15.08.2016 Author: Vladimir Terehov

US Think Tanks Focus on Studying China

235939854NEO has noted, that during the recent years the leading American think tanks have been increasingly focused on various aspects of China’s domestic and foreign policy.

China has already become a major geopolitical opponent of the USA, which means that trends in Chinese defence set-up are being carefully studied as well as the evolution of the military strategy in the regions where direct military and political confrontation between the two major world powers is on the rise.

A region of increasing concern is the relatively narrow strip of sea along the coast of China that encompasses the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, the East China and South China Sea.

The “applied” nature of these studies is of particular note. They compare the military capacity of the armed forces of the two world powers in general, as well as of those groups that are concentrated in the regions with the most acute confrontation.

Following the research, some preliminary recommendations have been prepared. They include proposals to adjust the US defence set-up and military strategy to a hypothetical conflict with China.

For example, in October 2015 the famous RAND Co. published the results of an extensive (430-page) study, “The U.S.-China military scorecard: forces, geography, and the evolving balance of power, 1997-2017“.

It mostly describes the evolution of China’s Armed Forces and gives assessment to the changed balance of military capacity between the USA and China. The main conclusion of the study was rather clear and highlighted the fact that over the last 20 years, the quality gap between the Armed Forces of the USA and China has been reduced.

The American think tanks have already made a number of new and equally voluminous publications in 2016. Two of these publications are of particular interest. RAND Co. published one of them under the straightforward title, “War with China: Thinking through the Unthinkable” in late July.

The other was published half a year ago and was the product of a comprehensive study undertaken by the no less influential Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). It was entitled “Asia-Pacific Rebalance 2025: Capabilities, Presence and Partnerships“.

The authors of the second publication (that includes “recommendations to the President and Congress”) remind us that CSIS was already working on the very same topic back in 2012, i.e. immediately after the concept of “Rebalancing” was publicly announced in late 2011, by Barack Obama and the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

CSIS’ latest publication does not contain the word “China” in the title. However, one should remember that “rebalancing (shift)” in the US Asia-Pacific policy was crucially caused by China’s transformation into world power No 2. Focus on China is apparent throughout the entire text of the most recent CSIS study. In particular, it occupies a central place in the chapter entitled “U.S. Interests and Risks in Asia.”

The long list of countries that are considered in the chapter entitled “The Role of Allies, Partners and Regional Organizations” is particularly noteworthy. The list includes not only Japan, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines, and Singapore, who Washington has some form of alliance agreements with, but also India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

The latter should be classified (for the time being) as US “partners” but, as the NEO has repeatedly noted, the development of comprehensive relations with them (especially with India and Vietnam) is, as they say, in full swing.

The geographical scope that the CSIS experts cover in terms of the “rebalancing” US foreign policy is also pertinent. The broad interpretation of what the Asia-Pacific Region encompasses – it now includes coastal areas and the waters of the Indian Ocean – can no longer be deemed new. In the very same CSIS study, there is a whole chapter dedicated to the Arctic region.

The results of the work undertaken by the four groups are summarized in the chapter entitled “Recommendations for Sustaining the Rebalance”. It is informative enough to simply list them here:

– Align Asia Strategy within the U.S, Government and with Allies and Partners;

– Strengthen Ally and Partner Capability, Capacity, Resilience and Interoperability;

– Sustain and Expand U.S. Military Presence;

– Accelerate Development of Innovative Capabilities and Concepts.

Looking back at RAND Co.’s latest work, the author believes that it (just like the one from the last year) should be of interest for the experts who deal with modelling the process of the initiation and progress of modern armed conflict. By that term we understand ordinary conflicts (not some mysterious “unconventional”) that take place internationally.

The main problems in the field of modelling political processes (and armed conflicts that represent their extreme manifestations) are caused by the difficulties that arise in the course of the necessary formalisation, by selecting the system of constraints and assumptions, the search for source data and a methodology for processing the source data, and the more or less adequate interpretation of the results.

And although RAND Co.’s latest (as, indeed, and previous) publication was met by understandably negative assessment in China at the political level, it appears that it will undergo thorough professional analysis by Chinese military experts in order to extract useful information. However, the links (or lack thereof) between RAND Co. and Pentagon or CIA will hardly be taken into account.

The use has apparently been extracted from “The U.S.-China military scorecard…”, which was, rather helpfully, published on the eve of radical adjustments to China’s military development strategy at the end of last year.

Finally, observers of the development of the political situation in the Asia-Pacific region will find it very alarming that the problem of armed conflict between the two major world powers that was previously thought “unthinkable” has now been declared “thinkable.”

In this regard, however, there is a very important point to note. The authors of the CSIS and RAND Co. articles simply could not have taken into account this point during the studies. Literally in the last few months, the balance of the priorities between internal and external problems in the United States has become the major focus and this issue has dramatically escalated.

It has been the backbone of the ongoing presidential campaign and we cannot exclude the fact that the new US leadership will have to concentrate on solving rather “thinkable” internal problems at the expense of (really “unthinkable”) foreign policy ambitions.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.