Is China “encircling” the US?

June 10, 2013

Such was the claim of an article in the Washington Times last Friday.  Times national security correspondent Bill Gertz includes a long list of nations that have extended diplomatic and commercial ties with China and some that have purchased arms.  However, the full text of the story does not support the title.  Included among the nations are Canada and Mexico – two countries that are deeply linked to the US via trade and culture and which are not under any foreseeable circumstance about to become bases for Chinese military incursion.  He also includes Panama and the Bahamas, in which nations Chinese companies operate port facilities, and Trinidad and Costa Rica which have recently hosted trade missions with China.  A short list of other nations have purchased arms from China – but each has been disappointed with the quality of Chinese arms (Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia).  China does have three serious allies in the Western hemisphere:  Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua (which recently signed a contract with a Chinese firm to develop a cross-isthmus competitor to the Panama Canal).

These allies are virtually useless to China from a military standpoint.  Their militaries are tiny and are focused internally; there is no force projection and there are no bases that Chinese forces could use to project power anywhere in the Americas.  This is not a “counter” to the US Asian Pivot.  The United Stats maintains bases across the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean and has Status of Forces Agreements with numerous nations in the region.  According to the SIPRI Military Expenditures Database (login required), these were the military spending figures for China’s Western allies in 2010 (the last year for which Cuban figures are available; all figures are in constant 2011 US dollars):

Nicaragua  $45.6 million

Cuba  $94.3 million

Venezuela $2.6 billion

and this is the spending by just three US allies in the Western Pacific:

Australia  $27 billion

South Korea $30 billion

Japan $59 billion

all three of the US allies have the ability to sortie offensive platforms in support of US activities; none of China’s allies have the same capabilities.

Even as China grows economically, the military power scale is tipped significantly against them.  It is unsurprising that China is making diplomatic and commercial initiatives in the Western hemisphere and elsewhere, but the idea that they are anything near a military threat is extreme hyperbole.



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