While focusing on Ukraine, we cannot ignore China’s Pacific ambitions

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While Washington and Europe are focused on Ukraine, China is advancing its strategic position in the Indo-Pacific, signing an agreement with the Solomon Islands and militarizing several islands in the South China Sea. 

This is absolutely a big deal, and one that sees Beijing taking a page from Japan’s playbook in the Second World War to dominate Asia and out-compete the United States in this new era of strategic competition — and we had better start paying attention to China’s aggressive moves a lot more closely.  

The Solomon Islands are where some of the most famous and bloody battles of the Second World War were fought, including Guadalcanal. China’s interest in this large island chain is exactly the same as Japan’s interest in the 1930s and 1940s — its proximity to Australia and its strategic position. The Solomon Islands are about 1,000 miles from the coast of Australia, making it an exceedingly attractive position to interdict shipping, base naval assets and prevent American forces from reinforcing Australia or traveling to Taiwan should the Chinese Communist Party decide to re-take Taipei.  

At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party is watching what happens in Ukraine very closely and learning a number of lessons. One of the most important is to not allow Taiwan to receive supplies from the West in the event of a conflict. That Ukraine has held out as long as it has is due first to the bravery of the Ukrainians, but also the provision of Western arms and munitions. In the event of a conflict with Taiwan, you can be sure that Beijing will want to prevent any support from getting to Taipei, and controlling and threatening sea lines of communication and logistics is a way to do that. 

Beijing also knows that in order to be successful, it will have to move swiftly against Taipei. Moscow’s slow build-up and slow advance into Ukraine allowed the West an opportunity to rally around Kyiv, unify NATO and European support and push back against Russia politically, economically and militarily. Had the invasion been swift and had Moscow taken Kyiv or the majority of the country, arguably Western support may never have materialized — it would have been a fait accompli for Moscow. You can be sure that that is precisely what China will want to achieve with Taiwan — a swift, overwhelming victory over the island while denying the West the ability to respond in a timely manner.  

This is where that agreement with the Solomon Islands comes into play. If China can threaten shipping to or from Australia or the movement of naval vessels in the South China Sea and further into the Pacific Ocean, it will cause the United States and its allies to think twice about coming to Taiwan’s defense. China’s ability to threaten shipping will also intimidate our regional partners, partners we will need to reassure and reinforce to combat China’s hegemonic ambitions in the region.  

It’s not just geographically that China is threatening to prevent Taiwan’s defense from happening. Technologically, Beijing is investing in anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, hypersonic missiles, mines, submarines and the expansion of its navy. It already built the world’s largest navy and is modernizing its nuclear forces. Over the last several years, China has also literally expanded its territory in the South China Sea, building new islands and basing military assets there after it said it would not.  

China is also learning that it’s not just the technology or kit that matters, but how the soldiers and sailors are trained to use it in a fight. Russia has very good technology. A steady military modernization program brought Russia’s military from a Soviet-level of technology to a modern military, not that you would know it by how Russia performed in Ukraine. Why? For one, its supply and logistics networks are appalling, but more importantly, it lacks a robust training program and a cadre of non-commissioned officers — the backbone of our military. 

Watching videos of Russia’s performance, you see soldiers scattering when they encounter Ukrainian forces. They abandon equipment at the first sign of conflict and are poorly led when they are ambushed. This is, of course, great for Ukraine, but a lesson Beijing will clearly take to heart.  

Our immediate focus on Ukraine is absolutely smart, but we cannot take our eye off the ball when it comes to what China is doing and what lessons Beijing is learning from Russia’s performance in that war and the West’s response. We need to be active in the region, deploy our naval forces to reassure our allies and work with countries like the Solomon Islands to show why working with authoritarian China is not in their interest. Anything less will be ceding the region and the future to Beijing.  

Mike Rogers served as the Republican representative in Congress for the 8th District of Michigan from 2000 until 2015, including as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee from 2011-2015.

Tags China aggression China-Taiwan tension Politics of the United States Russia Ukraine South China Sea

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