A Chinese boy looks at a photo of the Liaoning, China's first aircraft carrier. The ship gives the Chinese navy more options in projecting power in the western Pacific (Feng Li / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — No real US strategy exists right now for dealing with China, even as the country challenges the territorial status quo of nearby Asian waters, several experts said Wednesday.
“You have the option of examining the classified war plans and decide if they reflect a strategy for conducting an upper-level war,” naval analyst Ronald O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service told Congress. “But for situations short of war, it is not clear to me we have a strategy for that.”
Such a strategy, he said “needs to involve our allies — it’s not something we can do ourselves.”
China expert Andrew Ericson of the Naval War College noted “the US has an implicit collection of approaches that together constitute a strategy. ... But they would be more effective if they were brought together.”
Two other experts were more direct.
“We don’t have that strategy today,” declared Jim Thomas of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“No such strategy exists,” said Seth Cropsey, a Navy official during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. “And forming one is difficult.”
The observations came at a hearing late Wednesday called by Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Seapower subcommittee, to discuss China’s growing naval power. Ongoing efforts by China to assert territorial claims on a number of islands and near-island chains and the recent declaration of a new maritime air defense identification zone were cited as indications of the country’s increased confidence backed by the expanding naval capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy.
“While naval modernization is a natural development for any sea-faring nation such as China, it is clear the modernization is emboldening the Chinese government to exert their interests by bullying their neighbors and pushing back the United States in the Asia-Pacific region,” Forbes said.
“We also must understand how to engage with the PLA Navy in a manner that is constructive for all parties involved and demonstrates respect and adherence to established international norms of maritime conduct,” he said.
All four witnesses at the hearing noted the difficulty — and the need — for developing a coherent approach to China’s naval prowess.
“Fundamental issues hang in the balance,” Erickson said. “If not addressed properly, China’s rise as a major regional maritime power could begin an era in which the US military lost unfettered access to a key region.”
“It’s clear that Chinese leaders are ambitious,” noted Cropsey, “and that their diplomatic policy and their military armament are moving them toward great power status, or at least regional hegemony, in a series of small steps designed to achieve those ends with minimal resistance from their Pacific competitors, America’s allies. And the US is not taking this possibility as seriously as it should.”
No “single silver bullet” approach will address the issue, Thomas said. “Instead, the United States and its allies will likely have to undertake a combination of efforts to demonstrate their defensive strength in the face of China’s challenge.”
O’Rourke ticked off a list of elements to consider.
“Top-level US strategic considerations related to China’s naval modernization effort include, among other things, the following:
■ preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon in one part of Eurasia or another;
■ preserving the US-led international order that has operated since World War II;
■ fulfilling US treaty obligations;
■ shaping the Asia-Pacific region; and
■ having a military strategy for China.”
The US budget situation should not prevent addressing the issue, the witnesses said.
“Some might argue that in light of our fiscal situation this is the wrong time to introduce what amounts to a major overhaul of our power projection forces,” Thomas said. “I would argue the opposite — that a clear vision of America’s future force design should inform the near-term choices the administration and Congress will have to make about which forces and capabilities to preserve or expand as well as lower priority areas where we will have to divest and accept greater risk.
“Changes that begin today will take years, if not decades, to fully play themselves out.”
All agreed that while China’s rate of growth will decline, the risk from a Chinese military buildup will not fade.
“If their growth line bends downward, they may see the next few years as their period of maximum opportunity for pursuing their goals in the near-seas areas,” O’Rourke said. “They may see it as something where time is not on their side.”
Thomas echoed that statement.
“We share an interest with China in that we want a China that is secure and prosperous,” he said “But we don’t know what their future is in terms of defense programs.
“And China’s increasing reliance on nationalism — almost a replacement for communist ideology — is cause for concern.”