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29th Nov 2022

Column

'Balancing' China starts in WalMart and Amazon, not Pacific

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America's defence against China is taking shape. It starts with the capacity to peek into China - with massive investment in different forms of intelligence gathering – from spies to spy satellites.

The second line of defence runs right up to China's shores with frequent patrols of warships, sophisticated maritime patrol aircraft, and drones. The Marine Corps and army are preparing to repel aggression by scattering combat units, artillery, and missiles across the island chain that consists of Japan and Taiwan.

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  • It is container ships that allow China to alter the balance of power, not so much the warships

The US wants to remain close to China, a signal of both resolve and readiness.

The real punch comes from behind.

While the first two lines of defence remain vulnerable, the US seeks to exploit the full depth of the Pacific Ocean. Its vision of mosaic warfare and distributed operations disperses troops and aircraft across multiple bases, in the usual places, like Guam and Australia, but also increasingly in small islands like Micronesia, Palau, Manus Islands, and Tinian islands.

Big navy ships become nodes of combat clouds, networks of smaller manned and unmanned platforms. The idea is to make US forces less vulnerable to Chinese missiles, to retain dominance in the Pacific, and hence the capacity to fight in China's vicinity.

It looks like a perfect plan, such leading from behind. US troops are less exposed in the first line of defence and resilient to strike back from a distance.

Besides frequent patrols of US aircraft and warships, the relatively small footprint in China's immediate environment is less intimidating and helpful to avoid conflict.

This new military reassurance also allows countries to pursue commercial relations with China. That on its turn would help prevent the return of a Cold War-like situation of exclusive zones of influence.

Problems

Still, the new offshore defence strategy is problematic. While it appears to restore the balance of power in the short term, it could give way to greater imbalances in the long run. It fails to address the main cause of the power shift: economics.

It is container ships that allow China to alter the balance of power, not so much the warships, and those container ships will continue to sail right trough. It is the voracious appetite of US consumers that supports China's industrialisation and generates the trade revenues that Beijing uses to buy influence elsewhere.

It's not only the cargo ships that sneak through these lines of defence. Business class travellers do so too. US investments in China continue to peek and more technology is sold to China. Indeed, China does not need to steal knowhow from the United States; it can just buy it or attract it.

Those who expected the trade war, coronavirus or Xi Jinping's robust politics to be a watershed, are mistaken. Also in 2020, investment relations continued to strengthen and exports rebounded, being it that the more containers are now channelled via Vietnam to escape some of the tariffs.

Washington insists that business can continue. "It's too big of an economy," said the US trade secretary, "we want access to their economy."

But business cannot be disconnected from power politics. It is business that props up political and military influence. As long as China exploits globalisation more skilfully than others, the balance of power will continue to shift and the security dilemma will only become more pressing in the long run. Balancing China starts not in the Pacific Ocean but in WalMart and Amazon.

This is indeed like cursing in the free-trade church. Pro-traders might also insist that we could just try to nudge investment towards other countries, like India.

The US should expect trade to shift to India and other Asian countries, when it continues to build most of the factories in China. In 2020, again, US direct investment in China surged by $10bn [€8.6bn]; it even decreased in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

No wonder that, despite the diplomatic and military initiatives, most countries in the region see China as the new leader. Perhaps it is just easier to adjust military strategy towards China than to tackle the addiction of consumers and companies to China.

There could be a smart way out of this dilemma. By genuinely trying to empower other Asian countries and supporting helping democracies such as India back on track.

It would also entail bringing back production in a sustainable and innovative way to the United States, investing in America's internal resilience. The best way to balance China is to grow together and helping other countries to catch up.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University Brussels and guest lectures at the NATO Defense College. His latest book is World Politics since 1989 (Polity, September 2021).

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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