By George Gao
NEW YORK – US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel welcomed Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan to the Pentagon on Monday as part of Chang’s four-day tour of US defense compounds. “We just finished a very productive meeting, where I restated that the United States is committed to building a positive and constructive relationship with China,” Hagel told reporters.
Hagel and Chang spoke of their countries’ commitment to build a stronger military-to-military relationship. They highlighted new ways to cooperate, such as in humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations, counter-piracy and counterterrorism initiatives, joint military exercises, and military exchange programs.
Asked about the US “rebalance” or “pivot”, which involves increased US military presence in the Asia-Pacific, Chang quoted his president, Xi Jinping: “The Pacific is wide enough to accommodate the two great countries, China and the United States. It’s always the Chinese position to welcome the US to play a constructive role in the Asia-Pacific.”
Chang said that while the US rebalancing strategy is a comprehensive one, he hopes it will not target China or stand against China’s affairs in the region.
Tensions flare in the Asia-Pacific
Meanwhile, China is embroiled in territorial disputes with US allies in the Asia-Pacific, namely the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, and Japan in the East China Sea.
Hagel said that while the US takes no official position on sovereignty on these matters, the US does have an interest for such disputes to be resolved “peacefully, without coercion”.
Hagel is slated to visit the Philippines at the end of August. As part of its rebalance, the US is negotiating an agreement with Manila to allow US troops greater access to Philippine military bases. Obtaining such access builds on former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld’s “lily pad” strategy, which involves lightweight US forces stationed in bases spangled across the globe.
“China sees the US as exploiting the opportunity created by the anxieties in the region to enhance its military presence and access arrangements,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia in the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“The prospects of a US-Philippines agreement on access arrangements has been discussed for some time, so the Chinese aren’t taken by surprise, though they are likely concerned about it,” Glaser told IPS.
China sees the US rebalance as a strategy to counter China’s increasing global influence. In general, China’s rise in status has dotted media headlines in 2013: most recently, China passed the US as the world’s largest trading nation. It is also set to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by 2016, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Analysts have already noted evidence of a new conventional arms race between the two nations. The US and China have the world’s highest defense budgets, running up to US$682 and $166 billion in 2012, respectively, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
China has invested in a range of anti-ship, land attack, and ballistic missiles, as well as counter-space weapons and military cyberspace “capabilities”, according to a 2013 US Department of Defense (DOD) report.
Such actions are part of China’s anti-access and area denial, or “A2/AD”, missions. The US is worried that China’s A2/AD weapons will restrict US “freedom of action”, by limiting US access to future “theatres of conflict”, as well as US movements within that theatre.
To get around A2/AD, the US unveiled a new war tactic known as AirSea Battle, which evolved from the AirLand Battle concept developed in the Cold War to counter any “Soviet-backed combined arms attack in Europe”. AirSea Battle’s aim “is to develop networked, integrated forces capable of attack-in-depth to disrupt, destroy and defeat adversary forces”, according to the DOD.
“Conventional arms competition between the US and China is primarily over US military access to the region,” said Glaser. “China is developing (A2/AD) capabilities that seek to deny the US such access in a crisis, and the US is determined to sustain access and operational maneuverability,” she said.
One military niche that China has not rapidly developed is its nuclear arsenal, which contains a modest 250 nuclear warheads, compared to Russia’s 8,500 and the US’s 7,700, according to SIPRI estimates.
While China is expected to streamline and modernize its nuclear force, specifically for second-strike or retaliatory purposes if another country instigates the first strike, analysts don’t see the arms race extending into the nuclear realm.
“Right now, I don’t see a high probability of China dramatically increasing the size of its nuclear forces,” said Elbridge Colby, co-chair of a working group that penned the report “Nuclear Weapons and US-China Relations” published by CSIS. China ”does not appear to want to engage in a nuclear arms race with the US, both because that would likely spur countervailing responses by the US and other countries in the region, and because it views too much expenditure on nuclear arms as wasteful,” Colby told IPS.
Asked how China is responding to AirSea Battle, John Chan, a China analyst at the World Socialist Web Site, told IPS that China is expanding its A2/AD capacities, as well as other military capabilities, including anti-surveillance, “in the hope that Beijing can seriously undermine the US military in the event of war”. Chan has long argued that the US rebalance has ratcheted tensions in the Asia-Pacific.
Chan also interpreted an August 2 piece by Chinese security expert Shen Dingli published in Chinese by Huan Qiu as something that calls into question China’s longstanding “no first use” nuclear policy. China is currently the only one of five UN Security Council permanent members with a “no first use” policy – which restricts China’s use of nuclear weapons only for deterrence and retaliation after suffering a nuclear strike.
However, asked via e-mail if the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific should or will lead China to re-examine its “no first-use” policy, Shen, the vice dean of the Institute of International Affairs at Fudan University, told IPS: “Not clear, probably not.”
Asked for ways to prevent the US and China from entering into a classic security dilemma and arms race, Shen said: “If the US would cease to do its pivoting; if the US would cease to build up its missile defense; if the US would cease its space military program, and if China would follow suit.”
(Inter Press Service)
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