China’s ‘Security Dilemma’ Risks Arms Race in Asia

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People's Liberation Army Navy destroyers pass in review during recent exercises in the Yellow Sea.

TOKYO – A shooting war with China may not be inevitable, but a dangerous arms escalation seems a dead certainty. That’s the take from a rare public discussion here this week among naval experts from Japan, the U.S. and China.

“Eighty percent of the population wants us to use the military,” says Yang Yi, former director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Beijing. “They’re asking, ‘Why are we so weak? Why are we wasting money on our Navy if we are not going to use it?’ Outsiders really do not appreciate what is going on inside China.”

The beat cops in the Pacific are national navies, and that’s the only way to ensure regional prosperity. “The economic health of every country in Asia depends on maritime security. But almost all of the existing security issues in the region are maritime in nature, and that means the military-capabilities competition will be largely maritime, as well,” says Michael McDevitt, a retired Navy admiral who commanded a carrier battle group in the Pacific.

The U.S. is shifting Marines and warships to the Asia-Pacific region largely in response to China’s rapid military buildup, which includes launching its first aircraft carrier and development of ballistic missiles to attack ships at very long range.

China’s goal, says McDevitt, is to force the U.S. and its allies to operate further from its home waters.

“China has very good reasons for wanting to extend its defenses out to sea. China has been invaded from the sea. Reinforcement in a conflict with Taiwan would come from the sea. Shanghai and its eastern cities are located on or close to the sea. So China has good reason to worry,” he says.

“The trouble is, extending its own defenses out to sea jeopardizes the security of Japan and South Korea, and that makes them worry. It creates what we call a ‘security dilemma,’” says McDevitt, now a senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analysis in Washington.

Yang says China does not want to trigger an arms competition. He said it will be “many years” before China can match the U.S. and Japan in the number of its ships and the quality of its weapons systems, and the professionalism and experience of its crews.

“We want to be good partners and not adversaries. But if China’s Navy is seen as a threat to the U.S. and Japan, this could very easily lead to an arms race,” says Yang, a retired admiral in the PLA Navy.

Yang says there is a risk of miscalculation as China builds its military and asserts territorial claims in the region. Abroad, he says, China is seen as too assertive; but at home, it’s just the opposite. A month-long standoff between the China and the Philippines over fishing rights in a group of islands in the South China Seas ended this week only after both sides announced the start of an annual fishing ban in the area.

That’s exactly the problem, says Yoji Koda, former head of the joint staff for Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force. Koda says it will take from 10 to 20 years for China’s navy to match those of Japan and the U.S. That might seem like awhile, but given the time it takes to design and build new warships and adopt new tactics, Japan must start preparing now, Koda says.

Koda and others spoke at a symposium on maritime security organized by Honolulu-based Pacific Forum CSIS.

Japan’s naval forces, though constitutionally restricted to defensive operations, are among the most advanced in the world. Work has begun on two large, flat-deck warships that could, with government approval, be readily outfitted as fixed-wing aircraft carriers.

“China is changing its roles and missions and Japan needs to do that, as well. Our capabilities must be a match for China’s capabilities,” says Koda. “If we are asked (to respond to a military threat), we can’t say, ‘Sorry, we’re not prepared for that.’ That is not an acceptable answer.”