Many U.S. government China analysts — especially in the State Department — argue that while China is developing new military capabilities, its exponential build up is not meant to fight the United States. They are wrong.
Those who argue that Washington should not worry too much over China’s recent military developments basically suggest that, while China is upgrading its military to better address its claims in East and Southeast Asia — maritime disputes with Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and others — as well, of course, as its claim that Taiwan belongs rightfully to it, its only concern with regard to the U.S. military is that America has defensive ties if not alliances with several states with which Beijing might ultimately find itself in conflict.
The problem with this view — one that argues essentially that China sees the United States as only a distant, second order military concern — is not only the weaponry that China is developing — anti-satellite and other space warfare technology, longer range nuclear weapons, carrier-killer missiles — have little to do with defending its tenuous claims to the Scarborough Shoal and Spratly Islands, but rather that China’s maneuverings in the Atlantic Ocean suggest a desire for a long-term blue water, logistical, and perhaps air force presence halfway around the world from China and its territorial disputes in the Yellow and South China Seas.
China’s certainly has ambitions in the Azores Islands, a strategic location which it appears that the Pentagon is willing to abandon for all the wrong reasons, perhaps even illegally fudging numbers and data to justify doing so. But its strategic vision might go further. Analyzing the China state-owned China Harbor Engineering Company’s agreement last fall to develop a deep water port in São Tomé and Príncipe despite that country’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Gustavo Plácido dos Santos, a researcher at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security writes:
The expansion of Chinese interests in São Tomé e Príncipe is also relevant in terms of one of Beijing’s great goals: to establish the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “Maritime Silk Road”, jointly known as the “One Belt, One Road” initiative — introduced in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The initiative envisages the creation of an economic zone connecting China to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea, and including Central and East Asia…. The vast numbers of Chinese investments in African infrastructures — namely of logistical nature, such as roads, ports, airports, and railways — suggest that it is already an integral part of Beijing’s grand plan…
China’s rising economic power coincided with an increasingly assertive foreign policy, according to which Beijing wants to build a new world order and stand on an equal footing with the United States…. Moreover, the Asia Pivot and the end of the United States energy dependency culminated in Washington shifting its attention away from the South Atlantic and the Gulf of Guinea in particular, opening a window of opportunity for Beijing to expand its interests in the region and take another step toward consolidating its global power status.
For decades, China has been playing chess while the United States plays checkers. Increasingly, it appears that Beiging is playing three-dimensional chess while Washington plays solitaire. China may be waging a 100-year marathon, but there appears so little strategic vision at present that the White House, Pentagon, and State Department may actually be stumbling backward.
It’s time to take China’s Atlantic ambitions seriously. That means strengthening rather forfeiting the American position in the Azores, and diplomatically reinforcing ties with Atlantic littoral states. No longer can the United States take Atlantic security for granted.