The U.S. dominates the globe militarily. Washington possesses the most powerful armed forces, accounts for roughly 40 percent of the globe’s military outlays, and is allied with every major industrialized state save China and Russia.
Yet the bipartisan hawks who dominate U.S. foreign policy see threats at every turn. For some, replacing the Soviet Union as chief adversary is the People’s Republic of China. They view another military build-up as the only answer.
The PRC’s rise is reshaping the globe. Of greatest concern in Washington is China’s military build-up. The Department of Defense publishes an annual review of China’s military. The latest report warns that the PRC “continued to improve key capabilities,” including ballistic and cruise missiles, aircraft and air defense, information capabilities, submarines, amphibious and airborne assault units, and more.
This program may sound menacing, but Beijing’s ambitions are bounded. Observes DOD, China’s leaders “portray a strong military as critical to advancing Chinese interests, preventing other countries from taking steps that would damage those interests, and ensuring that China can defend itself and its sovereignty claims.” Which is precisely what U.S. policymakers do.
In the short-term Beijing’s principle objective is to advance its territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific without provoking conflict. In the longer-term the objective, says DOD, is “to deter or defeat adversary power projection and counter third-party—including U.S.—intervention during a crisis or conflict.” That is, deterrence.
Even the Pentagon does not believe Beijing is planning an aggressive war. America enjoys a vast military lead, possessing a significantly larger nuclear force, 10 carrier groups compared to China’s one carrier, and much more. With Washington spending roughly $600 billion annually on the military, compared to an estimated $180 billion by Beijing, China is not overtaking America.
The PRC’s economic predominance is not guaranteed. Moreover, even a more powerful PRC would not easily threaten the U.S. Projecting force across oceans and continents is extraordinarily expensive. America is uniquely secure, enjoying relative geographic isolation—in contrast to China, which is surrounded by nations with which it has been at war over the last century: Russia, Japan, Korea, India, and Vietnam.
In fact, only Washington’s desire to dominate China along the latter’s border (imagine the Chinese navy patrolling America’s East Coast) is likely to trigger war. The U.S. understandably favors its friends in their disputes with the PRC, but none of the ongoing territorial controversies is worth conflict with nuclear-armed China.
As I point out in National Interest: “The U.S. should be watchful and wary of China’s rise. But the best way for the U.S. to prepare for the future is to husband its economic strength and respond militarily only if a serious threat develops. Otherwise Washington should seek to accommodate rather than combat such an important rising power.”