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Fear of China gnaws at summit in Washington

A subcurrent of worry pulsed through a summit involving distant Asian nations this week in Washington, but the event also offered a window into angst of global concern: Fears of a military standoff with China.

U.S.-Japan-Philippines meeting offered a window into military angst with global dimensions

Long shot of House of Representatives

A subcurrent of worry pulsed through a summit this week in Washington between the leaders of the U.S., Japan and the Philippines.

The concern in question holds global dimensions. It involved a gnawing fear that the world's once-dominant superpower is woefully ill-equipped for the possibility of a maritime standoff in Asia.

America's promises to defend its friends in the event of a conflict with China are butting against increasingly unfriendly math involving ships, budgets and workforce.

It explains the flurry of U.S. co-ordination with countries located halfway around the world from actual conflicts raging now in Ukraine and the Middle East.

The three Indo-Pacific democracies involved in the summit announced joint military, infrastructure and technology projects. They held their first-ever joint maritime drills with Australia last week in the disputed South China Sea.

With Chinese coast guard ships ramming into Filipino resupply trips, the U.S. vowed to defend the Philippines and Japan from any attack, and uphold old commitments.

Chinese Coast Guard vessels firing water cannons at a Philippine resupply vessel last month in the South China Sea.

In a speech to the U.S. Congress, Japan's prime minister cast China as the greatest threat to global stability, and said all countries must chip in to deter it.

"The democratic nations of the world must have all hands on deck," Fumio Kishida told U.S. lawmakers.

He touted Japan's historic ramp-up in military spending. Unlike Canada, Japan does plan to hit the spending target of two per cent of GDP within several years.

Yet Kishida's speech was pock-marked with angst.

He expressed fear about bequeathing an authoritarian world to future generations. He also acknowledged the growing exhaustion of Americans dealing with overseas problems.

Speaking to the American mindset, he said: "I detect an undercurrent of self-doubt among some Americans about what your role in the world should be."

China military growth 'incredibly concerning'

Even during Kishida's visit, American lawmakers and military leaders elsewhere on Capitol Hill were expressing alarm.

The size of China's naval fleet has zoomed past the U.S. That trend is only accelerating, with its shipbuilding industry more than 200 times bigger and U.S. construction plagued by multi-year delays.

U.S. officials call China's military buildup the fastest since the Second World War — acknowledging it has more intercontinental ballistic missile launchers than the U.S., more cruise missiles and more sophisticated hypersonic missiles.

Some argue the U.S. still has a naval edge, because its best ships are better than China's and because it has more seafaring allies.

Three men walking on red carpet in white hallway

But at the summit on Capitol Hill, they were talking about something far more basic: Logistics. The ability to resupply, refuel and carry troops to distant ships.

One lawmaker had his staff wheel out a billboard filled with brutal numbers. Numbers like 7,000 Chinese-flagged ocean-going vessels that could be used to supply battleships, versus 200 for the U.S., with an aging fleet lacking modern telecom equipment.

"That is incredibly concerning," said Mike Waltz, the chair of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee.

"We are in a race against time.… Logistics win or lose wars."

A scathing report from the Washington-based Center For Strategic and International Studies says the U.S. lacks the workforce, raw materials, funding, procurement processes and sense of urgency to meet its own rhetoric.

It suggests a variety of remedies — from simplifying procurement to stockpiling more critical minerals, or even increasing military spending to Cold War levels.

That's easier said than done.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands behind National Defence Minister Bill Blair as they hold a press conference on Canada's new defence policy at CFB Trenton in Trenton, Ont. on Monday, April 8, 2024.

Because there was another development in Washington this week that illustrated a cash crush unlike anything the U.S. faced during the Cold War.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office released figures heralding the U.S. has crashed into an unwanted milestone. Last month, it spent more in interest on the national debt, than it spent on national defence.

U.S. labour unions have proposed a familiar remedy in trade sanctions against China.

The U.S. government is now weighing a union petition to impose tariffs. It alleges that Chinese dominance in shipbuilding was done through nefarious means: Theft of intellectual property, coerced mergers with state-owned companies and illegal subsidies.

The main concern: Taiwan

The tariffs would have little effect by 2027. That's the year U.S. officials say Chinese President Xi Jinping has instructed his military to be ready to invade Taiwan.

They say the Chinese military will be ready by that date, and they describe a potential Taiwan invasion as a turning point in global affairs.

If China seized that island, it would gain new control over the world's semiconductor chips and the world's busiest shipping routes, say assessments by the U.S. State Department and military.

Three people in military gear move through an indoor space, guns drawn.

All this makes this week's summit a bellwether, of sorts, for allies in Canada and elsewhere struggling to understand the modern American psyche. Countries might find it instructive as a window into U.S. policy and its gloomiest preoccupations.

The growing protectionism, obsession with domestic manufacturing and pressure on allies to spend more on defence — it's all connected.

It's no accident that fears involving China dominate the memoirs of Donald Trump's trade minister, Robert Lighthizer.

He's best known in Canada as the hard-nosed interlocutor who renegotiated NAFTA but his book expends far more ink laying out his case that the U.S. is deeply vulnerable, lacking the manufacturing and raw materials for a rapid military buildup.

"China's military is an existential threat to the United States," he writes in his book, No Trade Is Free.

"It is building its aggressive military capability at an unprecedented rate. It is important to remember that there are very few dictators in history who built up an army and didn't use it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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