With China being the most powerful competitor of the US in the 21st century, it is but natural to see various US administrations and the more permanent US defense establishment obsessed with China’s rise and the question of maintaining the balance to their advantage. The US, under the Trump administration, decided to confront China on the economic front and it started a seemingly endless ‘trade war’ that saw many attacks from both sides. Before the Trump administration, the Obama administration had decided to confront China through more military means in the form of ‘Asia Pivot.’ The US, under the Biden administration, is more likely to mend trade ties with China. However, it is already moving towards bringing the Obama-era focus back on the military front. While the Biden administration will be fighting the same war the Trump administration had been fighting since 2017, the in-coming president will use different tools.
This is evident from the military postures the US is adopting in the wake of China’s massive military transformation and how it is already on the path to out-scoring the US in military terms. While China’s capacity to fight the US economically is already well-established, its military transformation will stamp its relatively stronger military capacity vis-à-vis the US as well, displacing the latter from the seat of the world’s strongest military. This will certainly have major implications for how the global system has run since the end of the Second World War.
A recent Pentagon report to the US Congress tells the story of how China’s military rise in past 20 years has not only been phenomenal, but is also the biggest challenge the US is facing today. If the Chinese military, as the report shows, was merely “sizable” and an “archaic military that was poorly suited to the CCP’s long-term ambitions” in 2000, it has already “marshalled the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernize the PLA in nearly every respect.” Indeed, as this report shows, “China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas”, including shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic missiles and integrated air defense systems.
As opposed to the 293 ships the US Navy has at its disposal, “The PRC already has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants.” Similarly, the report shows that “The PRC has one of the world’s largest forces of advanced long range surface-to-air systems—including Russian-built S-400s, S-300s, and domestically produced systems—that constitute part of its robust and redundant integrated air defense system architecture.”
China’s military modernization and the fact that it has already begun to out-number the US is part of the PRC’s overall strategy to, as the report argues further, “revise aspects of the international order.” The PRC, therefore, is being increasingly seen as a “revisionist power” bent upon destroying the US-led current world order. It is further seen as a power willing to use hard military power to secure soft economic and political goals.
The report accordingly concludes that the Communist Party of China “has tasked the PLA to develop the capability to project power outside China’s borders and immediate periphery to secure the PRC’s growing overseas interests and advance its foreign policy goals”, adding also that “The PRC has increasingly recognized that its armed forces should take a more active role in advancing its foreign policy goals.”
The Biden administration, influenced as it will largely be by this report, will focus more on containing the rise of China. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s pick for national security adviser, is known to have repeatedly criticized the Trump administration for failing to strop China’s increasing militarization. Sullivan is someone who has been advocating a higher degree of resource allocation to ‘manage’ Chinese activities. In an interview given last year, Sullivan was reported to have said that “We should be devoting more assets and resources to ensuring and reinforcing, and holding up alongside our partners” against China in South China Sea region [and elsewhere as well.]
Sullivan, in another lecture, had noted that China’s “economic rise” was useful for the world on the whole and should be encouraged. It shows why the US under the Biden administration would be shifting its focus from economic confrontation to military confrontation once again. In other words, while we will see the US-China trade war coming to an end [though this will not happen quickly], it will end only to give birth to military confrontation in Asia and the Pacific.
Anticipating this, the US is accordingly planning to send more ships to the South China Sea region in future. The US ships will also “accept calculated tactical risks and adopt a more assertive posture in our day-to-day operations,” the above-mentioned report said.
It is, therefore, obvious that US under the Biden administration will not adopt a radically different policy, dumping the confrontation that we saw [and continue to see] during the Trump era. The only difference that we are going to see is that of a relatively increased focus on checkmating China’s military expansion and its increasing political and economic influence. In other words, the Biden administration will be paying a close attention to reverse the course of affairs that has already badly damaged, as the report shows, the “unfettered access” the US used to have to “the world’s oceans” as and when it needed. If “unfettered access” was the key to the US global supremacy, the Chinese presence and expansion is a stumbling block, one that the Biden administration will be keen to remove.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.