The United States openly recognizes that China is the defining national security challenge of the 21st century based on the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) stated ambitions and strategies as well as their observable actions whether they be in Hong Kong, the South China Sea, the Senkakus, Ladakh, the air and sea around Taiwan – to name just a few. Beijing's increasingly aggressive actions coupled with its stated strategic goals are troubling and perhaps also foreboding. Prominent among the CCP's goals is the resolution to outstanding sovereignty claims and territorial disputes, including unfounded claims throughout the East and South China Seas and, importantly, the unification of Taiwan, by force if necessary.
In recent months, there has been a consistent drumbeat of recommendations from pundits and observers as to what the United States can and must do to deter potential Chinese aggression against its neighbors, particularly Taiwan. The pending public release of the U.S. National Security Strategy, as well as the subsequent National Defense Strategy, will undoubtedly continue to underscore America's response to China's malign activities. Notwithstanding the critical role of the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific, reviewing the roles of regional actors, individually and collectively, warrants additional emphasis in deterring Chinese aggression. In fact, non-U.S. contributions to deterrence may actually be of greater consequence as Beijing ponders a neighborhood that is trending increasingly towards animosity and rejection of the international security implications of the "the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation."
The growing realization that this so-called rejuvenation equates to an imposition of the People's Republic of China's (PRC) national security, economic, and development interests on other countries has rippled through the region. Under Xi's absolute leadership, Deng Xiaoping's 24 character strategy extolling the value of keeping a low profile has been unceremoniously abandoned. Not only have CCP and People's Liberation Army (PLA) publications and statements made it clear that China intends to "fully transform the people's armed forces into a world-class force," but the actions of the PLA, People's Armed Police, Coast Guard, People's Armed Militia, and even the fishing fleet have left little doubt as to Chinese intentions. Namely, that their geopolitical intent is hegemony, perhaps even dominance, through their actions.
China has chosen systemic competition with the United States and like-minded democratic countries in the CCP's attempt to rewrite the existing order to its benefit. They view competition along all facets of national power - diplomatic, informational, military, and economic, commonly referred to as the DIME. This mindset is a throwback to rivalries of the past and relies upon a similarly anachronistic tenet – might makes right.
Countries around China's periphery have started to steel themselves for a doubling-down of bellicosity in the era of Xi Jinping. Some responses and reactions have been more pronounced than others. However, a common denominator has been a palpable trend towards increasing resilience across the DIME in a variety of ways.
More concerted actions to defend against Chinese aggression and increase a potential cost imposition will complicate China's decision-making.
Diplomatic Element of National Power
China has a history of "divide and conquer" with its smaller neighbors seeking to dominate them bilaterally whenever possible. Diplomatically, countries throughout the Indo-Pacific have started to de facto synchronize their language in opposition to Chinese coercion and pressure, whether in a coordinated manner or not. The countries with which China has disputes in the South China Sea call for adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China's neighbors increasingly call for a "free and open Indo-Pacific," a term first coined by Japanese Prime Minister Abe during a trip to India and now routinely central to U.S. talking points. South Korea has now started including "stability in the Taiwan Strait" as a component of joint communiques and public statements. Heavy-handed Chinese "wolf warrior" tactics have resulted in backlash throughout in places as diverse as Papua New Guinea, Thailand, and India.
"Wolf Warrior" promotional poster
While some diplomatic trends are positive, there remain some worrisome aspects. Countries should seek to band together diplomatically in order to multi-lateralize risk in pushing back against CCP intimidation. For instance, China has been successful at picking off Taiwan's few diplomatic partners in the region. The four remaining Pacific Island Countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan must be encouraged and supported to maintain the status quo. A more strident ASEAN approach to Chinese coercion against many of its member states would be a powerful diplomatic signal particularly in regards to Chinese illegal activities in members' exclusive economic zones. Bilateral and multilateral diplomatic condemnation of Chinese malign activities utilizing common vernacular would indicate a united stance against China's "might makes right" mentality. Plus, it would toughen the resolve of those afraid to stand up to China as there is safety in numbers.
Informational Element of National Power
The free world has both advantages and disadvantages in competing in the information space with the CCP-led China. As an authoritarian state with control over all media, Beijing can craft a message and deliver to a variety of audiences with almost absolute discipline. It has done this successfully internationally through Confucius Institutes, enhanced CCTV and Xinhua operations, and United Front Department activities as well as censorship at home. Chinese disinformation and misinformation efforts truly came to a head during the COVID-19 pandemic. On a global scale, China's refusal to be transparent about the origins of COVID-19 with the World Health Organization (WHO) has resulted in worldwide spread, and millions of deaths. China's refusal to share critical data continues to hamper efforts to control the pandemic. China's vaccine diplomacy and quasi weaponization of personal protective equipment (PPE) have almost universally backfired. In Thailand and Indonesia, Chinese vaccines are viewed almost farcically despite the desperation to obtain any type of vaccine, even from Sinopharm.
Informationally, the greatest advantage that China's democratic neighbors have is the free flow of facts. This provides a bulwark against CCP propaganda. China's heavy-handedness in how it deals with opposition, dissent, and disagreement has resulted in wide-spread media and press coverage. Whether in its economic punishment of Australia and South Korea or its military aggression against Taiwan and India, the reaction of those societies was almost uniform. Whatever public support may have existed for relations with China, it plummeted precipitously.
One of the greatest strengths that democratic societies have is open access to information to form and inform public opinion. This must be continually nurtured and supported by governments as it builds a natural immunity against CCP efforts at destabilization and splitting regional steps at hemming in Chinese aggression. Like-minded neighbors should call out China's counter-normative behavior and encourage others who subscribe to the free and open order to join in and help influence PRC towards more constructive approaches. It's in everyone's interests to illuminate China's aspersive statements and actions, which are backed by an increasingly capable military that advances the CCP's no-holds-barred objectives.
Most democratically elected governments do not involve themselves in methodically identifying and countering CCP disinformation and misinformation. Government agencies or ministries are not routinely focused on this. At best, they only respond to egregious CCP lies such as when Chinese officials blamed the COVID-19 outbreak on the U.S. soldiers that participated in the World Military Games in Wuhan in October 2019. Academia, researchers, media, and think tanks, including MEMRI, are working to reveal CCP deceit. MEMRI, for one, is publishing translations and analyses of Chinese print, television, and online media. However, the scope and scale is now at levels requiring concerted government action including regular and routine illumination of CCP deception, dishonesty, and propagandizing. This will require specific governmental bureaucracies and organizations being given the charter to ensure that the informational aspect of national power is advanced on par with the other elements within the DIME.
Military Element of National Power
Militarily, some of the most striking steps have been taken by Japan, a largely pacifist country that has been awakened to the threat of China. Japan is increasingly addressing the emerging challenges that China presents as a regional and global competitor in its rhetoric and action. Japan is acquiring new capabilities, taking the necessary steps to ensure the ability to respond to contingency situations in an increasingly complex regional security environment. The recent decision to break through the self-imposed policy limit on defense spending being limited to 1% of GDP is particularly noteworthy. Japan's leaders have become more open and forthright in their public messaging on Chinese aggression. Particularly in regard to Taiwan, the Japanese political establishment now openly acknowledges that the defense of Taiwan equals the defense of Japan.
Yet, Japan can do more in the defense arena to ensure the Chinese leadership understands that there will be cost imposition to aggression. Japan needs to enhance the training of the Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF) in high end warfare. Notwithstanding the geographic limitations and population density of the Japanese islands, it's time for Japanese forces to be able to conduct realistic training and exercises particularly at night and with live ammunition. Moreover, the Government of Japan must also allow U.S. Forces Japan to train as they would fight. Limitations on the employment of 5th generation military technology to 20th century training restrictions impacts readiness.
JGSDF Camp-Utsunomiya commemorative event, April 2007. Flag of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, 12th Brigade.
Regionally, the United States is working side-by-side, with ASEAN, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Five Eyes partners, to strengthen a networked structure of alliances and partnerships to maintain a region that is secure, prosperous, inclusive, and rules-based. Progress made through initiatives such as the Quad and AUKUS should be reinforced. In the end, China's leaders are realists that respect hard power and there is no substitute for military deterrence. Thus, protecting, harnessing, and dominating new technologies like cyber, 5G, hypersonics, and artificial intelligence are critical to countering China's revanchist desires. Increasing bilateral and multilateral technological cooperation in co-development and co-production, where feasible, can be a competitive advantage.
Economic Element of National Power
The economic component of national power is particularly salient to competition with China. All over the globe, a Faustian bargain was struck risking, if not sacrificing, universal human rights and democratic values for the centuries old myopic vision of being able to sell everyone in China something, or capitalize on cheap Chinese labor. Within Asia, most countries count the PRC as their number one trading partner. China is expanding its power and influence through a range of economic means including its Belt and Road initiative (BRI), debt traps, and selective enforcement of domestic laws. Governments and businesses around the world should be concerned with Chinese influence that opens them to costly deals, future coercion, loss of technical advantage, loss of sovereignty (virtual or physical), or other malicious activity. China's technology and intellectual property theft for economic gain is staggering. Every Chinese company is at risk of being either a witting or unwitting accomplice in China's state-sponsored theft of other nations' technology. To quote China's own cybersecurity law, private companies are required to "provide technical support and assistance to public security organs and national security organs," whether they want to or not. The CCP has truly maximized the "E" in DIME as it has almost mechanized the use of economic coercion, examples of which abound on every continent.
Huawei headquarters in Shenzhen, Guangdong, China
Fundamentally, the only way to deter China's use of economic tools of statecraft for nefarious ends is to steadily reduce dependency on China for supply chains and as an export market. Beijing derives so much leverage from this dependency, which in some case borders on addiction, that supply chain diversification, selective de-coupling, and a consistent demand for real reciprocity in market access must become a clarion call. Frankly, such concerted efforts will have the concomitant effect of growing the economies of some of China's neighbors such as Vietnam, India, and Indonesia as companies would undoubtedly re-shore there. Reducing the efficacy of the economic arrow in China's quiver will transform the competitive landscape that currently advantages China on a massive scale.
Through its actions and rhetoric, the PRC has demonstrated consistently that it does not respect national sovereignty, fair and reciprocal trade, and the rule of law. Like-minded democratic societies and their governments are better and stronger when unified with allies and partners, sharing the burden of peace to prevent war. Candidly, this burden carries with it costs. However, they pale in comparison to the costs if systemic competition across the DIME escalates into open conflict. To avoid such conflict, deterrence must be strengthened. Constant, reliable readiness across all domains is required to deter conflict.
*Heino Klinck is a Member of MEMRI's Board of Advisors. He served as the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, 2019-2021. As an Army Foreign Area Officer, he served as a military attaché in China, 2004-2010.