The standoff in the South China Sea between Chinese and American ships is just military friction being exaggerated against the backdrop of concern that the U.S. has had about Chinese military forces since the 2001 military airplane collision. This time, the action of the U.S. naval spy ship, in contrast to the cries of “threats by Chinese submarines” from senior American officials, is clearly a movement directed at China.
The Disparity between the Chinese and American Navies Cannot Be Changed in Such a Short Time
It is undeniable that China’s increasing comprehensive strength helped China’s navy upgrade its armaments and markedly improve its degree of technology. Equipped with Chinese-made submarines, destroyers, frigates and warplanes, China’s navy has basically set up a weaponry system comprising of second-generation arms as its main body and third-generation arms as its backbone. This makes the Pentagon oversensitive.
In response to this standoff incident, an anonymous Pentagon official acknowledged that the U.S. spy ship was collecting intelligence in the South China Sea. This seems to indicate that China’s growing navy has posed or will pose a threat to America. Timothy Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said that the Chinese submarine force has made great improvements both in quality and quantity, and the U.S. must hold onto its superiority in submarine technology.
It is undeniable that China’s navy has improved greatly in its fighting capability, but the gap between the Chinese and American navies is unlikely to be bridged in such a short time, as the American navy is also expanding with the most advanced and largest amount of nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers. Even Lyle Goldstein had to admit that the development of the Chinese navy cannot compare to that of the Soviet Union’s in the 1960-70s, as the latter had 380 submarines and was quickly making new ones in 1969. For the Chinese navy it would be impossible and unnecessary to build up that many submarines, either right now or in the future. And so there is no threat at all to the U.S.
The Strategy to Surround China Will Continue
The U.S. strategy to surround China will remain firmly in place regardless of how China moderates or restrains its military development. The U.S. has moved its military strategic core eastward in recent years, and built several island chains to blockade and surround China with the help of its allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Now almost all of the channels, except those located to the south and north of Taiwan, are controlled by the U.S., Japan, Korea and the Philippines. To further strengthen the marine blockade of China, the U.S. Army deployed not long ago B-2 strategic bombers, F-22 Stealth fighters and Virginia Class nuclear-powered submarines in Guam, the key hub for the second island chain. Moreover, the U.S. Army also invested a lot to rebuild Pearl Harbor into a strategic base for aircraft carriers and a base for strategic nuclear-powered submarines, which not only decreases the disadvantage of U.S. strategic forces being over-concentrated in their homeland, but also enables these strategic weapons to increase their deterrent powers and the ability to deal with all sorts of crises swiftly.
“Accidental Fire” is Difficult to Avoid Completely
The U.S. military deployments around China will not lead to a direct conflict between these two countries in the short term, but the strengthening of the U.S. military reconnaissance and military exercises around China might be an inducement that causes Sino-U.S. friction at sea. It cannot be ruled out that this standoff in the South China Sea is an event created by some members of the U.S. military forces who, taking advantage of the fact that the fresh Obama government has not had enough experience in military and marine affairs, produced a misleading impression among senior U.S. officials and in Congress that U.S. marine movements are often harassed, so that the forces would receive sympathy from the American people and support for military expenditure in this area.
It can be deduced that the U.S. Navy will continue its spy activities for military, hydrological and meteorological data in the waters near China or even in key Chinese waters and strategic channels. Therefore, similar “standoffs” will be hard to avoid, and some minor conflicts might occur. To deal with this, both Chinese and American military forces need to be adaptable and should increase communication with each other as soon as possible. They should also restrain themselves if and when an incident occurs, in order to leave room for diplomatic settlement. After all, neither China nor the U.S. would like to have their economies or politics affected by the friction at sea between them during a global recession. Both China and the U.S. should think clearly about this situation.