The United States and its allies should seize on China’s three main military weaknesses and divert the PLA to spread its resources to immediate land, near-sea and offshore disputes to stop it from going global, a US think tank suggested.
Given that strategic competition with China was set to continue and to be comprehensive, Washington and its foreign partners should force up the cost for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of having overseas bases and deployment to put pressure on Beijing’s calculation, according to the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based think tank.
In the latest report in January, titled “Seizing on Weakness: Allied Strategy for Competing with China’s Globalising Military”, the authors said that with speedy growth and modernisation, the PLA would venture beyond the western Pacific to project power in distant theatres, which could pose challenges and threats to the US in many ways, and in both peace and wartime. The report said this expansion must be countered by exploiting China’s strategic weaknesses.
The article by centre research fellows Toshi Yoshihara and Jack Bianchi identified severe weaknesses that were unique to China and particularly susceptible to external pressure so that the US and its close allies might “enjoy a sufficient degree of agency over Chinese weaknesses … [that] if exercised, could yield strategic dividends”.
aChina’s geography – being surrounded by middle and great powers on land and sea – was one apparent weakness, according to the report.
Secondly, it must stay agile enough to manage complex crises nearby, precluding the PLA from concentrating entirely on its global mission.
And the third key weakness, as determined by the authors, is a matter of logistics to close gaps in China’s overseas infrastructure network – involving political, diplomatic, legal, economic and operational demands – to present itself as a credible military power.
Yoshihara and Bianchi argued that not only must China choose fundamentally between landward and seaward strategies, nearby complex territorial and maritime disputes with immediate neighbours – such as the long undecided border with India, the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute with Japan, the South China Sea contested by five other claimants and the Taiwan Independence movement – had consumed significant resources on contingency events “at the expense of China’s global plans”.
“The United States and its partners should pursue strategies that compel Beijing to spread scarce resources across the near seas, far seas and, to the extent possible, the continental periphery,” the report said.
The strategies, including to “harden” nearby Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, could include implementing sea and air denial to force China to invest more in near-seas activities. The US could also develop new capabilities to remain lethal in the heavily contested areas along China’s maritime periphery.
The PLA capability, which is rapidly becoming more advanced, is still behind the need to protect China’s rapidly increasing global interests. For Beijing to project power it needs overseas logistical power – also a key weakness and advantage of the US, the report suggested.
For instance, the authors suggested, the US should be “waging a coordinated diplomatic and information counteroffensive” to potential host nations of China’s overseas bases by playing up China’s untrustworthiness and drawing attention to Chinese attempts at “breeding dependencies” in those nations.
And psychological fear could be tapped to affect Beijing’s policymaking and undercut the PLA’s confidence.
“The United States and its allies should credibly demonstrate their capacity to hold at risk China’s far-seas fleet, forward-deployed forces, and the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that both supply overseas PLA forces and sustain the Chinese economy,” the authors said.
“The allies should send a clear signal that Chinese aggression would be met with a coalitional response.”
The report additionally urged that instead of “waiting or wishing for Beijing to fail”, Washington should take the initiative and make immediate moves.
“The United States and its allies must act now to leverage Chinese weaknesses while they are still susceptible to manipulation and exploitation,” it said.
In the long run, China will face more severe structural problems, such as demographic decline, environmental problems, and hidden debt that might induce internal crisis, the report added.
“Such strategies might be the best idea there is to make trouble for China,” said Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming. “But I think the effect would be limited because there are some misjudgments.”
Zhou said Beijing’s approach towards territorial disputes was to negotiate bilaterally and to avoid using force. As the PLA capability grew there would be fewer contestants seeking military conflict, resulting in no heavy Chinese military resources spent on these disputes.
He added that China’s purpose to go global in the foreseeable future was still focused on trade and economic interests rather than projecting military power, so a “struggle with start-up cost” on new overseas bases was unlikely.
“The Biden administration is yet to announce its clear China policy, so we shall also wait and see which think tank’s proposal they will pick,” he said.