In the early-2000s cult classic science-fiction series Farscape, the villainous Scorpius is upbraided by his superior officer for being obsessed with building a powerful wormhole weapon that could wipeout his peoples’ greatest strategic rival, the horrifying reptilians known as the Scarrans. Scorpius’ boss wants to take the cheaper route of creating a multilateral coalition designed to deter the Scarrans by showing strength in numbers.
To that, Scorpius (correctly) counters, “Showing strength is useless!” Scorpius then defiantly concludes, “My project will give us strength!” Whether faced by one rival or multiple, the reptilian Scarrans would not be deterred from risking a wider war to achieve their strategic aims of total domination.
The United States faces a similar situation in the Indo-Pacific region today as it grapples with China’s seemingly inexorable rise.
Recently, the US orchestrated the merging of its own military power with those of the United Kingdom and Australia in a controversial nuclear-submarine deal known by its acronym “AUKUS.” There have been more attempts to galvanize partnerships with India, Japan, and a slew of other Indo-Pacific nations aimed at containing China’s rise and deterring Chinese military aggression through a show of force.
Also read: Beijing’s hypersonic feat stuns US intel chiefs
Beijing, meanwhile, has been undeterred by these Western machinations.
Contrary to what Washington thinks, China’s primary threat is economic and technological. Its military is starting to achieve parity with the West in key areas. Yet the focus in China for challenging the West continues to be all measures short of war.
While Washington spins its geopolitical wheels enhancing military cooperation with Indo-Pacific powers, Beijing continues to make real investments in technological innovation that will ensure the future belongs to China and not the United States.
Do you want a robust fifth-generation (5G) Internet architecture? Check out Shenzhen. Interested in quantum Internet? Forget Silicon Valley; go to Shanghai. Do you still think the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is leading the world in exotic weapons technology research and development? Well, in the case of hypersonic weapons, you’ll have to turn to Beijing rather than Washington.
In August, it was proved that China, not the United States, has a hypersonic glide vehicle against which the American homeland has no known defenses.
Scorpius was right: Showing strength is useless. Technological advances give a great power strength.
Beijing has cracked the code to American greatness. China, after making oodles of cash by being the world’s sweatshop, has taken that money and judiciously reinvested it into its high-tech R&D sectors. Like the Americans of yesteryear, who told the world they’d get to the moon in a decade with the purportedly limiting technologies of the late 1950s and 1960s, Red China has the guts to try new things.
None of America’s desperate alliance building will mean much if China enjoys a considerable lead in developing an arsenal of hypersonic weapons against which the US military has no viable defense.
Imbalances such as the one that China has displayed against the Americans in hypersonic technology are how world wars start.
What is America’s answer to the next-generation weaponry that China’s high-tech revolution is affording the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)? The controversial, hugely expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? What a joke! Or the boondoggle Zumwalt-class “stealth” warship that, after decades of being in Development Hell, is finally being mothballed? What a waste!
Besides, China has not been deterred by America’s alliance-building in the Indo-Pacific. Instead, Beijing has only gotten more frenetic in its investments in next-generation high-tech R&D. And while China’s economy is slowing, its growth rates are far better than those of the US.
Washington has told us that American innovation and prosperity are the keys to American military dominance. This is correct. Yet for the last few decades, American prosperity has been slowly eroded and its innovation has been sent overseas to places like China.
My friend and colleague David P Goldman is right: Washington must refocus on investing in next-generation high tech. Alliances are great, but not as a substitute for high-tech innovation. And the US cannot just fixate on advances in software. It needs to pioneer the hardware, the physical infrastructure that makes high-tech R&D in the West more attractive to global talent and investors than whatever the Communist Party of China is creating.
The next eight years will determine who rules the 21st century. Right now, Beijing’s ascendance looks to be the inevitable outcome unless the Americans can drastically correct course now.
The more that China enjoys technological supremacy over the US in key strategic areas, the greater the likelihood of a catastrophic world war.