In recent weeks many news outlets, mostly reserved for their “Military” or “National Security” pages, have looked into China’s expansion of territorial claims in the South China Sea and some islands within it. As rising powers are wont to do, America’s largest trading partner is not only its largest debt holder but also increasingly its main military competition.
Are we talking enough about how we’ll deal with this reality?
National security, especially among the Republican contenders, has vaulted to the top of the discussion in the 2016 race for president. How they would deal with foreign threats, the size and scope of our commitments and the Pentagon’s budget has occupied top billing, even at times pushing aside jobs and the economy, as a topic to fire up the GOP base.
But the vast majority of that rhetoric is centered on the Middle East: Iran and it’s nuclear program, the continuing disintegration of Iraq, Islamic State’s march and what will happen when American troops finally leave Afghanistan later this year.
Indeed, many of the issues we face in that region are either somewhat or wholly of our own making, or our impetus. And while the United States bears that responsibility, much of the current fighting is internecine – Sunni and Shiite, sects that have been at odds since Biblical times, tribal differences that have existed for decades, borders that are literally artificial lines on a map. It is a regional conflict – and one worth a good deal of attention. But it is not the existential threat that a rising China can be.
In the movie "The Princess Bride," Vizzini lists the classic blunders, the greatest of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia.” This is as good advice today as it was in that classic fictional tale. As the United States has actually been involved in three Asian ground wars since the 1940s, we know what we’re up against.
In World War II, we fought a fanatical, but economically and demographically smaller opponent. In September 1945, Japan was unable to continue coherent combat operations. In Korea, it was only the introduction of Chinese regulars to the conflict that saved Pyongyang from humiliating defeat. In Vietnam, we saw that an unclear strategy and a determined insurgency coupled with collapsing support at home made either a true battlefield or a political victory impossible.
China has a population of more than 1.5 billion. Of that there are more than 2.3 million frontline personnel and another 2 million in reserve. In addition to those numbers, they have 618 million citizens fit for service – twice the entire population of the United States. Knowing those facts, we have to look beyond classic military power – in which the United States would still likely win decisive tactical victories – to what the Chinese strategic needs would be.
Beijing wants to be a superpower. They want to be at the table with the United States at G7 conferences – but so far have been unable to wedge themselves properly into the discussion. Even Russia (since suspended), a backward and small country (by economy and population) managed to participate if for no other reason than they have a massive nuclear arsenal.
In this photo taken on Aug. 4, 2009 and released by the Chinese Navy on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, sailors take part in a safety drill on a nuclear submarine off the coast of Qingdao in east China's Shandong province. (AP)
China must play its chess-game carefully as they need us to succeed as much as we need them to keep buying our Treasury bonds. If Americans stop buying cheap Chinese goods – their economy goes in the tank. If we make it more difficult for them to purchase the oil they need to keep their vast manufacturing base operating, their growth grinds to a halt.
But sitting across the table from the Chinese is not an exercise for the shortsighted. The Chinese play the long game – where will they be in 20, 30 or 100 years? We worry about the economic growth in the next quarter and haven’t passed our own domestic budget in half a decade.
If the Chinese are allowed to continue to gobble up contested islands and sea lanes, increasing their sphere of influence, they will scare their neighbors into potentially unpredictable and dangerous behavior. The United States, must coolly but constantly remind our Chinese partners – and that’s what they are now, no matter what we may want to believe – what is and isn’t in their best interests, and that their best interests are not that different than ours collectively.
For presidential candidates, China is the ultimate “what-if” question. Beijing involves everything a president must contend with on a daily basis – the economy, our debt, American power projection, our allies in Asia and the constant requirements of keeping the U.S. a superpower in a world desperately in need (even if not desirous of) of a guiding hand.
And this will be the difficult piece for them: Discussing China, its history, its future and our relationship requires savvy and subtlety. Its impact on our collective future is difficult to include a one-line stem-winder that has any bearing on reality and will leave the speaker looking amateurish and naïve.
China’s future and our own are, for better or worse, inextricably entwined. But that doesn’t mean we should sit back and let Beijing dictate the path that relationship takes. Our next president must be ready to have a serious discussion about what is and isn’t acceptable for a member of the international elite – big empty talk and phony redlines need not apply.
Reed Galen is a Republican political consultant in Southern California. He writes a weekly column on the 2016 presidential campaign – The American Singularity at http://newconservative.us. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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