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Related Video Above: U.S. and China: South China Sea Tensions

By Peter Huessy, President of Geo-Strategic Analysis, Potomac, Maryland

Security news often highlights what nuclear armed missiles and bombers are being built and deployed by adversaries and enemies of the United States. Les Aspin, the former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and later Secretary of Defense would often point out that while the “military bean counting” exercise was useful, he always thought the real important news was the “why” rather than the “what”, not “how many” but “what for?” ”.

3500 Warheads

The big public news over the past two months has been the “what” of Chinese nuclear building. This breakout buildup of the Chinese nuclear arsenal, with some 350 new ICBM silos being discovered under construction in four separate missile field areas was indeed newsworthy. The missile that would be placed in the silos is the Chinese DF-41 which can carry 10 warheads, implying a deployment of 3500 warheads, some 270% of the entire US day to day deployment of nuclear systems, and some 95% of the entire US nuclear arsenal including our reserve stockpile. Adding in the estimated 300-340 nuclear warheads already deployed by China, and the news is that China has the capacity in the next 2-4 years to have a nuclear arsenal larger than that of the United States.

China Missile silo

Chinese engineers erected an inflatable dome over the construction site of an underground missile silo, left, to hide the work below. Support facilities and temporary storage for construction equipment are seen at right.Credit...Planet Labs Inc.

However, startling as such news is, the real interesting question is what is China going to do with such an arsenal if it is built? At a recent Nuclear Triad Symposium in Washington on September 24th, a number of top scholars who are specialists in examining Chinese strategy and security objectives gave their take on exactly the question: what is China up to?

An article of faith during the huge expansion of US and China trade was that the PRC would have a greater and greater incentive to have normal and peaceful relations with the US, its major trading partner. A companion assessment was that as China expands its middle class and moves up economically and out of the developing world, it would moderate its internal communist leanings as well as accept the prevailing international liberal order of things.

Premier Military, Political and Economic Hegemon

As Michael Pillsbury wrote in The 100 Year Marathon, China did not move in the direction the conventional wisdom assumed would be the case. The Chinese vision was to become the world’s premier military, political and economic hegemon by 2049, the 100-year anniversary of the cofounding of the Peoples Republic of China. And to do so as a strong communist nation, governed by totalitarian guideposts.

Brad Thayer, formerly a professor at Texas Am University, and Rick Fisher of the Strategy and Assessment Center, together explained to the nearly 150 conference participants, the US and its allies need to deter China’s malevolent objectives and to do so we need a clear-eyed view of what objectives the Chinese seek.

Xi Jinping

China's President Xi Jinping

Thayer emphasized Xi Jinping-- the Chinese leader-- models his rule after Stalin, a political figure he wishes most to emulate. And noted Thayer, that explains Xi’s internal policies of ridding within the CCP any and all dissent, including using concentration camps and targeted killing of his rivals. A key indicator of Xi’s ambition is he has not chosen an eventual successor as former Chinese leaders have all done. He is going to be around for the long term, and particularly worrisome is public statements from the Chinese leadership that Taiwan must be taken back—militarily if necessary, and on Yi’s watch.

For China to achieve this without armed conflict with the United States, international political rules would have to be dramatically changed. And in fact, the top PRC goal is to remake the international order and jettison the current international order largely constructed by the US and its allies after WWII.

For example, one key PRC tactic is to use geographic salami tactics of both creating and taking more and more territory a little at a time in such areas as the South China Sea, pushing against Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other nations while curtailing our freedom of the seas. From this geographic advantage in the South China Sea, China will seek to militarily swallow up Taiwan and prevent the US from intervening.

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Thus, a growing Chinese military, including a Navy projected to be larger than the US by 2030 and a nuclear capability matching or even exceeding the US, might in the minds of the Chinese leadership give China the leverage to intimidate the US not to come to the defense of Taiwan, but even acquiesce to dangerous Chinese behavior. Remember, the Soviet Union in the 1970’s became increasingly reckless militarily as the Soviet leadership came to believe that what they termed the international “correlation of power” increasingly came to favor Moscow.

China's Navy

China's Harbin (112) guided-missile destroyer takes part in a week-long joint exercise with Russia in the East China Sea off Shanghai in May 2014.

But unlike the Soviet moribund economy, the growing Chinese military capability supports an economic system vastly larger and more dominant. China is seeking to control even more of critical supply chains of key national adversaries where the PRC controls key segments of manufacturing, especially in important military technologies and applications. As a consequence, major trading partners will be blackmailed into standing down military cooperation with the US lest they lose major export access to the Chinese economy.

Belts and Roads Initiatives

Peking’s Belts and Roads initiatives logically follow as part of the PRC strategy, aimed to lock up control over key seaports and sea-based transit routes, while adding new capabilities. The Chinese have long worried about their own vulnerability to the interruption of sea-based oil supplies, for example, which could curtail their military capability and their economy.

Thus, China’s goal is twofold, first to secure the ability to control and protect their own sea-based shipping such as through chokepoints such as the Straits of Malacca or Hormuz. And second, to expand and create simultaneously alternative land-based rail shipments from China to Europe as well as pipeline-based fuel deliveries from the Middle East, to thus have protected economic lifelines and not rely on sea-based transit routes vulnerable in the event of conflict over Taiwan, for example.

A 2009 Southern Command briefing foreshadowed a similar Chinese strategy in this hemisphere. The PRC at the time had adopted a policy to gift hundreds of millions in Chinese currency credits to nations to purchase Chinese made goods. In return, the PR$C would build such things as soccer stadiums “for free” but conditioned on contracts for billions in infrastructure projects such as to rebuild key seaports. Part of the deal was to give China as a port operator control over access to the port and related cargo. When loans could not be repaid, or as a condition of further financial largesse, China would secure control over a nation’s banking system and information and social media, further locking in a huge financial and information warfare advantage and leverage. Such economic leverage thus could give China significant influence with US hemispheric allies and might significantly lessen our allies help during a crisis or conflict. It is often noted that a key US advantage over China and Russia, for example, is the significant number of allies the US has. The Chinese strategy is to nullify that advantage as much as possible.

US Capital Markets

China also has entangled US capital markets into raising billions for Chinese military modernization, while making it hugely profitable for US financial actors .US retirement funds for example are invested in mutual funds, the details of which are not transparent, contrary to US law. These funds contain Chinese military company stock. This helps China purchase and develop high technology with which to modernize its military, whether space, hypersonic capability, artificial intelligence, or nuclear technology.

Hard currency inflows also help China prop up its paper money without which its trading status as the world’s premier producer of cheap goods would diminish dramatically. Here US reforms could significantly lessen Chinese military modernization and could work hand in glove with US military modernization to deter Chinese aggression.

Divide Allies

Another Chinese strategy is to try and split the US from its allies in the Pacific region including Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and the Republic of Korea. A little understood tactic has been for China to nuclear arm its friends, dismissing its obligations under the NPT or Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty.

President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and US President Joe Biden

For example, a nuclear armed DPRK, with weapons provided indirectly by China through the Khan “Nukes ‘R Us” network in Pakistan, is China’s hope to intimidate the US to leave the Korean peninsula for fear of being embroiled in an armed conflict between the DPRK and the ROK. And if as a result the US alliance with Japan is also weakened, China also wins.

As former Secretary of the Air Force Tom Reed explains in his “The Nuclear Express”, the Chinese leadership in 1981 purposively decided to proliferate nuclear weapons technology to such Chinese allies as Libya, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran in order to create centers of military power that could intimidate local nations allied with the US.

In summary, the long held US assumption that the Chinese would favor butter over guns has turned out to be wishful thinking. China is building a major conventional and nuclear capability, designed to coerce the United States into standing down in a crisis and acquiesce to Chinese aggression. Funding this Chinese growth is US economic largesse which has—however inadvertently—also given China access to our capital markets and ignored the theft of hundreds of billions annually of our intellectual property.

China, however, does not hold all the cards. The PRC has serious financial, economic, and demographic threats to its own stability. As the United States brought down the Soviet Union through a smart combination of economic, military, and diplomatic moves undermining the weak scaffolding of its empire, so too can the United States get smart and both modernize its military capability and with a new agility take tough economic measures to take down the Chinese hegemonic enterprise. That would not just make Americans and her allies safer, but also would significantly improve our economic prospects and ensure the opportunity to prosper which is the very birthright of all American citizens.

Peter Huessy is President of Geostrategic Analysis of Potomac, Maryland