AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Warships from the U.S. and nine other countries are taking part in naval exercises near Hawaii. This biennial ritual includes air and underwater drills and live fire training. There was a time when China took part in these exercises but not anymore. China was disinvited to the last training in 2018 after it built islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and China correspondent John Ruwitch join us now to talk about all this.
Hey to both of you.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello.
JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hi there.
CHANG: All right. So, Tom, let's start with you. So who is taking part in the exercise this time around, and what exactly is the purpose of it?
BOWMAN: Well, as you noted, 10 countries, the U.S. and the others mostly from the Pacific region. You have Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea among them. And it basically helps the navies of these countries learn how to work together in a case of a military crisis. But if you listen to the overall commander of this exercise, Vice Adm. Scott Conn, he's - there's a veiled reference from him to China and its ability to interfere with global commerce. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SCOTT CONN: In spite of COVID-19, the world has not stopped, nor have the demands for the free flow of commerce across the world's oceans. Our collective prosperity depends on this. And we need to continue safeguarding it.
BOWMAN: Some 30% of the world's commerce travels by ship through the South China Sea, so there is a real concern among defense analysts and others that China could somehow either disrupt or seek to control this trade in the coming years.
CHANG: OK. So, John, the Trump administration perceives China to be a threat to maritime commerce, but how real of a concern is that?
RUWITCH: Yeah. If you look at it from Beijing's perspective, I mean, China is equally or more concerned than the U.S. about what's happening in the South China Sea, arguably. I mean, much of its trade comes through the South China Sea. Most of its energy imports come there. Under the seabed, there's oil and gas, and China's invested billions in exploration. It's the world's No. 2 economy. Trade and energy are critical, and this is a key conduit.
CHANG: Right. OK, so what about these moves that we keep seeing from China in the South China Sea? What are China's goals there?
RUWITCH: In a word, control. I mean, stepping back a bit, Chinese strategic thinkers and the leadership have long believed that, you know, they're encircled by non-allies and constrained. And what we've seen is this years-long project as it's built its strength, militarily and economically, to push back, to increase its presence and it's tried - to try to gain, you know, a measure of control on the South China Sea.
CHANG: But what does that control look like? Like, how is China trying to assert itself there?
RUWITCH: Well, it's been expanding its presence there. There's the widely reported building of islands that played a part in China being disinvited to RIMPAC. And in fact, the Trump administration today sanctioned individuals and companies that it believes are linked to that. You know, it also has this long-running project of improving its overall military capabilities. Military spending in China's not anywhere near U.S. levels. You know, the emphasis is on doing it smart, right? So it's invested in the navy, in missiles, cyber capabilities, space, you know, and all this is happening as the U.S. has also ramped up its presence there. This summer, we saw exercises by the U.S. with multiple aircraft carriers and B-52 bombers. I spoke with Shi Yinhong, who's a professor of international relations at Renmin University and has advised China's Cabinet. And he says the message isn't lost on China - right? - you know, with all of this, including RIMPAC. He says China's taken note of the increase in U.S. activity. And as China sees it, it's the U.S. that's increasing the risks and the dangers.
CHANG: Interesting. OK. So, Tom, as John pointed out, China is reforming its military. So how is the U.S. responding to that?
BOWMAN: Well, China more so than Russia is seen as a No. 1 threat in the long term. Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a Wall Street Journal editorial just this week said the U.S. has to keep an eye on Chinese military development much like it did with the Soviet Union in the 20th century. Now, China is unlikely anytime soon to surpass the U.S. military in aircraft and ships. But China is looking to become close to parity with the U.S. by mid-century and is focusing a lot on cyberwarfare, as John said, electronic jamming equipment, satellites. So the U.S. is trying to do that as well, putting a lot more emphasis on these kinds of high-tech weapons. So you'll see the defense budget shift into this focus in the coming years.
CHANG: Interesting. So, I mean, tell us more. Why is China's focus on cyber and space? Why is that seen as such a threat to the U.S.?
BOWMAN: Well, it's interesting. You see, the U.S. military in American society as a whole is so reliant on technology, even more so than China. It's very vulnerable to cyberattacks, electronic jamming. So in a crisis, China could disrupt communications, prevent ships from talking to one other, pilots, even commanders. Another concern is China could target the GPS system, which the entire world uses. China is developing its own version of GPS and therefore could continue to communicate once it takes down the GPS. The U.S., in the meantime, would essentially be blind before a shot is fired in anger. Some defense analysts point out that China is taking a page from the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu who said, quote, "to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill."
CHANG: That is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and China correspondent John Ruwitch. Thanks to both of you.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
RUWITCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.