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The first presidential debate devoted scant time to national security. The topic area came last on the agenda, after a great deal of time had been wasted on trivial matters and mud-slinging. The NBC moderator Lester Holt studiously avoided the issues of border security, immigration and military readiness. Russia and China were mentioned in passing in regard to cyber-hacking without any larger strategic context. And even NATO was discussed only in terms of countering terrorism, not a resurgent Russia. Terrorism got the most attention, as expected given recent attacks by "lone wolf" Islamic State sympathizers. But even here, plans for thwarting such attacks or defeating ISIS were not presented in any detail.
Fortunately, more serious minds have continued to work on the strategic threat from Communist China, whose regime has ambitions and resources far larger than Islamic State can ever dream of having. On September 21, there were two events in Washington that highlighted the danger; a Congressional hearing on the South China Sea by the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces and a day-long conference at the New America Foundation on "Trade, War and China in the 21st Century."
At the House hearing, Bonnie S. Glaser,Senior Adviser for Asia and Director of the China Power Project at the Center for for Strategic and International Studies, testified about the high stakes involved.
Growing tensions in the South China Sea are not simply a result of sovereignty disputes over rocks and reefs. They arise from differences over the future international order in Asia and the rules that undergrid that order. The United States has an abiding interest in shaping those rules along with our partners in the region and beyond. At stake are peace and stability, and the preservation of a balance of power in the Asia-Pacific that benefits the United States, as well as its allies and friends.
Among the specifics, Glaser listed the U.S. interest in seeing disputes settled peacefully in accord with international law. Beijing, however, considers its claims in the South China Sea to be "core" interests which justify the strongest measures to defend. On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, a UN-backed agency based at The Hague with jurisdiction over disputes arising from the Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC), ruled that China did not have valid claims to the islands of the South China Sea based on history. The tribunal said China had violated the Philippines' sovereign rights by exploring for resources in the region. Beijing has no entitlement to an economic zone within 200 miles of Mischief Reef or Thomas Shoal under the LOSC. China, however, rejected the ruling and said it will not even accept a copy of the verdict. Beijing did not participate in the tribunal proceedings, claiming that even though it signed the LOSC, it stipulated that it would not take part in the dispute settlement mechanism.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said Beijing's "territorial sovereignty and marine rights" in the seas would not be affected by the ruling. China has continued to build up its artificial islands and to deploy to them warplanes and missile units. As Glaser warned, "Gaining control over the South China Sea may be a key step in a Chinese strategy to constrain or even block the U.S. Navy's access to and maneuverability within the waters of the first island chain, which stretches from southern Japan in the north to the Philippines, Borneo and southern Vietnam in the south." At base, this is a military strategy even if part of the motivation is economic gain. It must be countered (deterred or defeated) by credible American power.
Andrew Erickson, professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute, told the subcommittee that China wants to "win without fighting" and hopes to avoid escalation because it is still weaker than the United States. Yet, the Obama administration has sent a mixed message, showing some resolve but shying away from a confrontation that would convey to Beijing that its aggression will not be allowed to continue.
The most recent example of President Obama's soft policy towards Beijing was on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Hangzhou, China. He joined with President Xi to jointly submit plans to ratify the UN climate agreement that was drawn up in Paris last December. Obama has repeatedly tried to make "climate change" a common enemy that could unite the U.S. and China as allies. As Obama also showed in his speech to the UN General Assembly, he places the dubious climate issue ahead of national security. The problem with this gambit is that Beijing does not see climate change as outranking more traditional concerns of state policy. Beijing understands exactly what Obama is trying to do and why; thus, it is willing to play along to feed his naïveté without wavering a jot in pursuit of its own strategy.
Obama has also often appealed to the supposed economic "partnership" between the two powers to calm tensions. The dangerous economic situation into which U.S. has fallen was a major topic at the New America conference. The second panel of the day was "Industrial Interdependence and War" looking at how China has come to dominate the supply chains feeding American manufacturing. One of the panelists was Christopher Gopal, a former VP for Worldwide Operations at Dell Computer. Dell has been charged by another panelist, Barry Lynn, a senior fellow at New America, with spearheading the hollowing out of U.S. industry by outsourcing production of components to China. A model used even by major defense contractors like Boeing who don't so much build things anymore, but merely assemble products from parts made elsewhere.
Instead of defending the Dell model, Gopal confirmed that it has rendered American industry vulnerable. He agreed with Lynn on the facts and the consequences: a fragile supply chain for such key high-tech sectors as electronics, pharmaceuticals and defense centered in China.
In the heyday of "free trade" in 19th century Great Britain, it was argued that diversifying supply around the globe enhanced national security because not all sources were likely to be knocked out at once. The British focus was mainly on imported food, and this strategy could hold as long as the Royal Navy kept the sealanes open. The German U-boat offensive in World War I presented a danger the RN found difficult to defeat. Much of the concern about China's naval-air-missile threat is based on the potential to close commerce through the first island chain. The panel, however, warned that China could disrupt U.S. and allied economies by controlling exports from its own territory; as it has demonstrated in regard to rare earth metal shipments to Japan.
Trade has concentrated production, giving China monopoly power in key areas. This is actually in accord with that part of free trade theory which emphasizes specialization and an international division of labor. It is also an example of how a theory that looks neat in a classroom can lead to disaster in the real world.
During the presidential debate, Donald Trump called for bringing jobs back from China. This is the popular appeal; the strategic need is to bring industry back to assure national economic security. Gopal and Lynn argued persuasively that government policy will be necessary to compel companies to maintain (or reconstitute) a domestic industrial base in strategic sectors. This is because the Chinese policy of providing cheap labor and financial support to outsourcers is hard to resist on purely business terms.
The classical liberal notion that interdependence supports peace dies hard despite the historical record against it. Norman Angell's 1910 book The Great Illusion was written in opposition to a plan to expand the Royal Navy in response to the growing German fleet. Angell argued that commercial interdependence made war impossible. He was proven dreadfully wrong four years later. Yet, there was an attempt to revive Angell's thought after World War I when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1933. Unfortunately, that was the same year Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. The sophistry was revived again after the Cold War, being popular with both Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. It must be rejected before events compel its abandonment under fire. China, of course, hopes to leverage its new position as "workshop of the world" to deter any reaction to its aggressive behavior and to rally certain business circles in the West to lobby for appeasement.
In his opening remarks at the HASC subcommittee hearing, Chairman Randy Forbes (R-VA) said, "I see an opportunity for a new administration to take a new and stronger stance on the South China Sea, and redouble our efforts to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific Region." It is more than opportunity, it is a necessity; one that will should take center stage in the next debate between those who aspire to be commander-in-chief.
William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.
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