Sunday, December 4, 2011

"China - Threat Or Challenge?" Lecture By Roger Dong

The War Memorial Veterans Building in San Francisco is getting put to good use.  Last week I attended a lecture on modern China by my colleague Roger Dong (Lt. Col., U.S. Air Force, Ret.), a veteran China analyst.  The thesis in his talk "China - Threat Or Challenge?" (his answer: Yes!) is that China's assertive strategy demands a response from the U.S. and its allies.  Much of what follows is a synopsis of Roger's major points, along with my own observations as noted in italics

China's modernization miracle started with Deng Xiaoping, the only member of Chairman Mao Zedong's inner circle who had studied abroad and knew how to run a modern state.  His agricultural reforms got the state out of farming, and - voila! - starvation stopped.  Deng wasn't all sweetness and light, of course.  He is widely believed to have given the order to have Tiananmen Square cleared of protesters in 1989

The economic miracle continued in China after that dust-up.  China's annual GDP growth has averaged 9.9% for 32 years.  The biggest extant threat to this continued growth is the possibility of renewed recession in the U.S. and Europe, which together account for 40% of China's export market.  China's pegging of the renminbi to the U.S. dollar is a national imperative because it keeps China's export prices competitive.  Memories of the Revolution drive a pro-growth policy as an antidote to unrest.  I've noted recently that, given a noticeable slowdown in exports, China has made more public noises about switching from an export-driven growth policy to a consumption-driven policy.  I think it will be very interesting to see how severely this change in national economic planning will test China's social cohesion in the midst of other growth-related problems (environmental damage, bad bank loans hidden in municipal entities, and other problems the Chinese haven't mentioned to the West).

Roger noted that China takes a deliberate approach to training its next generation of national leaders.  The Chinese Communist Party grooms Politburo members and senior diplomats for years, rotating them through positions so they are always oriented to their designated area of expertise.  For example, the Chinese foreign ministry sends its U.S. experts on tours of duty to the U.S. and then links them with U.S. Embassy activities in Beijing upon their return.  I've also heard anecdotes from other China-watchers that officers who separate from the Chinese military are placed directly into industries that China considers strategically important so they can be groomed as future business leaders.  If true, this approach ensures business activity stays closely aligned with national security strategy.  The five-year economic plans overlap changes in senior political leadership to provide continuity.  China's internal security budget exceeds its national defense budget, in a sign of the leadership's deep insecurity about the potential for unrest.  That surprised me.  I recall reading idle speculation around the time of the Hainan plane incident in 2001 that the U.S. would be well served by a strategy that leverages internal dissent and regional/ethnic differences in China.  Can China break up under sufficient pressure, like the former Soviet Union? I now think that can be a very realistic strategy in light of Roger's insights. 

Let's move from basic strategy to recent events.  Roger said that the Asian financial collapse of the late 1990s gave China a stronger position relative to its neighbors.  China used this new strength to build goodwill with Asian nations whom had traditionally feared its ambitions.  This effort was apparently for naught.  China's recent naval assertiveness has destroyed this goodwill and revived old fears of its intentions.  Asian nations once again look to the U.S. for security assurances.  This is a window of opportunity that the U.S. cannot afford to waste.  The U.S. had begun a gradual shift in overseas force deployments and basing from Europe to Asia in the early days of President George W. Bush's administration.  This realignment was interrupted by the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan.  When those wars end, the U.S. realignment to Asia must resume. 

Roger has noted some encouraging signs that the U.S. is taking its Asia security policy very seriously.  President Obama announced at the Nov. 2011 ASEAN meeting that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is a U.S. national interest, in a clear message to China.  The intended basing of 2500 U.S. Marines in Australia is an equally clear message that the U.S. is committed to the security of the Western Pacific.  The U.S.'s strong relationship with Singapore continues thanks to the city-state's generous provision for U.S. aircraft carrier berthing and participation in U.S. military exercises.  U.S. fast-attack submarines in the Pacific and logistics stocks on Guam are further signs of the importance the U.S. places on meeting China's strength in Asia. 

Roger threw our audience some more tidbits.  Foreign powers' historic conquests in China drive Beijing's paranoia about building its military capability.  China's ICBMs mainly target the U.S.; I wonder what combination of the remainder target Russia and/or India.  Note that the Politburo members are not military veterans.  That reminds me of some articles I've recently read about China's lack of an equivalent to the U.S. National Security Council.  No Chinese NSC means no interagency synchronization, which makes it harder for Beijing's civilian leaders to control their military. 

The U.S.-China crisis over the Taiwan Strait in 1996 forced the PLA Navy to confront the U.S. Navy's carrier superiority.  The PLA Navy has matured since then and has developed a tri-dimensional doctrine of air/surface/submarine operations.  Now China's procurement efforts are catching up to doctrine.  China's purchase of a Russian aircraft carrier is a source of national pride but probably a strategic bluff.  It has no on-board catapult system that can launch the Shenyang J-15, China's primary naval fighter aircraftChinese doctrine may be mature, but its implementation via hardware has a ways to go. 

The PLA Navy's minor efforts seem to be on track.  The SS-N-22 Sunburn anti-ship missile is probably intended for use against U.S. aircraft carriers.  China's Yuan-class diesel-electric submarine is a more immediate threat than China's nascent nuclear submarine force.  One wonders how a Chinese sub was able to surface in the middle of a U.S. carrier battle group.  Can Chinese subs actively track and outmaneuver a U.S. carrier battle group?  Or did the sub simply loiter along an expected route for the carrier group and guess an opportune time for a lucky surface maneuver?  This is a relevant area for U.S. intelligence analysts to explore, because it will reveal gaps in Chinese technical capabilities that demand innovation and audacity from fleet commanders. 

Roger noted the recent claim by a group of Georgetown University researchers that China has built 3000 miles of tunnels, probably for military use.  He also noted that mitigating the tunnels themselves is less important than neutralizing the systems for power, water, and life support that make the tunnels viable mobility corridors.  I think we could learn a lot from the tunnel mitigation efforts the South Korean military employs along the DMZ. 

Roger wrapped up with some recent facts, noting that China plans to remove silt from behind the Three Gorges Dam with deepwater dredges to keep it operating; that Russia and China's natural enmity will limit their cooperation; that Chinese corruption is mainly a local government problem and that China's national policy of attracting biotech R&D has been successful; and that Mongolia was a key location for listening posts during the Cold War.  Hmm, that last observation caught my eye.  I did a web search for "Mongolia listening post" and got a bunch of interesting hits.  That country may have the ability to play the U.S., Russia, and China off against each other for money, technology, and other goodies. 

The Q&A was fun.  I asked Roger whether he thought senior Chinese leaders were still ideological Communists devoted to equalizing everyone's living standards.  Roger noted that China tolerates many home-grown billionaires and millionaires, so the existence of economic inequality posits that pursuing ideology for its own sake is not nearly as important as economic growth and material well-being.  Roger's lecture gave me more food for thought about whether my pet theory of a new Cold War in Asia between China and India can be supported with open-source observations.  I will continue to look for indicators of China-India rivalry, along with analysis of how the U.S. responds.  Good job Roger Dong!  You got me thinking, which my friends tell me can be dangerous.