FPI Bulletin: Chinese Intimidation Persists Ahead of Washington Summit

September 24, 2015

Xi Jinping, the President of China and General Secretary of its Communist Party, will meet with President Obama on September 25.  President Xi’s state visit comes in the midst of an extraordinarily contentious period in U.S.-China relations: Chinese hackers have stolen the personal data of more than 20 million former and current federal employees, the Chinese armed forces are building extensive military facilities in the South China Sea, China’s domestic authorities continue to employ torture and imprisonment to suppress dissent, and the instability of the Chinese economy has begun to ripple through financial markets across the globe. 

Four years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the beginning of a “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific that would lay the foundation for another generation of American leadership in the region. She described China as an “emerging partner” and stated that a top priority of her tenure as secretary was “to work with China to build mutual trust, and to encourage China’s active efforts in global problem-solving.” As in the case of Clinton’s “reset” with Russia, the Obama administration’s fond hopes for cooperation collided with an adversary prepared to exploit American weakness.

This week’s summit is an opportunity for President Obama to make clear that China’s provocations have become intolerable and that he will begin the process of preparing the United States to meet Beijing’s challenge in the diplomatic, economic, military, and cyber domains. There is not enough time to complete that process during President Obama’s remaining time in office, yet he can send a powerful message both to Beijing and to the American public by reversing the course of U.S. policy toward China. If he does so, Obama will empower the next president to move forward with bipartisan support for a tougher and more realistic strategy.  

China’s Military Modernization

China’s military build-up is as alarming as it is well-documented.  While China’s official military budget for 2014 was $136 billion, the Pentagon conservatively estimates that Beijing’s total military expenditures exceeded $165 billion.  Independent analysis by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) puts the figure at $216 billion, a six-fold increase over the past 15 years. As the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress notes, China “continues to pursue a long-term, comprehensive military modernization program” driven by the objective of winning a war in the Taiwan Strait in which the U.S. would be a likely opponent.

China’s modernization effort, the Pentagon reports, “has the potential to reduce core U.S. military technological advantages.”  Specifically, these funds are being invested “in capabilities designed to defeat adversary power projection and counter third-party—including U.S.—intervention during a crisis or conflict.” These capabilities include “new intermediate- and medium-range conventional ballistic missiles, as well as long-range, land-attack, and anti-ship cruise missiles that extend China’s operational reach.” 

Furthermore, the Congressional Research Service reports that China has begun operating its first aircraft carrier and started construction on the first of its two planned indigenously-produced carriers.  Beijing has also commissioned an average of 2.7 submarines per year over the past 20 years – a rate that, if continued, would result in a force of 54-81 submarines – compared to roughly 60 subs in the U.S. Navy, which has a global mission set.  Finally, Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear, the former head of U.S. forces in the Pacific, told lawmakers earlier this year that by the end of this decade, Beijing will have as many as eight ballistic missile submarines with nuclear missiles that can target the United States—giving China its “first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.”

In sum, according to a recent report by the RAND Corporation, the United States “faces a progressively receding frontier of military dominance in Asia,” and that in several aspects, China is gaining strength against the United States, or has surpassed American capabilities.  Indeed, the report adds, “the balance of power between the United States and China may be approaching a series of tipping points, first in contingencies close to the Chinese coast (e.g., Taiwan) and possibly later in more distant locations (e.g., the Spratly Islands)…. a tipping point in a Taiwan conflict might come as early as 2020, while tipping points in more distant scenarios might lie a decade or more beyond that.”

China’s Provocations in the Pacific

China has used its military strength to rewrite the status quo in the Asia-Pacific and enforce its claims against contested islands in the Western Pacific.  In November 2013, Beijing declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which Japan also claims.  This move deeply alarmed the Japanese government, leading the United States to send a pair of B-52 bombers to the area as well as dispatching Vice President Biden on a reassurance mission to Tokyo. Though the United States does not take any position on the competing claims of sovereignty over these islands, China’s effort to resolve the issue by force represents an extremely dangerous form of escalation. Furthermore, any aggressive action against Japan would require a U.S. response under the two countries’ mutual defense agreement. 

China has been even more aggressive in the South China Sea.  China claims 90% of its surface area, including the exclusive waters of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam, a claim dismissed by the State Department as having no basis in international law.  To enforce its claims, China has conducted an enormous campaign of land reclamation to create seven new islands over the past two years.  And while other nations have expanded the size of islands in the area, China’s efforts dwarf them.  As David Shear, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, told Senate lawmakers this month, “China has now reclaimed more than 2,900 acres, amounting to 17 times more land in 20 months than the other claimants combined over the past 40 years, and accounting for approximately 95 percent of all reclaimed land in the Spratly Islands.”

These islands have an unmistakable military purpose. China is building three 10,000-foot long runways, which will allow China to land planes as large as transport aircraft on them.   Navy Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told Senate lawmakers this month that China is also building deepwater ports and other military facilities in the sea as well. These will enable Beijing to “have de facto control over the South China Sea in any scenario short of war,” Admiral Harris said.

These provocations are important because $5 trillion worth of goods and 30% of the world’s maritime trade pass through the South China Sea every year.  The Department of Defense adds in its 2015 Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy that $1.2 trillion worth of that trade is bound for the United States.  The Pentagon also notes that “there are approximately 11 billion barrels and 190 trillion cubic feet of proved and probable oil and natural gas reserves in the South China Sea.”


This summer, it was revealed that China had hacked the Office of Personnel Management’s database, exposing the personnel records and security clearance files of 21.5 million current and former federal employees, as well as sensitive information about their friends and relatives. OPM also announced Wednesday that the fingerprints of 5.6 million people were also stolen in the attack.  Jacqueline Newmyer Deal of the Long Term Strategy Group predicts that “Chinese strategists will try to use the OPM data, along with other information collected over the past several decades, to map out the U.S. national-security establishment and identify the most critical nodes to strike.”

Though this breach is the largest act of cyber-espionage in American history, the administration has refrained from publicly blaming China for fear of having to release sensitive information regarding sources and methods.  This is a flimsy justification for inaction because, as Senator Ben Sasse (R-OK) says, “Telling the truth about China doesn’t disclose our own capabilities. We’re not taking China to court. We don’t have to publicly file the intelligence and analysis that informs our judgments.”

The administration is also reluctant to confront China on another important issue: their theft of American businesses’ intellectual property.  The United States suffers an estimated annual loss of more than $300 billion, according to the 2013 IP Commission, and as much as 80% of those losses are attributable to China.  The administration has reportedly prepared a raft of economic sanctions against Chinese companies and individuals who have benefited from their government’s theft of U.S. intellectual property, but is not likely to announce them during this week’s visit.  Yet the administration may not issue these sanctions at all, due to reluctance  at the White House and State Department.

Human Rights

Under Xi Jinping, China has “one of the most repressive periods in the post-Mao era,” according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD).  Congressman Christopher Smith (R-NJ), the Chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), said that the organization’s forthcoming report will find that the government’s efforts “to silence dissent, suppress human rights advocacy, and control civil society are broader in scope than any other period documented since the Commission started issuing Annual Reports in 2002.” In specific, since Xi Jinping assumed the Chinese presidency, CHRD reports that there have been more than 1,800 cases of arbitrary detention and torture of human rights defenders.  Since July, 270 human rights lawyers and activists have been detained.

Meanwhile, Beijing has continued its abuse of Tibetans, Uighurs, and Christians.  Representative Smith reported in July that China demolished 1,200 crosses and 35 church buildings since 2014.  In addition, Beijing continues to detain 273 Tibetan Buddhist monks, and has not only shut down the religious sites of Uighur Muslims, but also tortured and killed Falun Gong members.

However, apart from warnings to Chinese officials in private, and remarks such as those from National Security Advisor Susan Rice that “China’s increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly….are not only wrong; they are short-sighted,” the administration has done little to demonstrate that it objects to China’s human rights abuses in practice as well as in principle.

Conclusion: Righting the Course

Despite decades of effort by presidents of both parties to welcome China’s rise, incorporate it into the international system, and establish a cooperative relationship with Beijing, China has become increasingly adversarial toward the United States and its partners and allies in the Asia-Pacific and far more repressive toward its citizens.  The Obama administration still has time to correct its approach of engagement without censure, at least as a first step toward empowering future administrations to respond to China’s increasingly dangerous behavior:

  • The administration should work with Congress to reverse the deep cuts that the Budget Control Act of 2011 have imposed on our Armed Forces. Just days before the start of a new fiscal year, the President continues to stand by his threat to veto all appropriations bills that spend more on defense without a comparable increase for domestic programs. The United States can ill afford to waste time before investing in the capabilities it requires in the Asia-Pacific.
  • The administration should dispatch naval vessels and military aircraft to pass within 12 nautical miles of China’s manmade islands. This would demonstrate Washington’s commitment to the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Admiral Harris acknowledged last week that the United States has not taken this step, despite his commitment that “Pacific command forces fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.” These words should be matched by deeds.
  • The administration should sanction Chinese businesses and individuals who have stolen U.S. businesses’ intellectual property and publicly identify the Chinese regime as the culprit behind the OPM attack.  The White House should also take additional steps to deter further incursions.  In particular, Deal recommends, “demonstrating the U.S. capability to penetrate critical Chinese systems.” Deterrence is a more valuable tool than unenforceable agreements.
  • The administration should also support legislation along the lines of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which would enable the President to sanction any foreign person or entity who is responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. This step would the United States to match more frequent, public criticism of China’s abhorrent behavior with targeted sanctions.

If the U.S.-China relationship really is “as important as any bilateral relationship in the world,” as the President said, then the United States must not be afraid to make clear what it cannot condone, and hold China accountable for its egregious behavior. The proposals above represent a set of critical first steps toward that objective.

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