Why the US is reluctant to take on China


China wants to use resources like these landing craft, pictured here parading through Beijing on Sept. 3. © AP
TOKYO — Talks over China’s island-building projects in the South China Sea at Sunday’s East Asia Summit in Malaysia yielded no surprises. The U.S. and Japan expressed concerns about the new islands, and China defended their legitimacy.

Japan, the Philippines and Australia expect the U.S. to maintain a presence in the area and use its naval vessels and other military assets to counterbalance China’s claims that its territorial waters extend throughout much of the South China Sea. The U.S., however, is caught in a dilemma. While it wants to quell China’s unilateral attempt to change international order, it is reluctant to engage in an all-out battle with China.

There are three reasons.

The U.S. military is overstretched. It is engaged in the fight against the Islamic State group in the Middle East. It is also trying to prevent terrorist attacks at home and abroad. And the row with Russia over Ukraine continues.
U.S. military forces are weary. Many U.S. troops are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. The mental condition brings back vivid memories of combat, makes sleeping difficult and changes how sufferers react to those around them and to the outside world. It is incurable. This is apparently holding back U.S. President Barack Obama from sending ground troops to Syria.
Finances. The federal government is being forced to spread its dollars thin, and the defense budget is getting squeezed.
It will probably take about 10 years for the battle-fatigued U.S. military to revamp its capabilities to a point where it would feel comfortable rivaling China. In 10 years, it will have replenished its ranks and deployed new arsenals. In the meantime, it will have to try its best to contain contingencies with its existing resources.
The U.S. wants to avoid confronting China before it can deploy the unmanned combat aircraft X-47B, pictured here, and take other measures. © AP
China, on the other hand, is all warmed up, although it continues to restrain itself. When the Navy destroyer USS Lassen sailed past the artificial islands in the South China Sea on Oct. 27, China remained cool. Still, if such warnings continue, China’s navy could fire on U.S. vessels, ignoring orders from the Communist Party. The Chinese military has in the past acted out of step with the party, and anti-U.S. hostility is rife among Chinese military officials.

China is apparently challenging the U.S. with a focus on quantity rather than quality. It currently has 116 military vessels in the South China Sea. And its coast guard has some 200 patrol ships.

The U.S. could counter China by improving its military capabilities. If over the next 10 to 20 years the U.S. deploys warships and aircraft equipped with laser missiles, which do not require reloading, as well as unmanned aircraft that put no U.S. personnel at risk, the balance of power in the South China Sea could tip in favor of the U.S.

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