China's leaders are busy touring the globe. President Hu Jintao has been visiting the US a week after vice-premier Li Keqiang, whom Hu backs as the next prime minister, did the rounds of the European Union (EU).
Visits by top Chinese officials are a big deal these days. China, now the second biggest economy in the world, has so far weathered the global slump much better than the US or the EU.
But in many ways a more interesting visit was paid to Beijing last week by US defence secretary Robert Gates. His trip was delayed after Hu said last June that Gates wouldn’t be welcome in China.
This incident reflected frictions over US defence sales to Taiwan, which China claims as part of its sovereign territory. But there are more deep-seated military tensions developing.
China’s headlong economic expansion has made it highly dependent on the sea-lanes through which raw materials and components flow in, and manufactured exports flow out. But the US Pacific Fleet has dominated Asia’s coasts since Japan was crushed during the Second World War.
This growing vulnerability is encouraging a shift in Chinese naval doctrine. Until recently, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (Plan) concentrated on the “near seas” round its coasts. As two academics at the US Naval War College put it this is, “the space within and slightly beyond the ‘first island chain’, which extends from Kurile Islands through the main islands of Japan, the Ryukyu Archipelago, Taiwan, and the Philippines to Borneo”.
Now, they suggest the Plan is seeking “to extend its operational range from the near seas to the ‘middle and far seas’, or the space between the first and second island chains, the latter stretching from northern Japan to the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and farther southward, and beyond”.
This is a direct challenge to the US, which has a network of military bases sprawling from South Korea and Japan eastwards across the Pacific. And the Plan is beginning to acquire the necessary capabilities.
Just before Christmas it emerged that China is planning to build aircraft carriers. A few days later, Admiral Robert Willard, chief of US Pacific Command, announced that China was now deploying land-based anti-ship missiles capable of tracking and targeting aircraft carriers.
This means that the giant aircraft carrier groups that are key instruments of the US’s global power projection are now vulnerable.
Already a few months earlier Gates had expressed his worry: “if the Chinese or somebody else has a highly accurate anti-ship cruise or ballistic missile that can take out a carrier at hundreds of miles of ranges and therefore in Asia puts us back behind the second island chain”.
Just before Gates’s visit to Beijing, the Financial Times pointed to the increasing influence of hawks in the Chinese military: “Colonel Liu Mingfu, a professor at the National Defence University, published a book calling on China to prepare ‘for a fight with the US for global dominance in the 21st century’… Colonel Dai Xu, an air force strategist, accused the US of trying to contain China through encirclement by building closer ties to its neighbours, from South Korea to India.”
The hawks’ influence seemed to be confirmed when, while Gates was in Beijing, China tested a new stealth fighter, the J-20. The New York Times reported: “When Mr Gates asked Mr Hu to discuss the test it was evident to the Americans that the Chinese leader and his top civilian advisers were startled by the query and were unprepared to answer him… ‘The civilian leadership seemed surprised by the test,’ Mr Gates told reporters.”
General Liang Guanglie, the Chinese defence minister, also refused to endorse his proposal for in-depth strategic discussions between Washington and Beijing. None of this means that the US and China are about to go to war. But it is clear that the economic frictions between the two powers over trade and currencies are accompanied by increasing jockeying for geopolitical influence.
Naturally, this is beginning in Asia, but, as China grows stronger, its competition with the American hegemon will be felt globally.