China’s build-up of offensive strike capabilities and its unilateral assertion of territorial claims in the East and South China Seas are raising tensions in Asia. These rising tensions, however, create an opportunity for the U.S. With the right steps, the U.S. can take advantage of China’s overreach by strengthening its ties with regional allies and perhaps even making inroads with countries that are currently more closely aligned with China.
China’s offensive military capabilities are increasingly potent. Among other things, the country raised its annual defense spending by 10.7 percent this past year to nearly $115 billion, tested new anti-satellite and anti-aircraft carrier missiles, introduced stealth fighter jets and missile-firing drones, and landed a fighter jet on its first aircraft carrier.
More confident in its military strength, China is aggressively seeking to expand its reach. Consider its actions in the East and South China Seas.
A group of islands administered by Japan in the East China Sea is subject to competing Chinese and Japanese claims. China’s intimidation tactics in the disputed area include running military exercises and locking its weapons-targeting radar on a Japanese helicopter and naval vessel. Most recently, China announced an expanded air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that covers most of the East China Sea, including portions claimed by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Backed by the threat of “defensive emergency measures,” China requires aircraft entering the area to identify themselves and to file a flight plan.
China is using similar tactics to advance its claims in the South China Sea, where the country’s interests are increasingly conflicting with those of Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries. For instance, China utilizes combat-ready patrols and has garrisoned soldiers on islands in the contested waters, and has announced plans to intercept and seize foreign ships that “illegally enter” the area.
Much more is at issue in the disputed areas than control of potentially vast oil and gas reserves and regulation of waterways through which substantial trade flows. China wants to replace the U.S. as the dominant power in its region. China sees the U.S. as a fading power that cannot simultaneously manage a pivot to Asia and endless distractions in the Middle East, especially given America’s weakened economy, war-weary populace, and defense budget cuts. China thus believes that by confronting the U.S. and its Asian allies, it can erode America’s commitment to the region. Once China has sufficiently eclipsed the U.S. in Asia, it can divide and conquer its regional adversaries by intimidating them with threats on the one hand and wooing them with favorable trade and security terms on the other.