US and China Enter a New Era of Strategic Competition

The US’ National Defense Strategy Commission, a bipartisan panel of experts selected by the Congress to review and assess the National Defense Strategy has concluded that the “security and wellbeing of the United States are at greater risk than at any time in decades…the military could lose the next state-versus-state war it fights” against Russia in the Baltic region, and China in the event of a conflict over Taiwan. This would mean a “huge strategic blow to the posture of deterrence that has shaped and defined the geopolitical landscape for decades.” The Congressmen have taken cognizance of nearly two decades of military investments made by the US in counterinsurgency campaigns in the Middle East which weakened its strategic advantage accrued after the end of the Cold War. Further, Russia and China are abreast or beginning to gain edge over the US in space and cyber thus complicating Pentagon’s ability to brandish overwhelming hard-power, an advantage it has enjoyed during the Cold War, global war on terror and by keeping Iran and North Korea under control.

At another level, the Pentagon has decided to realign its counter-terrorism assets and forces operating in Africa. This would result in relocation of some troops over the next three years to other tasks and new destinations, and the funds released through the move will be put to use into military muscle-flexing. However, the troops allocated for Somalia and Djibouti will continue to be deployed in the region keeping in mind that the former still remains vulnerable to the terrorist group Al Shabab. The US has been wary of putting its soldiers on ground in Somalia after the 1993 incident in which 18 Special Forces soldiers were killed by the militias in Mogadishu and now prefers air strikes. For instance, in November 2017, nearly 100 militants were killed through air strikes. This year over two dozen air and drone strikes have been launched and in October, 60 Al-Shabab militants were killed.

As far as Djibouti is concerned, China has set up naval base in Djibouti, but the US appears to take solace in the fact that some of its allies and friends such as Japan, France and Italy have military bases in the area to keep a check on PLA Navy operations in the Indian Ocean.

The US is now focusing on the Indo-Pacific and has renamed the Pacific Command as the United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). It is leading the regional discourse of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) through operations and this strategy has found resonance among Australia, India and Japan who have chosen to join hands through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), albeit with different interpretations.

Washington’s aggressive posturing has put enormous pressures on Beijing on at least four counts; first is over the ongoing trade war which the US appears to be winning and according to media reports, President Trump has stated that both sides could strike a deal when President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet on the sidelines of the summit of Group of 20 industrialized nations in Buenos Aires this week but “if we don’t, we are doing very well just the way it is right now,”

Second is about US technology transfers (legal, through mergers or clandestine) relating to space, cyber, underwater, weapons and sensors, and disruptive technologies that have found use in Chinese military drones, robots and other lethal ordnance including laser guns. Chinese State controlled entities and business enterprises based in the US are suspected of cyber‐economic ‘espionage and sabotage’ including technology transfer through acquisition of strategic US companies. In August 2018, the US enacted the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act to prevent a country of “special concern (China) that has a demonstrated or declared strategic goal of acquiring a type of critical technology or critical infrastructure that would affect United States leadership in areas related to national security.”

Third, the US continues to enjoy military technology and skills advantage. China still lags behind the US, but it is beginning to narrow the gap and according to a RAND study, “Paired system-for-system or at the level of the individual service member, the United States still maintains a substantial military advantage. However, China would enjoy enormous situational and geographic advantages in any likely East Asian scenario that would largely offset these strengths.”

Fourth, is the US naval deployments in the South China Sea; two transits by the US Navy through the Taiwan Strait, and freedom of navigation patrols including the latest incident during which warships of the two countries came dangerously close to result in an accident have caused concern in Beijing. These operational manoeuvres are aimed at preventing the PLA Navy breakout of the Second Island Chain into the Pacific Ocean.

It is fair to assume that the US’ economic, technological and military moves to ‘tame’ China and uphold Washington’s geopolitical and geostrategic leadership in Asia are apparently paying off for the present. However, China is expected to respond by defying the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy and preventing a US dominated strategic equilibrium in the region. If that be the case regional peace and security will remain in jeopardy, unless Beijing shows signs of relenting to Washington’s demand for a free and open Indo-Pacific, or both sides reconcile over the trade wars.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is former Director National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi and is associated with the Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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