DN - Defence Notes

Opinion: 2018 is China’s Year of the Dog

10th January 2018 - 01:01 GMT | by The Geobukseon in Indo-Pacific

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The coming Year of the Dog could be the year of the ‘running dog’ for the US in the Asia-Pacific. Never before have we seen the rise of such an assertive and powerful China driven by outlandish historical claims and outrageous publicity acts of indignation.

As the New Year passes into the old, and as China flexes its military muscle, the US appears unprepared for what could be a nasty 2018, beginning with China’s neighbour and technically its strategic partner, North Korea. Then add to this China’s island build-up and military deployment that is interweaving the South China Sea into one monstrous spider web roughly the size of India.

And let us not forget China’s push into the East China Sea that is now testing 70 years of an uninterrupted American and Japan military alliance.

In 2017 the US gave up on the phrase ‘Asia-Pacific’ and it now calls the region the ‘Indo-Pacific’. President Donald Trump’s recent use of the phrase during his visit to Asia, and its reuse by some quarters in Washington think tanks, reflects the type of resignation that have all the signs of a terminally ill patient suffering from the traditional symptoms of the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

'In 2017 the US gave up on the phrase ‘Asia-Pacific’ and it now calls the region the ‘Indo-Pacific’. '

The Geobukseon

Just as once ‘Britannia ruled the waves’, the US Navy (USN) finds itself with fewer ships and more missions than it can handle. The USN is supporting exhausting and dangerous missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and now Yemen. Though many are covert operations, the Middle East has become a mere replacement for the US obsession with Asia during the Cold War.

The US has slowly closed its Asian military ‘franchise’ since the fall of Vietnam in 1975, with the closure of bases in Thailand (1976), Taiwan (1979), the Philippines (1992) and a sharp reduction of force levels in South Korea, as well as injurious restructuring in Japan during this same time period.

USN recapitalisation has taken its toll with new Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), which have experienced engine failures, mission modules that do not fit together and rust problems. The navy’s answer to the problem was simply to continue procurement and move on with the next surface combatant (FFG-X), or experimental guided missile frigate, which will supposedly do the original job of the LCS. Billions of dollars of waste appear not to be an issue.

And who can forget the outrageous cost overruns and technical problems with the USN’s carrier-based F-35C and US Marine Corps’ short take-off/vertical landing F-35B stealth fighters that skyrocketed from $35 million to $200 million apiece. They were ironically dubbed ‘the Lightning’ long before they became associated more with static electricity.

At the same time, in 2017, China began construction of or launched a plethora of new navy ships. The sheer quantity must appear as hallucinatory to Americans – Type 056 corvettes, Type 054A frigates, Type 052D destroyers, the first Type 055 destroyer, the first Type 901 fast combat support ship, additional Type 081 mine countermeasure vessels, more Type 815A electronic surveillance ships, the fifth Type 071 amphibious transport dock, more Type 041 attack submarines, three new Type 636A hydrographic survey ships, the first Type 075 helicopter landing dock and the first of a series of indigenous aircraft carriers.

Western analysts are quick to point out that Chinese naval designs and experience are not up to ‘American standards’, but such talk seems vintage now that the Chinese military is squarely challenging Japanese naval ships and aircraft in their own backyard, and as Chinese military aircraft conduct circumnavigation operations around Taiwan in a slow strangling noose that looks progressively like barbed wire.

Where are the Americans in the East China Sea and South China Sea? The US State Department would rather not upset Beijing by insinuating that China, like imperial Japan in the 1930s, is quite possibly on the move militarily in the region.

The appointment of Randall Schriver as the new US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs has given a rise in hope that the US military can breathe life into a dying US defence policy in the region. However, Schriver is just one man against an army of China apologists in the US State Department and even within the US military.

Schriver is well known for his support for Taiwan, but even with his sizeable experience as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2003-05, and tutelage under the legendary bareknuckle bureaucratic fighter Richard Armitage, who served as the US Deputy Secretary of State from 2001-05, it will be a formidable challenge for him.

Hopefully, Schriver can get into his office and on the phone before something stupid happens over North Korea. American policy pundits are talking about ‘surgical strikes’ against underground nuclear weapon facilities as if it were as easy as cutting a tumour out of a psychopathic cancer patient without restraints or anaesthesia. 

Pyongyang is hardly a rollover and is certainly capable of counter-strikes on Japan and South Korea. Recent unconfirmed media reports that North Korea had sold three nuclear warheads to Iran reveal the level of fear Pyongyang has induced in the international community.

China even appears annoyed by US suggestions that it provided missile transporter-erector-launchers to North Korea, a method of moving nuclear-armed missiles around like American recreational vehicles used by elderly retirees.

Beijing claimed they were ‘timber trucks’ used for logging, and that they were illegally converted to city killers by North Korea. However, such an assertion sounds more like the childlike excuse that the dog ate their homework.

Whether China’s Year of the Dog results in war or just continued friction, there is no question that Beijing’s rise as a confrontational power, determined to undermine US military strength in the region, will continue undaunted in 2018.

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