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29 October 2020, Gateway House

The growing Sino-American military rivalry

On 21 October, Gateway House and the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi jointly hosted a webcast with Ambassador (Lt. Gen.) Karl Eikenberry, Sinologist, Deputy Chairman, NATO Military Committee; former Director of the U.S.-Asia Security Initiative at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University on the Growing Sino-American Military Rivalry

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On 21 October, 2020 Gateway House and Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi jointly hosted a webinar on the growing Sino-American military rivalry.

Some of the key points highlighted in the webinar were –

a) The PRC has been rapidly increasing its military spending, compared to the U.S. In 1996, the U.S. spent 16 times more on its military than China did; now the U.S.’s budget is only 2.5 times more than China’s, with a high probability of China’s budget being understated. This is a major arms race ,where security dilemmas are only increasing.

b) There were two very humiliating incidents for China that took place in the late 1990s. First was the Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996 when the U.S. sent two battle carrier groups to the Strait as a show of force. Beijing didn’t have adequate response capabilities at the time. The second was the U.S.’s accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.  This instigated a nationalistic response in China that led to a military consensus within that it needed to embark on a path of rapid defense modernization.

c) When China’s military spending started to increase and go into double-digit growth figures, the U.S. at the time was distracted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on counter terrorism and insurgency. This led to China rapidly increasing military capabilities and an example is the non-combative evacuation operation in Aden when the Chinese were able to evacuate 600 of its own and 225 other foreign citizens. It was only in 2011 when the security dilemma became apparent after President Obama announced the so-called “pivot to Asia,” which was perceived as a containment strategy by China.

c) For the U.S., the operational problems it faces in the western pacific are becoming more difficult to effectively address. The time taken by a U.S. Navy vessel to reach the South China Sea from the nearest base is much longer than compared to the Chinese. The artificial islands in the region can be very easily converted into a base of operation and the Chinese base in Sanya is only 12 hours of steam time to the point of crisis (in the Indo-Pacific). While the U.S. was busy with the wars on terror, China has come a long way in developing strong capabilities and can even threaten our communication and intelligence systems. The U.S. is responding to this by trying to build more resilience.

d) Wars have now emerged in fronts such as space, cyber and unmanned vehicles. The boundaries are blurring and this is known to be called as ‘grey zone’ operations. Certainly, the advantage lies with the first strike, especially, in the case of cyber warfare.

e) One of the largest impediments is the limits of bilateral military relations. Militaries should be talking about accidents avoidance, crisis management and dispute resolution. They should talk and understand each others’ doctrine because that will help understand intent.