.
For starters, the United States could force China to invest in defending its outposts in the South China Sea and expose China’s weak logistics and replenishment capabilities. Doubtless creative lawyers will “find” Chinese rights of access to artificial islands. In the meantime the U.S. military should demonstrate that China does not have the ability to defend these islands by conducting more robust exercises challenging their sovereignty and exposing their vulnerabilities.
The Department of Defense should also posture U.S. forces to take advantage of Chinese operational weaknesses. For example, the PLAN is relatively weak in anti-submarine warfare (ASW). By improving U.S. undersea capabilities and continuing to operate these assets throughout China’s surrounding seas, the United States will force China to expend substantial resources to address its operational gaps. With the proper deployment of U.S. and allied forces around the first island chain, the geographic expanse from the Aleutian Islands to the southern Philippines, China will find it more costly to challenge the United States in the Western Pacific.
In addition, a new approach to allies and partners, including Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan, could help them harden the first island chain and track all Chinese movements in those maritime waters. This all should be accompanied by an informational campaign that counters China’s claims that its activities in the South China Sea are legitimate. The objective of these efforts should be to close off China’s options for expanding its maritime territory by imposing military and diplomatic costs.
While the United States creates “unsafe spaces” for China in the maritime realm, its strategy should also help China continue to turn its gaze to the continental west. This can be done mostly through cooperation with Beijing. No U.S. interest will be harmed if China goes west. Unlike in the Western Pacific, Washington does not possess treaty allies or vital trade routes in that part of the world. What Washington could use is more financial investment and general policies that create stability in the areas prone to jihadi movements.
With this mind, it was a mistake for the United States not to join the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) and then to pressure its allies to follow suit. The United States should join AIIB and work with China and others to identify areas in Central Asia where they can jointly invest their resources to build up the region as a bulwark against jihadi movements. Washington should encourage China’s investment of time and resources in the continental parts of OBOR.
While Washington’s approach to the continent would be mostly cooperative in nature it would likely catalyze Sino-Russian competition, arresting the ever-closer alignment between Beijing and Moscow. This past year, Russia became the largest crude oil exporter to China, a significant strategic development. Xi and Vladimir Putin have signed a declaration of cooperation to merge the OBOR with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union plan. This new relationship has even brought pressure to bear on South Korea in opposition to the deployment the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system on its territory. Certainly Seoul would appreciate any measures by Washington to alleviate the joint pressure these surrounding great powers are placing upon it.
The closeness between Putin and Xi undermine the strategic concept that guided Kissinger and Nixon’s opening to China in the first place. U.S. geopolitical strategy sought to further drive a wedge between China and Russia. As geographically proximate nations, Russia and China have always been nervous of each other’s intentions as they compete for influence in Central Asia. The United States must ask itself: Why are two natural competitors in greater alignment?
U.S. strategy can slow down this development. Cooperation with China on the continental aspects of OBOR will help re-establish Washington as player in what is supposed to be a Sino-U.S.-Russian strategic triangle.
Meanwhile, the United States and Russia have many common concerns about China. For starters, both countries are prohibited by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty from developing certain classes of ballistic and cruise missiles. In developing its own arsenal, China has taken full of advantage of this fact. Neither Moscow nor Washington is happy about Beijing’s build-up of ballistic missiles. A high-level U.S.-Russian strategic dialogue on China and the INF could address some of these concerns and pressure China to join the treaty.
Of course, key allies and partners such as Japan and India need to be consulted in all stages of this endeavor. They should be assured that some cooperation with China on the continental aspects of OBOR does not mean acceptance of China’s attempts to reorder geopolitics. Rather, it is part of a strategy that encourages Beijing to “look west” instead of “expanding east.”
The necessary precondition for this change in strategic approach is for Washington to accept that Beijing is beset by weakness and vulnerability. All of the talk and spilled ink about “power transitions” and relative U.S. decline is, simply put, wrong. It is China that has overstretched itself. It may not seem so because Beijing has yet to face a robust strategic challenge that forces hard choices about where to allocate scarce national security resources. Now is the time to hasten that reckoning. If the United States does so adeptly, in four years’ time we might see a less threatening China, and one with its strategic gaze turned westward.