Simply put, China has three core strategic interests.
Paramount among them is the maintenance of domestic security. Historically, when China involves itself in global trade, as it did in the 19th and early 20th century, the coastal region prospers, while the interior of China — which begins about 100 miles from the coast and runs about 1,000 miles to the west — languishes. Roughly 80 percent of all Chinese citizens currently have household incomes lower than the average household income in Bolivia.
Most of China’s poor are located west of the richer coastal region; this disparity of wealth time and again has exposed tensions between the interests of the coast and those of the interior. After a failed rising in Shanghai in 1927, Mao Zedong exploited these tensions by undertaking the Long March into the interior, raising a peasant army and ultimately conquering the coastal region. He shut China off from the international trading system, leaving China more united and equal, but extremely poor.
The current government has sought a more wealth-friendly means of achieving stability: buying popular loyalty with mass employment. Plans for industrial expansion are implemented with little thought to markets or margins; instead, maximum employment is the driving goal. Private savings are harnessed to finance the industrial effort, leaving little domestic capital to purchase the output. China must export accordingly.
China’s second strategic concern derives from the first. China’s industrial base by design produces more than its domestic economy can consume, so China must export goods to the rest of the world while importing raw materials. The Chinese therefore must do everything possible to ensure international demand for their exports. This includes a range of activities, from investing money in the economies of consumer countries to establishing unfettered access to global sea-lanes.
The third strategic interest is in maintaining control over buffer states. The population of the historic Han Chinese heartland is clustered in the eastern third of the country, where ample precipitation distinguishes it from the much more dry and arid central and western thirds. China’s physical security therefore depends on controlling the four non-Han Chinese buffer states that surround it: Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet. Securing these regions means China can insulate itself from Russia to the north, any attack from the western steppes, and any attack from India or Southeast Asia.
Controlling the buffer states provides China geographical barriers — jungles, mountains, steppes and the Siberian wasteland — that are difficult to surmount and creates a defense in depth that puts any attacker at a grave disadvantage.
Today, China faces challenges on all three of these interests.
The economic downturn in Europe and the United States — China’s two main customers — has exposed Chinese exports to increased competition and decreased appetite. Meanwhile, China has been unable to appropriately increase domestic demand and guarantee access to global sea-lanes independent of what the U.S. Navy is willing to allow.
Those same economic stresses also challenge China domestically. The wealthier coast depends on trade that is now faltering, and the impoverished interior requires subsidies that are difficult to provide when economic growth is slowing substantially.
In addition, two of China’s buffer regions are in flux. Elements within Tibet and Xinjiang adamantly resist Han Chinese occupation. China understands that the loss of these regions could pose severe threats to China’s security — particularly if such losses would draw India north of the Himalayas or create a radical Islamic regime in Xinjiang.
The situation in Tibet is potentially the most troubling. Outright war between India and China — anything beyond minor skirmishes — is impossible so long as both are separated by the Himalayas. Neither side could logistically sustain large-scale multi-divisional warfare in that terrain. But China and India could threaten one another if they were to cross the Himalayas and establish a military presence on the either side of the mountain chain. For India, the threat would emerge if Chinese forces entered Pakistan in large numbers. For China, the threat would occur if large numbers of Indian troops entered Tibet.
China therefore constantly postures as if it were going to send large numbers of forces into Pakistan, but in the end, the Pakistanis have no interest in de facto Chinese occupation — even if the occupation were directed against India. The Chinese likewise are not interested in undertaking security operations in Pakistan. The Indians have little interest in sending forces into Tibet in the event of a Tibetan revolution. For India, an independent Tibet without Chinese forces would be interesting, but a Tibet where the Indians would have to commit significant forces would not be. As much as the Tibetans represent a problem for China, the problem is manageable. Tibetan insurgents might receive some minimal encouragement and support from India, but not to a degree that would threaten Chinese control.
So long as the internal problems in Han China are manageable, so is Chinese domination of the buffer states, albeit with some effort and some damage to China’s reputation abroad.
The key for China is maintaining interior stability. If this portion of Han China destabilizes, control of the buffers becomes impossible. Maintaining interior stability requires the transfer of resources, which in turn requires continued robust growth of the Chinese coastal economy to generate the capital to transfer inland. Should exports stop flowing out and raw materials in, incomes in the interior would quickly fall to politically explosive levels. (China today is far from revolution, but social tensions are increasing, and China must use its security apparatus and the People’s Liberation Army to control these tensions.)
Maintaining those flows is a considerable challenge. The very model of employment and market share over profitability misallocates scores of resources and breaks the normally self-regulating link between supply and demand. One of the more disruptive results is inflation, which alternatively raises the costs of subsidizing the interior while eroding China’s competitiveness with other low-cost global exporters.
For the Chinese, this represents a strategic challenge, a challenge that can only be countered by increasing the profitability on Chinese economic activity. This is nearly impossible for low value-added producers. The solution is to begin manufacturing higher value-added products (fewer shoes, more cars), but this necessitates a different sort of work force, one with years more education and training than the average Chinese coastal inhabitant, much less someone from the interior. It also requires direct competition with the well-established economies of Japan, Germany and the United States. This is the strategic battleground that China must attack if it is to maintain its stability.
A Military Component
Besides the issues with its economic model, China also faces a primarily military problem. China depends on the high seas to survive. The configuration of the South China Sea and the East China Sea render China relatively easy to blockade. The East China Sea is enclosed on a line from Korea to Japan to Taiwan, with a string of islands between Japan and Taiwan. The South China Sea is even more enclosed on a line from Taiwan to the Philippines, and from Indonesia to Singapore. Beijing’s single greatest strategic concern is that the United States would impose a blockade on China, not by positioning its 7th Fleet inside the two island barriers but outside them. From there, the United States could compel China to send its naval forces far away from the mainland to force an opening — and encounter U.S. warships — and still be able to close off China’s exits.
That China does not have a navy capable of challenging the United States compounds the problem. China is still in the process of completing its first aircraft carrier; indeed, its navy is insufficient in size and quality to challenge the United States. But naval hardware is not China’s greatest challenge. The United States commissioned its first aircraft carrier in 1922 and has been refining both carrier aviation and battle group tactics ever since. Developing admirals and staffs capable of commanding carrier battle groups takes generations. Since the Chinese have never had a carrier battle group in the first place, they have never had an admiral commanding a carrier battle group.
China understands this problem and has chosen a different strategy to deter a U.S. naval blockade: anti-ship missiles capable of engaging and perhaps penetrating U.S. carrier defensive systems, along with a substantial submarine presence. The United States has no desire to engage the Chinese at all, but were this to change, the Chinese response would be fraught with difficulty.
While China has a robust land-based missile system, a land-based missile system is inherently vulnerable to strikes by cruise missiles, aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles currently in development and other types of attack. China’s ability to fight a sustained battle is limited. Moreover, a missile strategy works only with an effective reconnaissance capability. You can’t destroy a ship if you don’t know where it is. This in turn necessitates space-based systems able to identify U.S. ships and a tightly integrated fire-control system. That raises the question of whether the United States has an anti-satellite capability. We would assume that it does, and if the United States used it, it would leave China blind.
China is therefore supplementing this strategy by acquiring port access in countries in the Indian Ocean and outside the South China Sea box. Beijing has plans to build ports in Myanmar, which is flirting with ending its international isolation, and Pakistan. Beijing already has financed and developed port access to Gwadar in Pakistan, Colombo and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh, and it has hopes for a deepwater port at Sittwe, Myanmar. In order for this strategy to work, China needs transportation infrastructure linking China to the ports. This means extensive rail and road systems. The difficulty of building this in Myanmar, for example, should not be underestimated.
But more important, China needs to maintain political relationships that will allow it to access the ports. Pakistan and Myanmar, for example, have a degree of instability, and China cannot assume that cooperative governments will always be in place in such countries. In Myanmar’s case, recent political openings could result in Naypyidaw’s falling out of China’s sphere of influence. Building a port and roads and finding that a coup or an election has created an anti-Chinese government is a possibility. Given that this is one of China’s fundamental strategic interests, Beijing cannot simply assume that building a port will give it unrestricted access to the port. Add to this that roads and rail lines are easily sabotaged by guerrilla forces or destroyed by air or missile attacks.
In order for the ports on the Indian Ocean to prove useful, Beijing must be confident in its ability to control the political situation in the host country for a long time. That sort of extended control can only be guaranteed by having overwhelming power available to force access to the ports and the transportation system. It is important to bear in mind that since the Communists took power, China has undertaken offensive military operations infrequently — and to undesirable results. Its invasion of Tibet was successful, but it was met with minimal effective resistance. Its intervention in Korea did achieve a stalemate but at horrendous cost to the Chinese, who endured the losses but became very cautious in the future. In 1979 China attacked Vietnam, but suffered a significant defeat. China has managed to project an image of itself as a competent military force, but in reality it has had little experience in force projection, and that experience has not been pleasant.
Internal Security vs. Power Projection
The reason for this inexperience stems from internal security. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is primarily configured as a domestic security force — a necessity because of China’s history of internal tensions. It is not a question of whether China is currently experiencing such tensions; it is a question of possibility. Prudent strategic planning requires building forces to deal with worst-case situations. Having been designed for internal security, the PLA is doctrinally and logistically disinclined toward offensive operations. Using a force trained for security as a force for offensive operations leads either to defeat or very painful stalemates. And given the size of China’s potential internal issues and the challenge of occupying a country like Myanmar, let alone Pakistan, building a secondary force of sufficient capability might not outstrip China’s available manpower but would certainly outstrip its command and logistical capabilities. The PLA was built to control China, not to project power outward, and strategies built around the potential need for power projection are risky at best.
It should be noted that since the 1980s the Chinese have been attempting to transfer internal security responsibilities to the People’s Armed Police, the border forces and other internal security forces that have been expanded and trained to deal with social instability. But despite this restructuring, there remain enormous limitations on China’s ability to project military power on a scale sufficient to challenge the United States directly.
There is a disjuncture between the perception of China as a regional power and the reality. China can control its interior, but its ability to control its neighbors through military force is limited. Indeed, the fear of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is unfounded. It cannot mount an amphibious assault at that distance, let alone sustain extended combat logistically. One option China does have is surrogate guerrilla warfare in places like the Philippines or Indonesia. The problem with such warfare is that China needs to open sea-lanes, and guerrillas — even guerrillas armed with anti-ship missiles or mines — can at best close them.
China therefore faces a significant strategic problem. China must base its national security strategy on what the United States is capable of doing, not on what Beijing seems to want at the moment. China cannot counter the United States at sea, and its strategy of building ports in the Indian Ocean suffers from the fact that its costs are huge and the political conditions for access uncertain. The demands of creating a force capable of guaranteeing access runs counter to the security requirements inside China itself.
As long as the United States is the world’s dominant naval power, China’s strategy must be the political neutralization of the United States. But Beijing must make certain that Washington does not feel so pressured that it chooses blockade as an option. Therefore China must present itself as an essential part of U.S. economic life. But the United States does not necessarily see China’s economic activity as beneficial, and it is unclear whether China can maintain its unique position with the United States indefinitely. Other, cheaper alternatives are available. China’s official rhetoric and hard-line stances — designed to generate nationalist support inside the country — might be useful politically, but strain relations with the United States. It doesn’t strain relations to the point of risking military conflict, but given China’s weakness, any strain is dangerous. The Chinese feel they know how to walk the line between rhetoric and real danger with the United States. It is still a delicate balance.
There is a perception that China is a rising regional and even global power. It may be rising but it is still far from solving its fundamental strategic problems and further yet from challenging the United States. The tensions within China’s strategy are certainly debilitating, if not fatal. All of its options have serious weaknesses. China’s real strategy must be to avoid having to make risky strategic choices. China has been fortunate for the past 30 years being able to avoid such decisions, but Beijing utterly lacks the tools required to reshape that environment. Considering how much of China’s world is in play right now — Sudanese energy disputes and Myanmar’s political experimentation leap to mind — this is essentially a policy of blind hope.