Chinese and US flags

Chinese and US flags.

In his recent article ''US gearing to power ahead of China by 2020'' (November 5, p15) Michael Richardson wrote insightfully about the importance of energy to modern economies and correctly identified its potential to spark conflict or inspire co-operation. However, Richardson's analysis hit the rocks when he turned to consider America's strategic options.

Richardson rightly highlights that Beijing relies heavily upon resource imports to fuel the economic growth than confers legitimacy on the continuing rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

He also acknowledges the indispensable role played by the US Navy, which patrols the world's oceans, ensuring that sea lanes remain open to all nations for trade and transport.

Richardson, however, noting China's recent assertiveness in the East China Sea, which has seen it contest Japan's administration of the Senkaku (Diaoyu to the Chinese) Islands, paints a fanciful picture. He suggests that should China continue to behave belligerently towards its neighbours regarding its territorial and maritime claims, America may cease to provide common goods such as its energy-supply protection role. In Richardson's view, such a decision by the US would be designed to force China to shift its military assets from Asia to the Middle East in order to ensure that its resource imports continue to flow.

Such a decision is unlikely for several reasons. If it stopped providing common goods such as ensuring that sea lanes remain open, Washington would also suffer negative consequences. Since the end of World War II, a key plank of American grand strategy has been to build a liberal world order based on free trade. Anything that would impinge upon this is not in its interests.

Second, Washington would also risk its standing in the eyes of both its allies and enemies. With America facing up to cuts in its defence spending, countries around the world would question its staying power. If they concluded that America was no longer a reliable ally, important Asian states such as Japan and South Korea would be driven to markedly expand their own defence capabilities. This would be likely to increase tension with China, which remains alert to any indication that Japan is seeking to remilitarise. Such tension would not be in Washington's interests as it could easily find itself dragged into any conflict between Asia's key powers.

Finally, Richardson's notion runs contrary to the strategic thinking emanating from Washington. The US is currently engaged in a ''pivot'' towards the Asia-Pacific. Washington has identified this region as its key strategic priority after a decade of misadventures in the Middle East and is beginning to concentrate its diplomatic, economic and military resources in the region.

This pivot is inspired by China's re-emergence on the world stage. Though the US military remains the global benchmark, China has developed asymmetric capabilities, such as submarines, ballistic missiles, fast missile boats and anti-satellite weaponry, that blunt traditional US military strengths based around its use of aircraft carriers to project power abroad.

In response, Washington is devoting increased resources to the Asia-Pacific in an attempt to maintain its primacy. It is concerned by China's military modernisation, particularly because Beijing resists requests to make its defence budget more transparent and is becoming increasingly assertive vis-a-vis its neighbours. This pattern of assertiveness is increasingly difficult to reconcile with its stated desire for peaceful development.

In light of such trends, it is highly unlikely that America would pursue any policy that would encourage Beijing to expand its navy still further. Regardless of any choices made in Washington, however, it seems probable that China desires a blue-water navy along the lines of that wielded by Washington. It has already put to sea its first aircraft carrier.

Although no match for the behemoths deployed by America, China's Soviet-era carrier is likely to be used as a test platform that will allow China to learn how to build and operate its own indigenous vessels. Speaking of China's reliance on the US Navy to safeguard its imports, one Chinese strategist has pithily compared it to baring one's throat to an enemy's knife; it seems unlikely that China's leaders will leave their fortunes in American hands indefinitely.

Stephen Fallon is currently undertaking a Master of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University.