To the list of industries now dominated by China, there is one surprising new entry: Miss World. Beauty contests were banned in China by Mao Zedong as one of the worst forms of western decadence but their bland internationalism appeals to modern China’s desire to be included. Of the last 10 Miss World pageants, five have been held at the seaside resort of Sanya, on subtropical Hainan island, off China’s south coast. While the Miss World show is in town, the swimsuit photo shoots take place across the road, at the Sheraton Sanya Resort, which looks out on to the white sands of Yalong Bay, a crescent-shaped cove lined with palm trees. With a Ritz-Carlton on one side and a Marriott on the other, Yalong Bay is a transplant of multinational tourism on China’s southernmost point. The resort has become hugely popular with prosperous Chinese families and on the day I visited, the hotel was hosting a corporate retreat for the Chinese subsidiary of Syngenta, the Switzerland-based company which sells genetically modified seeds. The hundred or so Chinese employees spent the afternoon playing games on the beach. As they enjoyed themselves, they barely looked up when a Chinese Type 054 frigate sailed casually across the bay, in plain view of the tourists. Yalong Bay, it turns out, has a double life. The brand-name hotels occupy only one half of the beach; at the other end lies China’s newest and most sophisticated naval base.
Yalong Bay is where the two sides of China’s rise now intersect: its deeply connected economy and its deep-seated instinct to challenge America – globalisation China and great-power China vying for a spot on the beach. Celebrating their success in the China market, the Syngenta employees at the Sheraton all wore T-shirts emblazoned with the English-language slogan for their event: “Step Up Together”. Yet right next door to their party was one of the most striking symbols of China’s great-power ambitions. Ideally situated for quick access to the busy sea lanes of the South China Sea, the base in Hainan is one of the principal platforms for an old-fashioned form of projecting national power: a navy that can operate well beyond a country’s coastal waters. For the past couple of decades, such power politics seemed to have been made irrelevant by the frictionless, flat world of globalisation. Yalong Bay demonstrates a different reality. It is one of the launch pads for what will be a central geopolitical tussle of the 21st century: the new era of military competition in the Pacific Ocean between China and the US.
Asia’s seas have become the principal arteries of the global economy yet two very different visions of Asia’s future are now in play. Since the defeat of Japan in 1945 – and especially since the end of the cold war – the US Navy has treated the Pacific almost as a private lake. It has used that power to implement an international system in its own image, a rules-based order of free trade, freedom of navigation and, when possible, democratic government. That Pax Americana was cemented when the US and China resumed relations in 1972. The four decades since Richard Nixon met Mao Zedong have been the most stable and prosperous in Asia’s modern history. Under the agreement, the US endorsed China’s return to the family of nations and China implicitly accepted American military dominance in Asia.
This unwritten understanding between Beijing and Washington on America’s role in Asia is crumbling. China now wishes to recast the military and political dynamic in the region to reflect its own traditional centrality. Great powers are driven by a mixture of confidence and insecurity. China wants a return to the leadership position it has enjoyed so often in Asian history. It also frets about the security of its seaborne commerce, especially in the area it calls the “Near Seas” – the coastal waters that include the Yellow, East China and South China Seas. The Yalong Bay naval base on Hainan is one part of the strategy that China is starting to put in place to exert control over the Near Seas, pushing the US Navy ever farther out into the western Pacific. In the process, it is launching a profound challenge to the US-led order that has been the backbone of the Asian economic miracle.
For the past 20 years China has been undergoing a rapid military build-up, and the navy has been given pride of place. More important, China has been investing in its navy in a very specific way. American strategists sometimes talk about a Chinese “anti-navy” – a series of warships, silent submarines and precision missiles, some based on land, some at sea, which are specifically designed to keep an opposing navy as far away as possible from the mainland. The implication of the investment plan is that China is trying to prevent the US Navy from operating in large areas of the western Pacific. According to Dennis Blair, the former Pacific commander who was head of the US intelligence services early in the Obama administration: “Ninety per cent of their time is spent on thinking about new and interesting ways to sink our ships and shoot down our planes.”
China’s new navy is both an expression of power and a means to a diplomatic end. By weakening the US naval presence in the western Pacific, China hopes gradually to undermine America’s alliances with other Asian countries, notably South Korea, thePhilippines and maybe even Japan. If US influence declines, China would be in a position to assume quietly a leadership position in Asia, giving it much greater sway over the rules and practices in the global economy. Through its navy, China hopes to reshape the balance of power in Asia. The naval competition in the western Pacific will set the tone for a large part of global politics in the coming decades.
While these pressures have built up quietly over the past few years, they have burst into the open in recent months, especially with the tense stand-off between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea – which the Japanese call the Senkaku and the Chinese the Diaoyu. Almost every day, Chinese aircraft fly near the islands, prompting a response from Japanese jets, while Chinese vessels also patrol near the islands, which are administered by Japan. The world’s second and third largest economies are playing a game of military chicken, with the world’s largest economy, the US, committed by treaty to defend Japan. China’s stepped-up claim over the islands is one part of its push for greater control of the surrounding seas but it is also a central part of the growing contest for influence with the US.
China’s turn to the seas is rooted in history and geography in a manner that transcends its current political system. It was from the sea that China was harassed during its “century of humiliation” at the hands of the west. China was one of the most prominent victims of 19th-century gunboat diplomacy, when Britain, France and other colonial powers used their naval supremacy to exercise control over Shanghai and a dozen other ports around the country. The instinct to control the surrounding seas is partly rooted in the widespread desire never to leave China so vulnerable again. “Ignoring the oceans is a historical error we committed,” says Yang Yong, a Chinese historian. “And now even in the future we will pay a price for this error.”
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This besiegement looks even worse on a map. Chinese talk about the “first island chain”, a perimeter that stretches along the western Pacific from Japan in the northeast, through Taiwan, to the Philippines in the south – all allies or friends of the US. This is both a geographical barrier, in that it creates a series of channels that a superior opponent could block in order to bottle up the Chinese navy, and a political barrier controlled by countries close to Washington. Chinese strategists talk about “breaking through the thistles”: the development of a naval capability that will allow it to operate outside the first island chain.
When China looks out to sea, it also quickly sees the US. In the decades when China had little more than a coastguard, it was largely unaware that the US Navy was patrolling waters near its shores. But now that its capabilities are more advanced, it witnesses on a daily basis that the American navy is superior and operating only a few miles from many of China’s major cities. “For them, this is a major humiliation that they experience every single day,” says Chu Shulong, an academic at Tsinghua University in Beijing who spent a number of years in the Chinese military. “It is humiliating that another country can exercise so close to China’s coasts, so close to the base in Hainan. That is the reason the navy wants to do something to challenge the US.”
Anxieties about history and geography have meshed with broader concerns about economic security. One of the key turning points in China’s push to the high seas took place when it started to import oil for the first time, in 1993. By 2010, China had become the second-biggest consumer of oil, half of which is now imported. New great powers often fret that rivals could damage their economy with a blockade. For every 10 barrels of oil that China imports, more than eight travel by ship through the Strait of Malacca, the narrow sea channel between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, which is patrolled by US ships. Fifteenth-century Venetians used to warn, “Whoever is the Lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.” Hu Jintao echoed these sentiments when he warned in a 2003 speech that “certain major powers” are bent on controlling this crucial sea lane. Until now, China’s maritime security has been guaranteed largely by the US Navy. But, like aspiring great powers before it, China has been forced to confront a central geopolitical dilemma: can it rely on a rival to protect the country’s economic lifeline?
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In 2005, the American writer Robert Kaplan wrote a cover story for The Atlantic entitled “How We Would Fight China”. I can remember receiving a copy in my office in Shanghai and tossing it angrily on to a pile of papers, the plastic wrapper still on the magazine. This was the high point of the debacle in Iraq and the idea of talking up a war with China at that moment seemed the height of neoconservative conceit. But when I did eventually read Kaplan’s article, I began to realise that the question he raised was a crucial one. China does not have a grand imperial plan to invade its neighbours, in the way the Soviets did. But in any country with a rapidly growing military – one that is flexing its muscles and is involved in a score of unresolved territorial disputes – there is always the risk that its leaders might be tempted by some sort of military solution, the lure of a quick win that would reorder the regional balance. If China and its neighbours all believe that the US has a credible plan for a conflict, this both deters any eventual Chinese adventurism and reduces the risk that anxious Asians will start their own arms races with Beijing. Or, as TX Hammes, the American military historian, puts it: “We need to make sure no one in the Chinese military is whispering in their leaders’ ears: ‘If you listen to me, we can be in Paris in just two weeks.’”