Event Recap – China Reshapes the Balance of Power: Seeking Peace and Security

April 10, 2017

After 30 years of continuous rise, China is changing the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific. What does this mean for the U.S. and the rest of the world? Should the U.S. resist China’s rise or adjust to this new reality with China, sharing power in the Pacific Ocean? At a recent Critical Issues Confronting China seminar series talk, "China Reshapes the Balance of Power: Seeking Peace and Security," Robert Ross, Professor of Political Science at Boston College and Associate of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, analyzed recent trends in this regional balance of power.

Ross first discussed China’s post-1949 security environment. During this first period, from 1949 to 1989, China won every land war it engaged in, including the Korean War (1950-53), the Sino-India war of 1962 and the multiple wars in Indochina. It also established superiority over Russia in Northeast Asia. Through these victories, China secured its borders. Beijing also replaced Taiwan as the sole Chinese government recognized diplomatically by the U.S. and its allies. During the second period from 1989 to about 2005, in a secure political environment, China pursued economic development. Its influence over its neighbors had grown so much that both Taiwan and South Korea paid increasing deference to China’s wishes. This was the period of China’s peaceful rise. Third, over the past decade, China has built a large modern navy that spends more time at sea, not only defending waters surrounding its coast but also eroding U.S. maritime dominance in East Asian waters.    

Second, Ross analyzed China’s changing geopolitical circumstances and the implications for China’s development of maritime power. China no longer worries about the Russian challenge in Northeast Asia and Central Asia. Over the past three years, Russia’s petro-economy has been in a dire situation, due to plummeting oil prices. There is little prospect for a rapid recovery. As Russia’s military and political attention has increasingly focused on Ukraine and NATO, it has redeployed its most capable military forces from the Far East to its western front. The Far East population has declined from 14 million to about seven million. Thus, China is satisfied with its current ground force capabilities for defending its borders, and it can focus its resources on building its navy. China is in a position toward Russia similar to the U.S. position toward Canada, a benign northern neighbor that has allowed U.S. development of its naval capabilities.

Third, Ross compared China’s defense spending and naval capabilities with those of the U.S.  Over the past 30 years, China increased its defense spending at an average annual rate of approximately 10 percent. China has now begun serial production of modern ships, including 60 new ships in 2016. By American standards, about 70 percent of Chinese ships and more than 50 percent of China’s aircraft are “modern.” Moreover, Chinese missiles are now able to target American bases in Asia.

In contrast to China’s improved naval capabilities, the U.S. Navy possesses 273 ships and
has planned on operating 308 ships by 2020. This would require a 36 percent increase in the navy’s budget. But approximately one half of the U.S. federal government spending is non-discretionary. In the discretionary budget, 50 per cent is already allocated to defense, with the navy, the army, and the air force each taking about one third of the defense budget. President Donald Trump has promised a 10 percent increase in the defense budget, but only one third of this increase will be allocated to the navy. Thus, any expansion of the U.S. Navy will be highly limited. Since “quantity has a quality dimension on its own,” the quantitative gap between the two navies will challenge U.S. security and the regional balance of power.

Under the “pivot to Asia,” the Obama administration announced that the U.S. would deploy 60 percent of the American fleet to the region. In ten years, the U.S. may be required to deploy 75 percent of its fleet to Asia to keep up with China’s naval expansion. U.S. naval officers report that it will be very difficult for the U.S. to wage war against China within the South China Sea.

However, war does not have to happen between an established power and a rising power during a power transition. Ross argued that if China and the U.S. manage this transition well, they can avoid excessive conflict escalation. Ross pointed out that both countries must adjust to East Asia’s changing power dynamics. First, China must learn to use its new-found power well. It must be patient, relying on politics, rather than force, to achieve its objectives.

Second, without sacrificing its own core interests, the U.S. must adjust to the rise of China and the implications for U.S. alliance relationships. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has made it clear that he wants a better Philippine relationship with China. For over a decade, South Korea was reluctant to accept the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). Vietnam will not contribute to U.S. defense in Asia.

Ross suggested that the U.S. should open up the debate and let the American public decide how the U.S., given its budget constraints, should balance its interests between maintaining military supremacy in the Asia-Pacific with its domestic social welfare programs and a modernized infrastructure. If the American public prioritizes domestic affairs over maritime supremacy in East Asia, then the U.S. should avoid unnecessary yet costly challenges to Chinese security that do not contribute to U.S. security.  

Nonetheless, U.S. policy makers have been determined to resist China’s rise, intent on preserving the strategic status quo. Ross expects heightened U.S.-China competition and warned of the danger of a downward spiral which can lead to a war that no one wanted or intended.