China yearns to be recognised as the most powerful nation on the planet. Driving the United States from the western Pacific would put that beyond doubt, and ongoing territorial disputes represent the perfect excuse
“Well, I’ve become an octogenarian and if I have acquired any wisdom at all, it consists of taking at face value the threats of one’s enemies. There’s a kind of pathology at work in the world that refuses to believe. Somebody says “I want to kill you,” you say, well, you can’t possibly mean that.” — Norman Podhoretz1
Let’s look at the problem of China’s aggression from China’s perspective. They have stated that the bulk of the South China Sea is Chinese territory and that the claim will be enforced. This means seizing it from its current owners — Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines. They have also said that the Senkaku Islands, part of Japanese territory, are rightfully theirs and that they “have unshakeable commitment to safeguard our country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”. At some stage Beijing must follow through with its threats or lose respect, and getting respect is what the purpose of the exercise is in the first place.
So China will attack to remove what it considers to be interlopers from its territory. The question is what is the optimum timing of that attack?
Enforcing the South China Sea claim means having to scrape Filipino bases of islands in the Spratley group. That may or may not mean that the United States comes to the Philippines’ aid in repelling the Chinese. Seizing the Senkaku Islands means landing troops and fending off the Japanese counterattack. Once again, the US may or may not come to the assistance of Japan in this matter. The US has said it would, but circumstances change. Beijing’s claim on the South China Sea is problematic for the US in that it would make a major sea lane a no-go area for the its military. That, rather than the possession of some rocky outcrops, should drive the Washington to support the Philippines and Japan.
The current Chinese position is similar to that of Japan before its entry into World War II: it imports a high proportion of its oil and its biggest competitor in the western Pacific is the US and its military forces. The timing of the Japanese entry into World War II was driven by the US oil embargo, which came into effect in July, 1941. Japan had to use its navy to seize oilfields in southeast Asia or lose the use of its navy for lack of fuel. The Japanese options with respect to the US Pacific fleet were to leave it alone and risk the US entering the war at a time of its choosing, or to strike pre-emptively and severely reduce its capability at the outset. Japan chose the pre-emptive attack option, hoping that it would consolidate its position before the US could recover.
China’s domestic oil production is just over four million barrels per day and it imports a further five million barrels per day. The country’s position is a bit better in that it has in production or under construction 450,000 barrels per day of coal-to-liquids projects and 150,000 barrels per day of methanol from coal. Methanol can be used as a gasoline extender. China also recently completed a 250,000 barrel per day oil pipeline from Kyaukphyu on the coast of Myanmar to Kunming in southwest China. China’s formal target for its strategic petroleum reserves is 700 million barrels. It also has 2.2 billion barrels of commercial storage capacity. Unlike Japan before WW II, China is in a good position with respect to its oil demand in a conflict. It could simply direct that private vehicles stay off the road and demand would collapse down to near the level of domestic supply. While a blockade of China is part of the US air-sea battle plan in a conflict, China’s energy needs would be well covered by its domestic sources.
China wants to be recognised as the most powerful country on the planet. Successfully driving the United States from the western Pacific would put that beyond doubt
With its fuel needs accounted for, China’s next decision is whether or not to pre-emptively attack US bases in the Western Pacific as part of its attack on Japan and the Philippines. It is almost certain to, for the same reason that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1942. A successful pre-emptive attack would be an equaliser, giving China a much freer hand in the region for months. It would also provide more certainty in that China would be facing a much weaker US presence in the western Pacific, rather than the potential for the US to enter the conflict at a time and in a manner of its choosing. Ego would also play a large part in the decision for a pre-emptive attack. China wants to be recognised as the most powerful country on the planet. Successfully driving the United States from the western Pacific would put that beyond doubt.
Given that the US would have no interest in landing troops on mainland China, the war for the US could be relatively low cost in that, as a blockade operation, Chinese forces would have to expose themselves some distance from China to engage the blockading forces. In that respect, the war would be similar to the British blockade of French ports during the Napoleonic wars.
China is developing some advanced weapons such as the J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters. It might be a couple of years before either aircraft enters production. Similarly, China has one aircraft carrier for training and has laid the keel of a second. China might wait until it has adequate war stocks of these new weapons or it may not. In 1973 prior to the Yom Kippur War, Israel thought that Egypt and Syria would not attack it because Russia had refused to supply Egypt with Mig-23 aircraft and had delayed delivery of SCUD missiles. Egypt attacked nevertheless, relying upon superiority in numbers of less advanced aircraft types. A 2008 Rand study2 concluded that the current US qualitative advantage in the form of F-22 fighter aircraft could be offset by the larger number of air-to-air missiles that squadrons of Chinese SU-27-type aircraft could engage with. The qualitative difference between US aircraft and Chinese aircraft and air defence systems is likely to be small enough that the Chinese do not need to wait for the J-20, J-31 and other stealthy types to be brought into service if they have enough of current aircraft types.
The Chinese view the world, and their place in it, through the prism of “comprehensive national power”. This is the sum of an assessment of each country’s economic, military and political power. The Chinese use it as the measure of the power to compel. With the Chinese economy expanding at a rate in the high single digits of percentage annual growth and defence expenditure growing in double digits, the Chinese perception of their power to compel would be rising strongly. A high proportion of that economic expansion though is in the form of non-productive fixed asset investment. This credit-fuelled boom could end at any time with attendant social dislocation. If the Chinese perceive that their relative position to Japan and the United States had stalled and was likely to recede with ongoing Japanese re-armament, then that might prompt them to bring forward their attack. The timing of Germany’s initiation of World War 1 was driven by similar logic.
A further indication of Chinese timing is the tone of rhetoric being used by China in describing what it will do. For example, Reuters reported on June 28 that “China’s state media warned on Saturday that a ‘counterstrike’ against the Philippines was inevitable if it continues to provoke Beijing in the South China Sea”. A dispassionate observer would consider the notion that the Philippines is provoking China to be delusional. The statement in the state media would have been for domestic consumption — preparing the Chinese public for war by invoking Filipino provocation as the casus belli. The nature of the language suggests China is in the late stages of preparing for the coming conflict.
As Norman Podhoretz notes in the quote above, it is wisest to take threats at face value. If the Chinese state media is discussing a “counterstrike” against the Philippines, then China will be attacking the Philippines – and Japan, and the United States. Whatever the outcome of that war, the region will become a number of armed camps with generations of enmity in prospect.
- Peter Robinson, An Endless Struggle, Hoover Digest, 2013, No 3 pp 148-158
- Rand Project Air Force, Air Combat Past, Present and Future, August 2008
David Archibald is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of World Politics, Washington DC
China’s domestic oil production is just over four million barrels per day and it imports a further five million barrels per day. The country’s position is a bit better than that in that has in production or under construction 450,000 barrels per day of coal-to-liquids projects and 150,000 barrels per day of methanol from coal. Methanol can be used as a gasoline extender. China also recently completed a 250,000 barrel per day oil pipeline from Kyaukphyu on the coast of Myanmar to Kunming in southwest China. China’s formal target for its strategic petroleum reserves is 700 million barrels. It also has 2.2 billion barrels of commercial storage capacity. Unlike Japan before WW II, China is in a good position with respect to its oil demand in a conflict. It could simply direct that private vehicles stay off the road and demand would collapse down to near the level of domestic supply. While a blockade of China is part of the US air-sea battle plan in a conflict, China’s energy needs would be well covered by its domestic sources.