For anyone who watches even casually the great game that is international politics, only one fact is certain — no set of circumstances are permanent. Taking that one step further, what brings nations together in a so-called “strategic partnership” or even an old-fashioned alliance might not last as long or seem as strong as you think.
There is no better example of this than the evolution of the strategic relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Simply stated, what brought these two nations together — the threat of a hegemonic Soviet Union dominating the Eurasian landmass and spreading its influence all over the globe — created the oddest of parings. And yet, a steely-eyed realism pushed these once bitter enemies together.
But as the Soviet slowly disintegrated, so did the strategic rationale for such a partnership. Washington and Beijing simply did not need each other anymore as a counterweight to Moscow — the threat that brought them together only existed in the history books. And while economics have provided an incentive to place tough strategic and geopolitical challenges on the backburner — as making lots of money can often do — both nations are feeling more and more pressure to look at each other as clear strategic competitors in all aspects of possible overlap. The dangers of conflict over the East and South China Sea or the rising danger of an incident over Taiwan serves a constant reminder.
And why should we be shocked? Beijing is not — in fact in many respects, China’s strategic planners have seen this shift as likely for some time now.
Going back as far as the mid-1980s, Chinese scholars realized the strategic environment in which they lived was changing rapidly. They understood that the Soviet Union was likely in decline, and that new challenges, or old challenges it considered secondary or even tertiary, would again become a major focus. And this meant a very likely growing strategic rivalry with America in the medium to long-term — a rival they simply could not match on the battlefield anytime soon.
Events quickly confirmed Beijing’s worst fears. As the Soviet Union made its one way trip to the ash heap of history, Washington’s power and influence — especially when it came to raw military might — seemed unmatched. America’s armed forces — clearly demonstrated in the 1991 Persian Gulf War — were clearly generations ahead of Iraq’s largely Soviet-equipped forces, armies that had some key advantages over Beijing in many areas. As Robert Farley, a prolific defense commentator, explains why China was bound to face problems:
“The balance between quality and quantity has shifted back and forth historically. In the Chinese Civil War and in Korea, the PLA took advantage of numbers and tactical effectiveness to defeat (or at least level the ground with) more technologically sophisticated opponents. In Vietnam, injections of critical anti-access technology had helped blunt U.S. air offensives. Historically, the PLA had hoped that numerical advantage would help even the playing field against one of the superpowers, but the US-led coalition cut through quantitatively superior Iraqi forces like a hot knife through butter. Iraq demonstrated that, at least as far as conventional war fighting was concerned, the balance had shifted heavily in favor of technology.
This understanding of the Gulf War helped drive PLA modernization. Especially in air and naval forces, China took immediate steps to update its military technology, generally through purchasing the most-advanced Soviet hardware. Strapped for cash, Russia was eager to make deals, and didn’t worry overmuch about the long-range consequences of technology transfer. China also attempted to acquire technology with military applications from Europe, but sanctions associated with the Tiananmen Square massacre hamstrung this effort. Finally, China accelerated efforts to increase the sophistication of research and development in its own military-industrial base.”
Indeed, China’s scholarship on the First Gulf War clearly shows the fear Beijing felt at being simply overwhelmed technologically if a showdown with Washington ever occurred. As Dean Cheng makes clear, America was generations ahead of China:
“A technological lesson from the first Gulf War was the enormously greater importance placed upon precision guided munitions (PGMs). While representing only 8% of the weapons expended, PGMs are said to have destroyed 40% of the high-value targets. Such weapons, using a variety of guidance systems, may be launched from a variety of platforms, often at great distances. They are a fundamental reason why the battlefield is more expansive and more deadly.”
During the early 1990s, Beijing had no such weapons. Cheng continues:
“A final tactical and technological lesson was the enormously greater importance of space and electronic operations. In the Gulf War, for example, it is noted that the United States brought some 70 satellites to bear against Iraq. By PLA estimates, these satellites provided the United States with about 90% of its strategic intelligence and a substantial portion of its targeting information. Space systems also carried about 70% of all transmitted data for allied forces. The ability to exploit space is seen as a major contributing factor to the Coalition’s victory.”
So while it may appear to the casual observer of geopolitics that the budding US-China rivalry is a rather new phenomenon, it seemed just a matter of time before these two great powers were set to have at least some setback from the rosier times of a shared enemy. Indeed, events such as the 1995-1996 Taiwan Crisis to the 2001 Hainan Incident only reinforced China’s growing anxiety over the simple fact that Washington and Beijing shared very different strategic interests throughout Asia, and Washington, at least for the foreseeable future, would likely dominate any kinetic conflict. No wonder China is building things like “carrier-killer” missiles and “anti-satellite” weapons.
Harry J. Kazianis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest and Senior Editor for The National Interest magazine. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula.