PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY THE DAILY BEAST
GORDON G. CHANG
09.04.18 5:03 AM ET
China, the New York Times reported last week, “can now challenge American military supremacy in the places that matter most to it: the waters around Taiwan and in the disputed South China Sea.” Therefore, Beijing can, in the words of the paper, “make intervention in the region too costly for Washington to contemplate.”
Too costly to contemplate? Unfortunately, assessments like these, often heard in U.S. policy circles, can embolden the already arrogant Chinese and make their adventurism—and war—more likely.
China, surpassing the U.S. last year, now boasts the world’s largest navy, and it is adding to its fleet “at a stunning rate,” according to the Times. Even last year, the count was lopsided with China claiming 317 surface vessels and subs in active service and the U.S. 283.
Of course, it’s not clear how capable the People’s Liberation Army Navy is. The PLAN, as it is known, has never participated in a large-scale wartime engagement at sea, and its fleet is not, on the whole, as modern as America’s.
Nonetheless, China has a few critical advantages. Its naval assets are concentrated along its shores and U.S. forces are spread around the globe; areas of likely conflict are near China and far from America; and the PLAN has some crucial weapons that are better than those of the United States, especially anti-ship missiles. Beijing has also gone big into “asymmetric” warfare, for instance militarizing fishing fleets, enlisting the “little blue men” of what has become a maritime militia.
The Chinese also have one other advantage: the will to use force to take what is in the possession of others. In their peripheral seas, they grabbed control of the Paracel Islands, in the northern portion of the South China Sea, from South Vietnam in 1974 after a short battle. The Chinese also seized Mischief Reef from the Philippines in a series of actions from late 1994 to early 1995, and they snatched Scarborough Shoal, also from Manila, in early 2012. Now, China is, among other things, pressuring other Philippine features in the South China Sea and using menacing tactics to take over a chain of uninhabited islets currently under Japanese control in the East China Sea.
Moreover, Beijing has clearly relished challenging the U.S. Navy and Air Force in the global commons, threatening and on occasion harassing American ships, planes, and drones. The seizure of an American drone in international waters in December 2016, in sight of the USNS Bowditch and in defiance of radio commands, was brazen and nothing short of an act of war.
Moreover, Beijing’s harassment of the USNS Impeccable in March 2009 in the South China Sea, using its maritime militia, was so severe that it constituted an attack on the United States.