China’s Grand Strategy: Part 3

China’s Grand Strategy and the US
By Evan Dudik

In Part 2 I discussed how much China wants to bring Taiwan back into the fold, and some ways it will work to get there. The U.S., with its commitment to Taiwan, stands in the way. This week I look at how China’s strategy to isolate the U.S. echoes how it intends to handle the Taiwan issue.

The engine behind China’s grand strategy is to neutralize the United States. Many commentators accept that this goal is driven by China’s unfortunate history during the 1700-1910 of being subject to western imperial incursions, military interventions, hordes of Christian missionaries and humiliating treaties. It is true that the US participated (to some extent) in these acts of abasement and degradation, including treating Chinese immigrants to the US as a form of slave labor. Nevertheless, many (especially in China) forget that the US supported a united China against the desires of major European powers to break up China into colonies. And American volunteers battled the Japanese in China even before Pearl Harbor. It was the U.S. that insisted China have a Permanent Membership on the UN Security Council at a time when China’s military was famous for its weakness.  [15].

This ‘never again’ story has, frankly, worn a bit threadbare. In the 21st century, no one—not the US, not the Russians, not the Japanese, not the Indians, not the Vietnamese—have the slightest intention, desire or most, important, capability to invade, occupy or humiliate Beijing.

The real story is that China’s leadership is grasping for global dominance in accordance with the deep-rooted, widely believed and incessantly promulgated myth that China is the Earth’s central nation-state, with a superior culture and a longer history than the upstart West. It is destined, so goes the story, to take its place as the pre-eminent power and culture in the world.

The US is the main power that is frustrating hegemonic ambition. The sun is quickly setting on Russia as its population and economy decline, although in decline it is becoming ferociously dangerous; witness its grab of Crimea from Ukraine and its rapid transformation of Crimea into a base to project power into southern Europe, coerce Turkey and support its ambitions in Syria [16].  Japan is just now emerging from a convenient pacifism to rearm and set up bases on uninhabited South China Sea islands. [17]. The formerly Great European powers, currently strong economically, also face demographic declines. Further, they appear not to value their way of life  enough to devote more than 1.3% of GDP to defense [18]. (Note: China admits to 1.9% of GDP but the lack of transparency, difference in bookkeeping practices, the difficulty of uncovering the probably-understated costs of major weapons projects, the failure to include major military institutions and foreign exchange rate/purchasing power parity comparisons render impossible a fair estimate) [19].

In another place, my essay “Why and How Government Lies” [20] discusses that governments lie (among other reasons) in order to make their actions congruent with their founding myth. In China’s case the myth is that China has a Mandate from Heaven to lead all other countries in culture—and not coincidentally, those other countries are to pay tribute—in obeisance and cash– to China. In recent decades China has raised to the level of myth the great ocean voyages of Zeng He in the 1400s—that are sufficiently amazing as to require no mythologizing. But they support the Mandate of Heaven narrative. They emphasize the technological superiority of China’s navy, the enormous size of its fleets and the enormous scale of its journeys, which touched even the outer limits of the eastern Roman Empire. The Communist Party of China has reframed these trading and tribute acquisition trips as ‘explorations’ so as to prove that China’s maritime exploits better those of the Portuguese, Spanish, English, French and Dutch.

As I point out in that essay, whenever a government says that a country has a ‘destiny,’ is ‘chosen by God’ or ‘descended from the divine’ it’s time to run, not walk to the nearest exit.

China’s grand strategy must be how to contain, then displace the United States as the pre-eminent world power. China’s actions toward the US echo in part its grand strategy vs. Taiwan. But the stakes are larger and the game is broader.

In a moment, we’ll provide analysis of China’s evident grand strategy vs. the US. First, however, let’s look at the very big picture: what is the geopolitical position of the United States? The U.S. is a large island, separated (but also connected) by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from allies, enemies and trading partners. It’s also connected and substantially separated from allies, enemies and trading partners by the Arctic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. In this respect, the U.S. position resembles that of the United Kingdom in past centuries. The U.K. invested in an expensive Navy to secure its sovereignty, its overseas sources of raw materials and of course, to stitch together a rather ramshackle empire. The seas and oceans nearly surrounding the US in the past have provided the ability to trade space for time prior to its entry into both wars.  This will sound familiar to those of you have read of Halford Mackinder’s  Heartland  theory of geopolitics and Nicholas Spykman’s Rimland theory [21] The US is not Mackinder’s “world island, “ but it is a large island with substantial but far from infinite domestic natural resources and a very large consumer market. A surging China, especially in combination with a re-emerging Russia can’t help but revive Mackinder’s Heartland theory as something geopolitical analysts should consider, especially as neither China nor Russia today can be considered vulnerable to conquest.

As a result, for China to become once again (in their view) preeminent among world powers, it must recognize the strengths and take advantage of the weaknesses of its main rival. Islands’ strength is also their weakness as the history of the United Kingdom and Japan show. Oceans provide a way to trade space for time in case of threat of invasion. They provide vulnerability to the extent the island depends on sea commerce for its economy.

Global Maritime Strategy

If the US were cut off from world trade, the results would be depression-causing.  They would be even more catastrophic for Europe. Exports and import combined account of 26.6% of US GDP, but 86.9% for Germany, 62.9% for France, 62.4% for the United Kingdom. For China, the number is 39.8%.[22]. The percent of trade coming and going by sea for the U.S. is 53% for imports and 30% for exports [23]. For the EU the numbers are 53.0% and 48.1% [23]. Europe depends on the US Navy almost exclusively to keep open its sea lanes of commerce, with only France and the U.K. fielding one aircraft carrier each. (U.K. has another under order). Instead of capable, blue-water naval vessels these countries rely on smaller helicopter-toting aircraft carriers suitable for anti-submarine defense.

The way to contain an island power is to make sure the island can’t project naval power and to at least threaten if not completely contain, channel or control its seaborne commerce, where 90% of foreign trade takes place. The obvious places to focus control are the well-known global choke points. For the U.S., these choke points are:

  1. the Gulf of Mexico-Caribbean Sea with the Panama Canal
  2. the North Sea-Baltic Sea with several channels and straits
  3. the Mediterranean-Black Sea with the Strait of Gibraltar and access to Middle Eastern areas
  4. the Western Indian Ocean with the Suez Canal, Bab el Mandeb, the Strait of Hormuz, and around South Africa to the Mozambique Channel
  5. the Southeast Asian Seas with the Malacca and Lombok Straits among others, and sea lines of communication (SLOCs) passing the Spratly Islands
  6. the Northeast Asian Seas with SLOCs important for access to Japan, Korea, China, and Russia
  7. the Southwest Pacific with important SLOC access to Australia
  8. the Arctic Ocean, including the Bering Strait [25].

Of these chokepoints China can now threaten numbers 4, 5, 6, and 7. It is angling to be able to threaten no. 1.

Global Maritime Chokepoints
Global Maritime Chokepoints

To isolate the US at these choke points and on the high seas, China’s solution doesn’t stop with its attempted control of the surface of the sea and the airspace above it in the western Pacific Indian Ocean by creating occupying and fortifying islands while alternately cajoling and threating the Philippines and other western Pacific countries. As the U.S. learned the hard way twice, undersea security is a necessary condition for surface commerce and its economy to survive and thrive. China is building a stealthy submarine force which is a threat to both the US Navy and seaborne commerce. The US Department of Defense estimates that in the next few years China will field between 68 and 79 submarines, which include an unspecified number of nuclear submarines and air-independent diesel subs with global cruising capability. “China continues to commission advanced, anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM)-capable submarines [clearly designed to defend against US carrier groups….additionally,  China’s four operational JIN-class SSBN [large nuclear submarines designed to launch nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles] represent China’s first credible, sea based nuclear deterrent.” [26].


Then there’s the opportunity to isolate the US by controlling space. China warned the United States and the world in 2007 when a Chinese ground-based missile destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite. “Although China has not publicly acknowledged the existence of any new programs since it confirmed it used an anti-satellite missile to destroy a weather satellite in 2007, Chinese defense academics often publish on counterspace threat technologies. These scholars stress the necessity of “destroying, damaging, and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance . . . and communications satellites,” suggesting that such systems, as well as navigation/GPS and early warning satellites, could be among the targets of attacks designed to “blind and deafen the enemy.”  Since that test over a decade ago, “China is also developing direct-ascent and co-orbital kinetic kill capabilities and has probably made progress on the anti-satellite missile system it tested in July 2014.” [27]

In 2013, China apparently conducted another test:In May 2013, China also launched an object into space on a ballistic trajectory with a peak altitude of over 30,000 km (18,641 miles), putting it near geosynchronous orbit, where many nations have communications and earth-sensing satellites, the report said….The space vehicle reentered Earth’s orbit after 9.5 hours, which was not consistent with traditional space-launch vehicles, ballistic missiles or rocket launches used for scientific research, but could indicate a counterspace mission.” [28].

Note the emphasis on interfering with the US’ communications satellites and GPS navigation systems. Can there be a more obvious statement of a strategy to isolate an enemy than to develop capabilities to destroy its ability to communicate with its own forces? And allies?

And the Chinese lied about the tests, either claiming they didn’t happen or were for scientific purposes. If you prefer to rest your analysis of China’s strategy and intentions on their public statements, try this on for size: “ ‘The experiment was designed to investigate energetic particles and magnetic fields in the ionized stratum and near-Earth space… the experiment has reached expected objectives by allowing scientists to obtain first-hand data regarding the space environment at different altitudes.’ “Nearly immediately, U.S. began raising doubts about the supposed purpose of the test. Specifically, a U.S. defense official familiar with the intelligence told the Washington Free Beacon that China had actually tested its new ASAT missile, the Dong Ning-2. The official described the DN-2 as a ground-based, high earth-orbit attack missile. The Pentagon refused to officially voice these concerns, however.” [29]

The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ overview is:

China views U.S. space and cyber assets as priority targets—and vulnerable. Chinese military schol­ars wrote in 2007 that “space domi­nance will be a vital factor in securing air dominance, maritime dominance, and electromagnetic dominance. It will di­rectly affect the course and outcome of wars.” In a 2015 report, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commis­sion determined that while China has not published an official, public document detailing its counterspace strategy and doctrine, its actions since the early 2000s indicate that the Chinese program is “primarily designed to deter U.S. strikes against China’s space assets, deny space superiority to the United States, and at­tack U.S. satellites.” …China is also suspected of testing a DN-3 ASAT missile capable of reaching higher orbits, with tests conducted in October 2015, December 2016, August 2017, and February 2018.67 Although each of these tests cannot be verified, anonymous U.S. officials made statements asserting that the tests were of a new ASAT capability.… China is also suspected of testing a DN-3 ASAT missile capable of reaching higher orbits, with tests conducted in October 2015, December 2016, August 2017, and February 2018. Although each of these tests cannot be verified, anonymous U.S. officials made statements asserting that the tests were of a new ASAT capability [30]

There’s more—but that’s enough. (By the way, Russia also views US dependence on satellites as a key vulnerability and has its own huge anti-satellite program, including current ‘spoofing’ of the U.S. GPS system, causing users to receive false navigation information and not incidentally establishing an enormous cyber umbrella over Vladimir Putin’s expansive, Italian-style villa on the Black Sea coast).

To date there are no treaties which prohibit the non-nuclear weaponization of space. There have been a few attempts with this goal, but successive U.S. administrations of both major parties have concluded that supporting treaties drafted thus far would put the U.S. at a strategic disadvantage. Verification would be difficult at best.

(Agreement to such treaties is likely to make the US the only probable adherent—just as Russia contravened in the view of the U.S. and Europe the heralded and here-to-fore useful Russia-US Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty of 1987 by deploying banned missiles in 2017, and likely before. China’s non-participation in the treaty also vexed the U.S. by putting the US at a disadvantage were it to sign on. Debate on the wisdom of US withdrawal continues and isn’t neatly divided among party lines).

In the next installment, I’ll present another front on which China seeks to neutralize the U.S. defenses: cyberspace.

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