Foreign Policy

China is weaker and its neighbors stronger than we think

For two decades, China has prevailed in almost all disputes in its neighborhood. China, advancing in the Himalayas, Southeast Asia, the South China Sea and the East China Sea, has become the main threat in a wide arc of the Indo-Pacific. According to independent estimates by SIPRI, Beijing’s defense spending is now more than six times what it was at the beginning of the millennium. Over the past two decades, China has risen from sixth in the world to second in terms of total defense spending – a spectacular increase.

Of course, this worried China’s neighbors. And just as naturally these neighbors are now stirring in response.

If China’s close neighbors are the potential partners that US President Joe Biden is so eager to work with, they hardly need US encouragement to increase their vigilance on China. A look around China’s borders shows that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) faces incumbent and emerging military competitors on all sides. Even assuming a rapprochement between Russia and China – a prospect that is always more open than the real one – China faces what could be described as the Indo-Pacific. These countries, which stretch from India in the southwest to Japan in the northeast, would form an effective bulwark against Chinese expansionism even without the express encouragement and support of the US.

The Indo-Pacific arc is strongest at the ends and weakest in the middle. Japan’s self-defense forces are held in high regard for technology and readiness. Against China’s aircraft carrier building program, Japan is converting two existing helicopter carriers into fixed-wing aircraft carriers. Although the Japanese carriers will be much smaller than those of China, the fifth generation F-35 stealth fighters launched by Japanese carriers will achieve a much larger penetration. In comparison, the PLA Navy’s Shenyang J-15 is a less advanced fourth generation fighter that has experienced serious technical problems.

Japan certainly has the resources and technological know-how to take care of itself. At the other end of the Indo-Pacific arc, India is often viewed as a relative weakling compared to China. But these perceptions are long out of date if they were actually ever true. As early as 1962, China conquered large parts of the Indian mountain region in a lightning-fast five-week war. This victory, however, was the result of a surprise attack in peacetime against an unsuspecting friendly country. Since then, India has taken the old adage to heart: “Make a fool of me, be ashamed; fool me twice, be ashamed of me “

Despite China’s massive military modernization, India now likely has the upper hand on the Himalayan border. First, China’s 1962 advances, while deeply angry in India, moved the front line closer to India’s supply base – and further from China. More subtly, China’s infrastructure improvements were complemented by the mountain tunnels and all-weather roads built by the Indian Border Roads Organization. In a strategic theater where logistics is everything, the BRO’s tunneling has vastly improved the Indian Army’s ability to move heavy equipment from the rear bases to the Indo-China line of actual control. Add to this the extensive experience of fighting on glaciers and the tenacity of the Indian commandos of the Special Frontier Force (many of which were recruited from the Tibetan community in exile), and India has a successful offer in high altitude warfare.

The Indian Air Force also has a major technical advantage over China’s PLA: At 3,000 meters above sea level, India’s front air force bases are very high, but not nearly as high as China’s. And unlike India, nowhere in the region does China have low-altitude bases. That makes a big difference, as China’s planes have to drop up to half their missiles and fuel to take off in the super-thin air of the Tibetan plateau. India’s takeover of top French Rafale jet fighters, the possible modernization of Russian SU-30 squadrons, Sukhoi, and the upcoming delivery of advanced Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems, as well as the Indian Air Force, may soon promote absolute air superiority over the LAC in India have. India’s indigenous tejas multi-purpose fighter is just the icing on the cake.

Further east, China’s 2,100-kilometer border with Myanmar is so unsafe that China, perhaps inspired by former US President Donald Trump, is building a 3-meter-high wall to seal it off. The military takeover in Myanmar, widely seen in the West as favorable to China, was indeed a setback: China was particularly close to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and now sees its position in the country from both the military and the country the street threatened protesters. China has long been accused of supporting separatist rebels in Myanmar. The overthrow of the civilian government led by Suu Kyi by the military could have been an anti-China coup as well as an anti-democracy coup.

Vietnam, which like India was once the victim of a Chinese surprise attack, has had bad relations with its communist big brother since China’s 1979 invasion. Vietnam’s defense budget is relatively small today, but it has focused its investments on coastal defense. Following China’s Prevention of Entry / Denial of Territory (A2 / AD) strategy from the early 2000s, the company has invested heavily in anti-ship missiles and it is rumored that it is on the verge of launching the joint Russian- Indian BrahMos, a supersonic ramjet cruise, acquire missile that is said to be the fastest such weapon in the world. As China advances from A2 / AD to enforce projection strategies in the South China Sea, Vietnam is developing its own A2 / AD capacity to deny the PLA Navy the ability to operate in the region.

The weak points in the Indo-Pacific arc are the islands. The Philippines, which flirted with a potential Chinese alliance under their unpredictable President Rodrigo Duterte, is a wild card. But after four years of stern rhetoric against the United States, Duterte is facing increasing backlash from a broad pro-American public. The country’s armed forces are also believed to be in favor of maintaining close ties with the United States. Like its Vietnamese counterpart, the Philippine Navy is interested in acquiring BrahMos anti-ship missiles in a deal much closer to completion than the one between India and Vietnam. In another A2 / AD development, the only realistic target for these missiles would be China’s PLA Navy, which operates in the South China Sea.

Taiwan is another weak point. The problem here is not a failure of the solution – the repression in Hong Kong has only hardened Taiwanese opinion against China – but the unwillingness to make the necessary sacrifices. Taiwan spends just 1.7 percent of its GDP on defense, a small fraction on a country that is under constant threats of invasion from its much larger neighbor. Although Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has budgeted a substantial increase in defense in 2021, the budget has still been described as insufficient by US officials. Taiwan has announced the purchase of 66 F-16 workhorse fighter jets but is in immediate need of Harpoon anti-aircraft and Patriot anti-aircraft missiles. Acquisition programs for both have been hit by budget constraints.

Although South Korea is primarily concerned with the threat from the north, the country has announced its own indigenous aircraft carrier and jet fighter programs. Some commentators have labeled them national vanity projects, but they could be as credibly cast as efforts to propel South Korea’s already formidable industrial defense base into the information age. As fuselages and airframes become raw material products, avionics such as radar and guidance systems will be the most important domestic added value for its fighters. The country’s proposed aircraft carrier will be fitted with US-made F-35 jets and South Korean electronic warfare equipment.

All together, and the PLA Navy’s three aircraft carriers – one an old Soviet Hulk, the second an improved copy of the first, and the third an experimental Chinese design – must face two Japanese and one South Korean aircraft carriers F-35 plus two Indian carriers. And that even before the US Navy supercarriers based in Japan were taken into account. In the air, China faces the thoroughly modern air forces of India, South Korea and Japan and growing A2 / AD threats from the countries in between. Further afield, Australian forces can potentially play a supportive role if Canberra muster the political will. There are still weak spots in the Indo-Pacific arc. Overall, however, the prognosis for China does not look good.

The overarching lesson in all of this is that the United States does not need to provide security in the Indo-Pacific to keep the region “free and open,” no matter “resilient and inclusive,” as the four quad leaders decided at their summit last week . All Washington has to do is provide a security framework into which other countries can contribute their own efforts. This could be done through the quad mechanism, but that would require a quad that focuses on maritime safety – not climate change and the coronavirus. But even without a defense-oriented quad, the countries of the Indo-Pacific are perfectly able to protect themselves against Chinese aggression. The United States may offer tools, technology, and training, but China’s neighbors can and should take the lead to protect their own neighborhood.

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