Is the American public naively ignoring the looming threat of Chinese hard power? That is what Peter Beinart purports in his piece on the near-collision between Chinese and American warships in the South China Sea on December 5, an incident primarily believed to be caused by China’s continued maritime “bullying” on vessels lawfully moving through international waters.
The Global Times (an organ of the Communist party of China frequently utilized by their military) denies this allegation, citing that the USS Cowpens had in essence “blocked China’s doorstep” by veering too close to Liaoning for reconnaissance purposes. China also dismisses the idea of American ships sailing freely through international waters and alludes that both water-based and air-based confrontations with the US are on the rise due to American spying.
In his article, Beinart compares the current China-US relationship with that of Germany-Britain before World War I—an example which many readers may bristle at for its stark neocon-like approach to two different contexts. With all of the economic relations that we Americans hear about daily when it comes to China, a war between the two most powerful nations on the planet may seem like an extreme idea.
But we’re not talking about an old fashioned land war on mainland America. China has been assertively navigating around the Pacific theater for years after a decades-long naval development plan coupled with its steep economic rise. China’s hard power status has grown exponentially in the past decade and has little reason to tone down its stances when it comes to the Diaoyo-Senkaku islands, international espionage, or any other maritime security dilemmas it deems important.
Beinart also points out his dismay at reading about the warships’ front-page worthy collision on A21 of the New York Times. I agree with him that such an incident deserves to be a featured headline for America’s most widely read newspaper; he would be comforted to know that the story was widely shared on the front page of Reddit long before mainstream readers could find it on paper.
However, pertinent information from the other side of the Chinese border has unfortunately been receiving much less attention in Western media these days. For example, just one day before the maritime scuffle with the US, Chinese troops crossed the contentious Ladakh border it shares with India and reportedly took a handful of porters and their cattle into captivity. Skirmishes in this area between the two nations are somewhat common, but I think the timing between the two incidents are not to be ignored as sheer coincidence.
China’s alleged attempt at stopping an American warship in international waters may cause enough alarm for Americans, but we need to also pay attention to what is playing out on the rest of China’s circumferential agenda in order to establish objective strategic conclusions that benefit all of our allies in the Pacific theater as well.
The assertion of a potential US-China war may sound more like a game theory exercise to some at this point in time, but it is also impossible to miss the patterns of China’s border-testing as of late. Of course, much of this is ultimately their response to the US “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia—a concept that China views as an American containment strategy towards Beijing.
On the positive side, growing interdependent economic relationships have made traditional war much less tangible compared to 100 years ago. Perhaps even more importantly in the long run, international cultural relationships are also playing a subtly important hand in how hard power is managed. Warfare is no longer strictly a battle of tanks and money—soft power and cultural relations are increasingly fueling hard power decisions, further nuancing international agendas by nation states. This is the grey area that will inform most conflicts of the future, particularly among more developed countries.