Nobody would have imagined in his/her wildest dreams that the technologically most advanced, economically and militarily most powerful nation on the earth that had recently claimed the status of being the sole superpower in the world after the collapse of the USSR, could be attacked at home by a group of 16-17 fanatic Saudi Arabian citizens that were members of a non-state entity, the al-Quida, led by another Saudi Arabian Islamic fundamentalist, Osama bin-Laden based in Afghanistan, one of the most backward and isolated countries on earth, writes Vidya S Sharma Ph.D.
These individuals hijacked 4 civilian jet aeroplanes and used them as missiles to destroy the Twin Towers in New York, attacked the Pentagon’s west wall and crash-landed the fourth one in a field in Stonycreek, a township near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. These attacks resulted in nearly 3000 civilian US fatalities.
Though the Americans knew that the Russian or Chinese ICBMs could reach them yet they largely believed that ensconced between two oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic, they were safe from any conventional attack. They could undertake a military adventure anywhere in the globe without any fear of retaliation.
But the events of the eleventh of September, 2001 shattered their sense of security. In two important ways, it changed the world forever. The deeply embedded myth in the minds of the US citizens and political and security elite that the US was impregnable and invincible was smashed overnight. Second, the US now knew it could not cocoon itself from the rest of the world.
This unprovoked attack made Americans palpably angry. All Americans – irrespective of their political leanings – wanted the terrorists punished.
On Sept. 18, 2001, Congress nearly unanimously voted to go to war (House of Representatives voted 420-1 and the Senate 98-0). Congress gave a blank cheque to President Bush, ie, hunt down terrorists wherever they may be on this planet. What followed was 20 years long war on terror.
Neo-con advisers of President Bush knew that Congress had given them as a blank cheque. On September 20, 2001, in an address to a joint session of Congress, President Bush said: “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
The 20 years-war in Afghanistan, the Iraq War Mark II instigated under the pretext of finding the weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and the US involvement in other insurgencies (totally 76 countries) around the globe (see Figure 1) not only cost the US $8.00 trillion ( see Figure 2). Of this amount, $2.31 trillion is the cost of fighting the war in Afghanistan (not including the future cost of veteran’s care) and the rest can very largely be attributed to Iraq War II. To put it differently, the cost of fighting insurgency in Afghanistan alone so far is roughly equal to the entire Gross Domestic Product of the UK or India for one year.
In Afghanistan alone, the US lost 2445 service members including 13 U.S. troops who were killed by ISIS-K in the Kabul airport attack on Aug. 26, 2021. This figure of 2445 also includes 130 or so US military personnel killed in other insurgency locations).
Figure 1: Worldwide locations where the US engaged in fighting the war on terror
Source: Watson Institute, Brown University
Figure 2: Cumulative cost of war-related to September 11 attacks
Source: Neta C. Crawford, Boston University and Co-Director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University
In addition, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) lost 18 of its operatives in Afghanistan. Further, there were 1,822 civilian contractor fatalities. These were mainly ex-servicemen who were now working privately
Further, by the end of August 2021, 20722 members of the US defence forces had been wounded. This figure includes 18 wounded when ISIS (K) attacked near on August 26.
I mention some salient figures relating to the war on terror to impress upon the reader to what extent this war has consumed the US’s economic resources and the time of generals and policymakers in the Pentagon.
Certainly, the biggest price the US has paid for the war on terror – a war of choice – has been its perceived diminution of status in geostrategic terms. It resulted in the Pentagon taking its eyes off China. This oversight allowed the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) to emerge as a serious competitor of the US not only economically but also militarily.
The PRC’s leader, Xi Jinping, now has both economic and military power projection capability to tell the leaders of less developed countries that China has “pioneered a new and uniquely Chinese path to modernization, and created a new model for human advancement”. The US’s inability to quell the insurgency in Afghanistan even after 20 years, has given Xi Jinping one more example to underscore to the political leaders and public intellectuals all over the world that “The East is rising, the West is falling”.
In other words, President Xi and his wolf-warrior diplomats have been telling the leaders of the less developed world, you would be better off joining our camp than seeking help and assistance from the West that before offering any financial assistance will insist on transparency, accountability, free press, free elections, feasibility studies regarding a project’s environmental impact, governance issues and many such issues you do not want to be bothered by. We would help you economically develop through our Belt and Road Initiative.
Pentagon’s assessment of PLA in 2000 and 2020
This is how Michael E. O’Hanlon of Brookings Institution summarised the Pentagon’s assessment of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2000:
The PLA is “slowly and unevenly adapting to the trends in modern warfare. The PLA’s force structure and capabilities [are] focused largely on waging large-scale land warfare along China’s borders… The PLA’s ground, air, and naval forces were sizable but mostly obsolete. Its conventional missiles were generally of short-range and modest accuracy. The PLA’s emergent cyber capabilities were rudimentary; its use of information technology was well behind the curve; and its nominal space capabilities were based on outdated technologies for the day. Further, China’s defense industry struggled to produce high-quality systems.”
This was at the beginning of the war on terror launched by neo-cons who colonised foreign and defence policies during the George W Bush Administration (eg, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Richard Perle, to name a few).
Now fast forward to 2020. This is how O’Hanlon summarises the Pentagon’s assessment of the PLA in its 2020 report:
“The PLA’s objective is to become a “world-class” military by the end of 2049—a goal first announced by General Secretary Xi Jinping in 2017. Although the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has not defined [the term world class] it is likely that Beijing will seek to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to—or in some cases superior to—the U.S. military or that of any other great power that the PRC views as a threat. [It] has marshal[l]ed the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernize the PLA in nearly every respect.”
China now has the second-largest research and development budget in the world (behind the US) for science and technology. President Xi is very keen to overtake the US technologically and ease the problems of stranglehold and enhance self-reliance.
China is now ahead of the US in many areas
China aims to become the dominant military power in Asia and the western half of the Pacific.
China’s rapid modernization of the PLA is increasingly forcing the Pentagon to face its own procurement problems arising from shifting goalposts/capabilities for different weapon programmes, endemic cost overruns and delays in deployment.
Despite starting technologically well behind the United States as the 2000 Pentagon report shows, China has developed new systems faster and more cheaply.
For example, at the time of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, the PLA put on display its new high-tech drones, robot submarines and hypersonic missiles — none of which can be matched by the US.
China has used well-honed methods that it mastered to modernize its industrial sector to catch up with the US. It has acquired technology from abroad from countries like France, Israel, Russia and Ukraine. It has reverse-engineered the components. But above all, it has relied on industrial espionage. To mention just two instances: its cyber-thieves stole blueprints of F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters and the US navy’s most advanced anti-ship cruise missiles.
But it is not only by industrial espionage, hacking computers of defence establishments and coercing companies to transfer their technical know-how to Chinese companies that China has modernised its weapon systems. It has also been successful in developing its own silicon valleys and carried out a lot of innovation domestically.
For example, China is a world leader in laser-based submarine detection, hand-held laser guns, particle teleportation, and quantum radar. And, of course, in cyber-theft, as we all know. It has also developed a specially designed light tank for high altitude for land warfare (with India). Its nuclear-powered submarines can travel faster than the US submarines. There are many other areas where it has a technological edge over the West.
In previous parades, it exhibited its H-20 long-range stealth bomber. If this bomber lives up to its specifications then it will severely expose US naval assets and bases across the Pacific to surprise air attacks.
We often hear about the artificial islands being erected by China to unilaterally change its maritime boundaries. But there are numerous such territorial expansion ventures China is engaged in.
I just mention one such venture here: China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), a state-owned company, is in the final stages of building a vast underwater spying network across the sea bed of disputed territory in the East China Sea and South China Sea (between Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands). This unmanned network of sensors, underwater cameras and communications capabilities (radar) will enable China to monitor shipping traffic and scrutinise any attempts by its neighbours that may interfere with China’s claim to those waters. This network will give China “round-the-clock, real-time, high-definition, multiple interface, and three-dimensional observations.”
As mentioned before, China’s modernisation programme is aimed at becoming the dominant military power in Asia and the western half of the Pacific. When it comes to sheer military might and hard power projection, it is already far ahead of all the democratic countries in its region: India, Australia, South Korea and Japan.
Xi has stated numerous times that one of his goals is to bring back Taiwan into China’s fold. China shares land borders with 14 countries and maritime boundaries with 6 (including Taiwan). It has territorial disputes with all of its neighbours. It wants to settle these disputes (including the absorption of Taiwan into China) on its terms without any regard to international law and treaties.
China sees the US as a major obstacle in achieving its territorial and global ambitions. Therefore, China sees U.S. military presence in Japan, South Korea, and is bases in the Philippines and Guam as its chief military threat.
For the US there is still time to re-establish dominance
The US has been distracted/obsessed with the “war on terror” for the last 20 years. China has taken full advantage of this period to modernise the PLA. But it has not reached parity with the US yet.
The US has extricated itself from Afghanistan and learnt it is not possible to build a nation that subscribes to western values (eg, democracy, free speech, an independent judiciary, separation of religion from the government, etc.) without regard to that country’s cultural and religious traditions, traditional power structure, and political history.
The US has a window of 15-20 years to reassert its dominance in both spheres: the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans where it relies on its air force and ocean-going navy to exert its influence.
The US needs to take some steps to remedy the situation urgently. First, Congress must bring about stability to the Pentagon budget. Outgoing the 21st chief of staff of the Air Force, General Goldfein in an interview with Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon said, “no enemy on the battlefield has done more damage to the United States military than budget instability.”
Emphasizing the long lead time necessary for the development of weapon systems, Goldfein noted, “I’m the 21st Chief of Staff. In 2030, Chief 24 will go to war with the Force I built. If we go to war this year, I will go to war with the Force that John Jumper and Mike Ryan built [in the late 1990s and early 2000s].”
But the Pentagon also needs to do some house cleaning. For example, the cost of the development of the F-35 stealth jet was not only well above budget but also behind time. It is also maintenance-intensive, unreliable and some of its software still malfunctions.
Similarly, the navy’s Zumwalt stealth destroyer has failed to live up to its specified potential. Roblin points out in his article in The National Interest, “Eventually, program costs exceeded the budget by 50 per cent, triggering an automatic cancellation according to the Nunn—McCurdy Act.”
It seems there is recognition in the Pentagon that it needs to put its act together. The outgoing Navy Secretary, Richard Spencer in a forum at Brookings Institution said that to enhance our readiness “we looked at our systems, we looked at our command and control,” to determine what changes we needed to make. Then “we looked outside … It is kind of an irony that in the ‘50s and ‘60s, corporate America looked to the Pentagon for risk management and industrial process, but we atrophied there completely, and the private sector went around us, and now are way out in front of us.”
When comparing China’s military capabilities with that of the US, instead of being amazed at what China has achieved, we also need to keep in mind that (a) the PLA was trying to catch up from a very low base; and (b) the PLA does not have any experience of real war. The last time it fought a war was with Vietnam in 1979. At that time, the PLA was thoroughly defeated.
Further, there is some evidence that the PLA has deployed some of its weapon systems without thoroughly testing them. For example, China rushed its first advanced stealth fighter jet into service ahead of schedule in 2017. It was later discovered that the first batch of J-20s was not so stealthy at supersonic speeds.
Furthermore, it has not modernised all of its weapon systems. For example, many of its combat aircraft and tanks that are in service are of 1950s-era designs.
Aware of the increasing ability of China to project its military power and the need to be more efficient in procurement and development of weapon systems, outgoing Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper, conducted a series of internal reviews at the Pentagon to determine if there was any programme duplication going on. But quick programme reviews as conducted by Esper are not going to be enough as the waste in the Pentagon takes many forms.
Increase in influence through Trade and Diplomacy
It is just not only in weapon systems that China has been able to catch up with the US. It has used the past 20 years to cement its influence through enhanced trading links and strengthening its diplomatic ties. It has particularly used its debt-trap diplomacy to considerably increase its influence in island countries in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean and Africa.
For instance, When nobody was willing to finance the project (including India on the grounds of not being economically feasible), former President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa (brother of the current president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa), in 2009 turned to China to develop a deepwater port in his hometown of Hambantota. China was too eager to oblige. The port did not attract any traffic. Consequently, in December 2017, Sri Lanka, not being able to pay the debt, was forced to surrender the ownership of the port to China. China, for all purposes, has converted the port to a military base.
Other than the high profile “Belt and Road initiative” that the US found itself reacting to (instead of being able to counter it before it was all set up to go), China has weakened the US and NATO’s ability to respond by buying critical infrastructure assets in countries like Greece.
I just mention three examples briefly, all involving Greece. When Greece was asked to implement tough austerity measures and privatise some of the nationally owned assets as part of receiving bailout funds from the EU in 2010. Greece sold 51% off its Piraeus port to China Ocean Shipping Co. (Cosco), a state-owned company.
Piraeus was a pretty backward under-developed container terminal that nobody took seriously. By 2019, according to the Piraeus Port Authority, its container handling capacity had increased by 5 times. China plans to develop it into the biggest port in Europe. Now it is not unusual to see Chinese naval vessels docked in the port. That must concern NATO a great deal now.
As a result of these economic ties and under diplomatic pressure from China, in 2016 Greece prevented the EU from issuing a unified statement against Chinese activities in the South China Sea (it was made easier by the fact that the US was led by President Trump then). Similarly, in June 2017, Greece threatened to use its veto to stop the EU from criticising China for its human rights violations, especially against Uyghurs who are native to the Xinjiang province.
Biden Doctrine and China
Biden and his administration seem to be fully aware of the threat posed by China to the US security interest and dominance in the Western Pacific ocean. Whatever steps Biden has taken in foreign affairs are meant to prepare the US to confront China.
I discuss the Biden doctrine in detail in a separate article. It would suffice here to mention a few steps taken by the Biden Administration to prove my contention.
First of all, it is worth remembering that Biden has not lifted any of the sanctions that the Trump administration imposed on China. He has not made any concessions to China on trade.
Biden reversed Trump’s decision and has agreed with Russia to extend lifespan of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty). He has done so primarily for two reasons: he considers Russia and its various disinformation campaigns, attempts by Russia-based groups at seeking ransom by cyber-hacking the information systems of various US companies, fiddling with electoral processes in the US and Western Europe (2016 and 2020 Presidential elections in the US, Brexit, etc.) not as serious threat to the US security as what China poses. He simply does not want to take on both adversaries at the same time. When he saw President Putin, Biden gave him a list of infrastructure assets he did not want Russian hackers to touch. It seems Putin has taken Biden’s concerns on board.
Both right- and left-wing commentators criticised Biden for the way he decided to pull the troops out of Afghanistan. Yes, it looked untidy. Yes, it gave an impression as if the US troops were retreating in defeat. But, it must not be forgotten, as discussed above, that this neo-con project, the “war on terror”, had cost the US $8 trillion. By not continuing this war, the Biden Administration will save nearly $2trn. It is more than sufficient to pay for his domestic infrastructure programmes. Those programmes are not only needed to modernize the crumbling US infrastructure assets but will create many jobs in rural and regional towns in the US. Just as his emphasis on renewable energy will do.
I give one more example. Take the AUKUS security pact signed last week between Australia, the UK and the US. Under this pact, Britain and the US will help Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines and undertake the necessary technology transfer. This shows how serious Biden is to make China accountable for its revanchist acts. It shows he is genuine about committing the US to the Indo-Pacific region. It shows he is prepared to help allies of the US to equip them with necessary weapon systems. Lastly, it also shows that, just like Trump, he wants the allies of the US to carry a greater burden of their own security.
Captains of the industry in the West must play their part
The private sector can also play a very crucial role. The captains of the industry in the West helped China to become so economically powerful by offshoring their manufacturing activities. They need to do their share of spadework. They must take serious steps to decouple the Chinese economy with their respective country’s economy. For example, if Corporate America were outsourcing its manufacturing activity to countries within its region (eg, Central and South America), they would kill two birds with one stone. It would not only staunch the flow of illegal migrants from these countries to the US. And they would help the US to regain its position of dominance because it would considerably slow down China’s economic growth. Hence its ability to threaten the US militarily. Lastly, most of the Central and South American countries are so small that they would never threaten the US in any way. Similarly, Western European countries could shift their manufacturing base to Eastern European countries within the EU.
The US now realises the degree of threat China poses to democracy and the institutions necessary for the democratic societies to function properly (eg, rule of law, an independent judiciary, free press, free and fair elections, etc.). It also realises a great deal of precious time has been lost/wasted. But the US has the potential to rise to the challenge. One of the pillars of the Biden doctrine is relentless diplomacy, meaning that the US realises its biggest assets are its 60 allies distributed all over the world versus China’s one (North Korea).
Vidya S. Sharma advises clients on country risks and technology-based joint ventures. He has contributed numerous articles for such prestigious newspapers as: The Canberra Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age (Melbourne), The Australian Financial Review, The Economic Times (India), The Business Standard (India), EU Reporter (Brussels), East Asia Forum (Canberra), The Business Line (Chennai, India), The Hindustan Times (India), The Financial Express (India), The Daily Caller (US. He can be contacted at: [email protected]