By Categories: FP & IR

If you think that the conflict in Guam is only between North Korea and America, here’s why you are wrong. 

North Korea is merely China’s proxy.

Could China’s involvement in the Guam crisis constitute an early move to get the US out of the Second Island Chain?

China has a clear strategy to control the Pacific, west of Hawaii, and challenge the US for dominance in the eastern Pacific.

In 1950, the US articulated its strategy to box in China and the Soviet Union.

The first line of defence was based on the First Island Chain, enclosing five seas: Okhotsk, Japan, Yellow, East China and South China.

Should the communists break through this chain, the Second Island Chain encloses the west Pacific from the Aleutians, Guam, and down to Darwin in Australia. And should the communists break through this, the defence line becomes Aleutians, Hawaii, and down southward.

A schematic of Chinese plans to dominate the Pacific. It is not necessarily identical to the Chinese formulation.

The First Island Chain and The Second Island Chain.
The First Island Chain and The Second Island Chain.

With 20 years to dominate China’s near seas, within the First Island Chain, achieved; another 20 years to dominate the Western Pacific, for which preliminary moves are underway; 20 years more to dominate the Pacific up to the Third Island Chain, and finally, another 20 years to challenge the US between America’s western coasts and Hawaii.

This is an 80-year plan, with 60 years to go. Beijing could cut 10-20 years off the plan. The end game has already been announced by China, to “protect” its merchant shipping interests off the North and South American west coasts.

China has the world’s second largest gross domestic product (GDP), and aims for the top position. US’ current per capita is roughly $60,000, China’s is about $10,000. China needs to only climb up to $20,000 for a GDP to surpass the US. At about $24 trillion, assuming 5 per cent annual growth for China and 2 per cent for the US, this happens in 2032.

China today spends less than 2 per cent actual of its GDP on defence compared to the US’ actual 5.5 per cent. It can easily jump to 4 per cent of GDP allowing defence spending of $500 billion compared to the US’ actual $1 trillion.

China has a navy of 140 major combatants 30 years old or less, with surface ships of 4,000 tonnes or more, about the minimum for blue-water operations. Accepted, it is no match for today’s US fleet of more than 300. Even the US, however, did not have a world-class navy until about 100 years ago; the Chinese Navy is only 70 years old.

Consider some indicators. In 2017, the Chinese conducted naval exercise not just in the Mediterranean, but also in the Baltic Sea. In 2015, for the first time, a five-ship task-force approached US Pacific territorial waters, near the Aleutians.

China has a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean, and with its first overseas naval base at Djibouti, it will soon have a permanent presence in the Mediterranean. Accepted, its Indian Ocean presence is small, perhaps 2.5 combatant ships years-per-year. In 1990, however, could anyone have imagined the Chinese conducting exercises in the Baltic?

China is the world’s largest manufacturing power. It adds 15 or so warships to its navy each year without straining itself. It builds in multiples. For example, it has four of its new 10,000-tonne destroyer class building simultaneously, with 14 more planned.

What is holding China back is not money or capacity, but its deliberate plan to proceed step-by-step to master the art and science of a global major blue-water navy.

Aside from its training carrier of 65,000 tonnes, it has launched one of 70,000 tonnes, by 2020 one of 85,000-tonnes; the next one will be 110,000-tonnes and nuclear powered, possibly for 2024 commission, according to Chinese defence blogs. This will match the largest US supercarriers.

China is expanding its Marine Corps to six brigades and building the blue water amphibious lift it needs. For example, it has under construction the first of six 40,000-tonne amphibious assault ships, and will soon have eight amphibious transport docks. Each will carry four air cushion landing craft, over 500 troops, four helicopters, more than 15 tanks, and military vehicles. It is in the process of completing six second-generation attack nuclear submarines to replace the first-generation class of three Han boats, and has launched a third-generation boat, part of an initial order of five to six.

Returning to the First Island Chain. Until recently, the US could sail carrier battle groups right off China and there was nothing that the country could do about it. By 2020, if the US wants adverse entry into the China seas, it will have to devote weeks of effort to neutralise Chinese defences before it can enter – and that process will still be a high risk operation.

Now, finally consider the Second Island Chain. Using Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) as a proxy, Beijing is starting to poke the US within the second chain, which includes Guam.

Pyongyang, acting in its own interests and supported by Beijing, which is also acting in its own interests, says it will launch four 5,000-kilometre missiles around Guam. Maybe it will, and maybe it won’t. Nonetheless, all of a sudden, the main US base for the south-west Pacific is perceived as under direct threat.

Beijing has said if DPRK strikes the US first, China will remain neutral, but if US attacks first, it will support DPRK. This is the usual ambiguous Chinese statement intended to allow the listener to believe what it wants.

Obviously DPRK will not attack Guam and seal its own fate; the real issue is a pre-emptive US strike against DPRK. Even if DPRK moves first, China cannot stand by while the US levels North Korea, because it is a crucial buffer between China and the US in the northeast. By having its proxy put Guam under threat, China may have embarked on its first steps to control the waters of the Second Island Chain.


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