China’s rapidly modernizing military has brought with it more than a little analytical confusion. A side‐by‐side comparison against U.S. forces (e.g., 11 U.S. nuclear aircraft carriers versus a single Chinese conventional “test” aircraft carrier) makes for almost a joke in national security circles. The most inflated estimates of Chinese military power that see Beijing quickly converting its economic prowess into military might must, therefore, be rejected on two principal counts, aside from the stark numbers already mentioned. First, China’s armed forces are rising from a very low level of technology and proficiency. Second, China has prioritized internal economic development (e.g., high‐speed rail) over military development, a trend unlikely to reverse in the near term. Nevertheless, it is important not to overestimate U.S. military advantages in any armed conflict with China. China has actually pulled ahead in some discreet but important domains of modern warfare. Moreover, the enormous weight of geography tends to negate many, if not most, U.S. advantages when actual scenarios are analyzed. However, the bottom line is that Beijing is building a military neither to attack the United States nor to conquer East Asia. Rather, the present trajectory for the development of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) befits a great power, with outsized insecurities to be sure, but that is also exercising considerable restraint and has certain specific global concerns.
It is natural at the outset of any serious analysis of U.S.-China strategic interaction to pose certain questions regarding the overall trajectory of China’s social, economic, and political conditions in the coming decades. Indeed, many of the most pessimistic assessments of China seem to be premised on the seemingly stark ideological contrast between Washington and Beijing; in other words, good versus evil. For that most skeptical of viewpoints, the Chinese are not simply out to dominate Asia, but they have designs on the Americas and Europe as well.3 At the opposite end of the spectrum are extremely dovish forecasts that claim that China’s rise is mostly a fiction or a “Potemkin village”—hardly worth a mention and certainly incapable of posing any kind of a threat, except to itself.4
A more complete analysis of China’s internal development dynamics and the relationship of those trends to China’s likely foreign policy goals in the future is beyond the scope of this chapter. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to briefly state a few basic assumptions in that regard.
The Chinese economy is robust and growing, and its colossal energy is evident to anyone who has taken the time to stroll around any of its myriad second‐tier cities that make up its enormous industrial base. Impediments to continued rapid growth exist, to be sure, and the Chinese economy will likely slow further from its previously blistering pace, but conventional forecasts show that the Chinese economy is on track to exceed that of the United States in aggregate size by 2020.5
Likewise, the Chinese polity is similarly less brittle than has often been assumed by Western commentators. Indeed, Chinese leaders have painstakingly studied the example of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and are determined not to follow that path. Nor have stagnation in Europe, paralysis in the United States, or chaos in much of the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring convinced them to rethink their skepticism regarding democracy and democratization. China’s political institutions remain in flux and are still afflicted by major problems—corruption foremost among them—but the notion that rule by the Chinese Communist Party is on the brink of collapse is belied by the apparently high levels of public trust that researchers have found in China, even compared with Western democracies.6 It is certainly possible that Beijing’s polity could undergo substantial change in the next few decades, but the political order put in place by Deng Xiaoping has proved remarkably stable in almost all respects, suggesting that continuity should form the baseline projection.
Three additional caveats should be kept in mind when considering linkages between Chinese domestic and foreign policies. First, the assumption that regime change in Beijing would fundamentally alter Chinese foreign policy is quite tenuous. Thus, it is possible to conceive of a situation in which a more liberal polity in China could be even more assertive as various political interests competed to showcase their nationalist credentials. Second, another liberal assumption that the Chinese regime is too dependent on economic growth and trade specifically to risk international conflict is somewhat persuasive, but it may not in the end form a reliable mechanism to preserve the peace. The explanation is simply that rationality may fail to carry the day, and Chinese elites may be even more prone to emotive nationalist appeals, especially given the country’s tortured modern history. Third and most fundamental, it should be kept in mind at all times that the situation confronting contemporary China (both domestically and internationally) is unprecedented. At a minimum, that means that there will be much uncertainty regarding Beijing’s preferred course in foreign policy, which also offers ample scope for both positive and negative reverberations across the Pacific expanse. In other words, U.S. policy, whether confrontational or accommodative, can play a major role in shaping future Chinese preferences and strategies.
Putting aside the many complexities and uncertainties of Chinese politics, let us return to the more narrow task of evaluating the military balance, wherein a side‐by‐side comparison of U.S. and Chinese military forces can be misleading for certain scenarios. A few quick comparisons serve to demonstrate the baseline of strong U.S. superiority in most military domains. For the foreseeable future, moreover, the United States will remain quite dominant in any total clash of arms. China’s “new” aircraft carrier Liaoning—launched in the fall of 2012 on a refurbished hull originally built by the Soviets back in the 1980s and acquired from Ukraine in 1998—may be taken as reasonably reflective of the overall balance of military forces. Although the primary J-15 fighter for the carrier seems to be reasonably capable, the capabilities of the initial Chinese carrier overall are vastly reduced by its conventional propulsion and lack of catapults. In practice, the carrier is much more difficult to sustain in combat, and its aircraft cannot carry heavy payloads (fuel and weaponry). There is no firm evidence, moreover, that the Chinese navy has definitively solved the crucial airborne early‐warning and battle management problem for its carrier program. Suitable early‐warning aircraft and even nuclear propulsion may be in development for future aircraft carriers, but it must be agreed that China’s initial sortie into the aircraft carrier realm has hardly altered the naval balance.
For the future of naval combat, however, submarines are likely to be significantly more important than aircraft carriers, because their inherent stealth characteristics afford them much higher survivability. Although China has made steady advances in modernizing its conventional submarine fleet, progress in further developing its nuclear submarine force has been slower than expected. China’s submarine force, therefore, could be quite effective in defensive combat in the East Asian littoral, but it is neither a major deep‐ocean threat nor a genuine power projection asset. The buildup of China’s modern phased‐array‐equipped destroyer force has also been slow—though there are presently signs of acceleration. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, China had just three Luyang II phasedarray destroyers operational in March 2013, compared with more than 60 Aegis‐equipped destroyers fielded by the U.S. Navy, plus another 20 Aegis cruisers. For the crucial domain of fixed‐wing anti‐submarine aircraft, the U.S. Navy has more than 150 such aircraft against fewer than a dozen equivalent aircraft operated by the PLA Navy.7
The imbalance in nuclear forces is, if anything, even more stark from China’s perspective. Compared with the United States’ nuclear arsenal of approximately 5,000 warheads, China is thought to have just 300 to 400. Moreover, that smaller number is considered to be at a lower alert posture. As an example of the operational implications of that highly significant difference, one may consider the major gap in experience between the U.S. Navy and the PLA Navy with respect to using nuclear‐armed ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The U.S. Navy has been making credible SSBN patrols since the 1960s with ever‐increasing capabilities (e.g., superior range and stealth). By contrast, the Chinese navy successfully tested a submarine‐launched ballistic missile only in 1988 and has still never made a single credible deterrent patrol with an SSBN. Accelerating progress in the nuclear weapons realm seems to be a current objective of the Chinese military. For example, Chinese sources reported flight tests of both the new JL-2 submarine‐launched ballistic missile and the DF-41 truck‐launched intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) during December 2013.8
It will likely be decades before Chinese nuclear forces could approach the nuclear capabilities wielded by the U.S. armed forces. Arguably, massive nuclear superiority may confer some strategic advantage on Washington in the form of escalation dominance and thus leverage. However, the Rubicon was almost certainly crossed in the past decade with respect to China’s firmly establishing a credible second‐strike capability, which likely has the effect of diluting the impact of the nuclear balance overall, because it seems clear now that both sides would pay a heavy price were a conflict to reach beyond the nuclear threshold. That posture gives China an ability to threaten some U.S. cities or bases irrespective of U.S. offensive or defensive measures. That capability could be said to exist since the advent of the road‐mobile DF-31 ICBM. The most recent announcement of a Chinese test of a hypersonic delivery vehicle only further confirms that trend.9
In general, even given the stated imbalances, it would be foolish and simplistic to assume that China poses no challenge whatsoever to American military supremacy. A few examples may serve to illustrate the larger point. Regarding undersea warfare, for example, the Chinese submarine force may not be well suited for global power projection and has comparatively less experience obviously with SSBN operations, but it could be extremely lethal against U.S. and allied ships in and around the East Asian littoral. Indeed, conventional submarines may even have certain advantages in those generally shallow waters. Current Chinese anti‐ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) likely exceed the capabilities of those in the U.S. Navy’s inventory.10 China’s relatively new Type 2208 fast attack craft, of which more than 65 are said to be in service, may quite easily outduel the new U.S. Navy littoral combat ship, since the latter is not equipped with ASCMs.
Perhaps most threatening to the U.S. Navy is the much‐discussed alleged development of a Chinese anti‐ship ballistic missile (ASBM). If such a weapon exists in the Chinese arsenal, designated as the DF-21D, it would pose a very significant threat to the U.S. Navy insofar as the fleet’s current doctrine is built around the carrier battle group, which will likely be vulnerable to an ASBM attack. It would be an analytical mistake to consider the ASBM capability in isolation, especially because the capability is yet to be confirmed by successful tests. It is clear, however, that China’s conventional missile forces are the most formidable in the world and that they could seemingly destroy (or render ineffective) almost all of the U.S. bases proximate to China, including, for example, Kadena Air Base on Okinawa.
Apart from the missile threat, well over 500 fourth‐generation fighter or attack aircraft are now in the Chinese arsenal. That formidable arsenal suggests that in any conflict in East Asia, the skies would be heavily contested or even dominated by Chinese aircraft—a major change in the strategic balance of power in East Asia. To state the obvious, that change would complicate almost all other U.S. military operations, for example, any attempt to hunt for Chinese submarines with maritime patrol aircraft.11
Thus, Beijing does not need to field a dozen aircraft carrier battle groups or thousands of nuclear weapons to pose major strategic dilemmas for the Pentagon, including the possibility of surprise attack and even defeat. Given those challenges, the somewhat bizarre appellation of “anti‐access strategy” has evolved among Western strategists to describe Chinese military strategy.12
To sum up, the military picture is one of substantial contradictions. In aggregate forces, the United States generally outstrips China by a wide margin. An all‐out war, if such a scenario could be imagined in the nuclear age, would certainly witness much greater devastation on the Chinese side. However, the fact that some American cities could survive a nuclear exchange with China would plainly be cold comfort when New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, or Washington (or all four cities) were left as smoking, irradiated holes in the ground. In a nearly all‐out conflict, but one not crossing the nuclear threshold, the United States again might expect to prevail in a struggle for mastery in the Asia‐Pacific, but the costs in both lives and resources for both sides would be frightful.
What could be most disturbing, however, is that a host of niche capabilities—whether missiles, drones, submarines, sea mines, or fast attack craft—might enable Beijing to gain victory or fight to a draw in a small‐to‐medium (Falklands‐type) contingency along its flanks, especially if it can convince Washington that further escalation is not in its interest. Indeed, many insightful commentators on the AsiaPacific strategic balance have observed that a certain “asymmetry of interests” may give Beijing leverage in military–diplomatic crises around its periphery. Simply put, that concept suggests that in any given situation of that type, whether over Taiwan or the South China Sea, the stakes will likely be larger for Beijing than for Washington, and China will be more willing to accept losses and thus make credible military threats.
Despite the vitally important strategic quandary now confronting Washington, there is considerable good news from a U.S. perspective in current military developments as well. Most significantly, at present China does not represent a neo‐Soviet type challenge. A comparison of building rates for submarines, for example, reveals that the Chinese buildup is moderate, not radical.13 Indeed, it seems that Chinese strategists are quite determined not to repeat Soviet strategic follies.14 Moreover, the PLA is notably weak in power projection, for example, with respect to aerial refueling. Its obvious orientation, with its focus on fighters and conventional submarines, is defensive. And defense spending remains well below where it could be. It is worth noting, however, that those tendencies could change if Beijing perceives that its strategic environment has substantially worsened.15
More good news regarding China’s rise may be found in the increasing number of major initiatives undertaken by Beijing to act as a so‐called responsible stakeholder in upholding global security. Those initiatives include the anti‐piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, an ambitious program of training and participation in United Nations’ peacekeeping missions, and also the more limited deployment of the People’s Armed Police to the volatile upper Mekong area to combat instability and rampant smuggling. Indeed, for Chinese specialists on foreign policy and international relations, discussions regarding the provision of public goods (gonggong chanpin) are very much in vogue.16 Those developments highlight the crucial importance of discussing intentions and not just capabilities when determining whether China poses a significant threat to U.S. national security. The ends and means of Chinese foreign and security policy within various complex regional political contexts are surveyed in the next section.