Recent Chinese military moves pose big questions for new US administration

What we know is that the US National Defense Strategy envisions greater competition with “near-peer” adversaries such as China and Russia.

China flag  (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/ECOW)
China flag
Taiwan reported a “large incursion of Chinese warplanes for a second day running,” the BBC reported. Some 15 aircraft flew near Pratas Island in the northern part of the South China Sea administered by Taiwan. From Beijing’s perspective, it is merely flying over areas it claims.
On Monday, a day after the report of the overflight, Chinese and Indian troops reportedly clashed in a high-altitude disputed area. There have been casualties. The clash apparently happened last week.
By themselves none of these incidents are particularly important because they represent long-standing disputes. But they are interpreted by some media as representing a more muscular Chinese foreign policy. This is not new either: China has expanded its bases on various islands and has long-simmering disputes with the US and others.
But the current posture is important because the world has changed since the pandemic, and there are questions about how the new US administration will deal with China.
What we know is that the US National Defense Strategy envisions greater competition with “near-peer” adversaries such as China and Russia. How Washington actually intends to compete is unclear.
US military procurement moves at a snail’s pace, while China is rolling out new ships and drones and other technology quickly. America wants to increase its navy, but it has dabbled for years on projects that didn’t pan out.
Similarly, in the air, the US has yet to come up with a vision of how to use the next generation of drone swarming technology, paired with other drone programs, such as stealth drones and drones that work as “loyal wingmen.”
Other weapon systems are being introduced as well. Last year, the US practiced with a new laser in the Pacific that could be used to down hostile threats, such as drones. Meanwhile, China has rolled out a long list of accurate and large missiles. Some of these are characterized as “carrier killers.”
The US is potentially facing a crux moment, much like the war in the Pacific that took shape in the 1940s, in which adversaries learn whether new technology will work or not. For instance, Germany’s massive surface ships, the Bismarck and the Tirpitz, and Japan’s two Yamato-class battleships proved largely unnecessary facing technological innovations in aircraft that had been rolled out in 1940.
NOW, 80 years after the events that saw important new technology applied to major state competition, the ramifications of what appear to be incidents off Taiwan, or in the borderlands above India, have global ramifications. A China that is not only rising economically, as it has for decades, but militarily, leads to many questions for the US, its allies and other countries.
Washington has been pressuring its Middle East allies not to work closely with Beijing on strategic projects. US arms sales to the UAE, for instance, are supposed to plug a drone gap between the Emirates and Iran, giving the UAE more armed drones.
For years, the US didn’t want to sell armed drones, while China was selling them everywhere. America’s drones are more expensive, and users of them say they are better, but China’s drones are increasingly important globally.
The ramifications are clear in other areas as well. While Western countries critique China on human-rights issues, China has learned through experience in Hong Kong that more Western critiques are lip service. In the end, most countries in Europe need China more than China may need them.
Chaotic Western responses to COVID-19 underpin a West that is a basket case of foreign-policy hodgepodge, economic disorder and potential political disintegration, as Western norms and concepts such as the EU have been challenged.
Decades of Western policy still can’t deal with basic issues, such as how to handle immigration. Domestic chaos in the US, with a president who didn’t even concede the last election normally, is showing cracks in the institutions that underpinned the rise of these Western states for hundreds of years.
In the absence of a unified West and other pacts that were the norm during the Cold War, such as the Baghdad Pact, a muscular NATO or other measures, it is clear that most countries, such as India, will face tensions with China alone. Similarly, Western media outlets have already signaled that they increasingly see China’s claims to Taiwan as legitimate, so Taiwan’s sovereignty may be undermined.
The US has signaled for years that it wants to be done with “endless” or “forever” wars. In a war with China, certainly there are questions if the US would stand with Taiwan. Of course, the US still pays lip service to demanding the release of the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, among other issues.
America has reaffirmed support for Taiwan. US President Joe Biden has said the US is “back” in foreign policy. However, the degree to which it is “back” will be tested, and tensions near Taiwan or in the high altitudes between India and China are likely areas where such tests will come.