China’s Putative Threat to U.S. National Security

July 22, 2020 • Publications
By Lyle Goldstein

Of late, U.S.-China relations seem to be on a more secure footing.1 After the Sunnylands summit in May 2013, some modest steps have occurred to indicate an improving climate for security cooperation among the superpowers: a joint anti‐​piracy exercise was held in the Gulf of Aden, several Chinese ships came to Hawaii to participate in another exercise, and China’s navy chief has made an official visit to the United States. But don’t believe the hype.2

Such symbolic steps simply move the relationship from deeply fraught to extremely tense. Those largely cosmetic measures will do little to break down the veritable chasm of “strategic mistrust” that presently divides Washington and Beijing. Indeed, tensions arising in late 2013 over the new Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea and a new naval incident involving a near collision between Chinese and U.S. warships in the South China Sea seem to demonstrate how strained the overall relationship remains. Moreover, active bilateral cooperation on the key global issues of the day, from nuclear proliferation to climate change, is almost completely stalled, in no small part as a result of the damage caused by the Obama administration’s rebalancing to the Asia‐​Pacific. To be sure, China is feeling its oats, and that quite natural process will continue to introduce significant tensions into U.S.-China relations. However, Washington can and must do much more to ameliorate those strains.

Above all, China is hardly the first‐​order threat to U.S. national security that proponents of the “pivot” and Air‐​Sea Battle are claiming. China’s military modernization is real and quite rapid, but the actual threat to the United States is minimal, and the risks can be mitigated quite easily with appropriate and limited steps to hedge against those lowprobability risks. This chapter evaluates China’s military modernization, explains the related risk scenarios, and lays out simple and costeffective U.S. hedging strategies. It will also touch on how creative diplomacy or “smart power” can further reduce risk in U.S.-China relations and thus decrease the burden on limited U.S. national security resources.

Panda Claws

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.

Risky Business

Tensions continue to build in U.S.-China relations. At the outset, the Obama administration seems to have briefly flirted with a “strategic assurance” strategy that might have generated a more stable relationship. That concept was rapidly dropped in favor of more active policies to counter what was perceived as a “more assertive China.” Harvard professor Alastair Iain Johnston demonstrated recently in a comprehensive evaluation of the related episodes that the “assertive China” thesis is bogus, because it is ahistorical, selects on the dependent variable, and has generally arisen because of the phenomenon of blogging and such ill‐​informed sources.17 Moreover, Chinese sources do not appear to support the thesis that Chinese strategists perceive American weakness.18 But in the fall of 2011, the rebalance to Asia was officially unveiled. As part of an action‐​reaction escalation spiral, the many initiatives related to that overall policy have had the predictable effect of further souring U.S.-China relations and of intensifying many points of friction. Given the stabilizing factors that include, above all, the balance of financial terror and the balance of nuclear terror, armed conflict between the superpowers should be an extremely remote possibility. Disturbingly, the action‐​reaction escalation spirals described next, across a wide variety of subregions, suggest that the possibility of war is not as remote as it should be. Let us examine the most dangerous scenarios in turn.

China‐​Japan Conflict in the East China Sea

The two Asian giants continue to spar over the uninhabited set of rocks called the Senkaku Islands in Japanese and the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese. After several promising developments in China‐​Japan relations during 2008–2009, the relationship went sour during the September 2010 “trawler incident,” in which a Chinese trawler captain and his crew were detained for supposed reckless behavior at sea. Beijing is alleged to have responded by temporarily halting shipments of rare earths to Japan. In 2012, a new round of escalation began, which has featured risky encounters at sea and also in the air, including most recently a drone deployed by the Chinese side. An article that appeared in the influential weekly newspaper Xuexi Shibao in mid‐​2013 and that examined the U.S.-Japan-China strategic triangle illustrates the Chinese perspective. It sharply criticizes Japan’s behavior as “extremely childish” and likewise asserts that “the U.S. is happy to see certain countries challenge China. These countries serve as American ‘pawns’ in the effort to contain China.” Even as the author calls for greater regional cooperation, he asserts that East Asia has become plagued by the risk of interstate war.19

South China Sea

Tensions remain high in Southeast Asia wherein U.S.-China rivalry seems to be in full bloom. Proponents of the pivot in Washington are lamenting the supposed major blow to American diplomatic interests that occurred when both of China’s top leaders arrived in Southeast Asia for extended visits and related summitry in October 2013, while the U.S. president canceled planned visits to the region because of a major budget showdown with Congress. Those same “rebalancers” could take succor in knowing that U.S. diplomacy has succeeded in “flipping” Myanmar during 2011–2012, thus greatly complicating China‐​Myanmar relations.20 However, such zero‐​sum games have threatened to get out of hand, especially with regard to the various contested maritime features of the South China Sea. A writer in the normally cautious PLA Navy magazine intoned: “We in China cannot have restraint without any limits. If Vietnam believes that it can treat Chinese forbearance like so much salt in the South China Sea with its penchant to say anything, then Hanoi has indeed made a strategic error in judgment.”21 During the summer of 2011, there seemed to be an elevated risk of war between Vietnam and China.

During 2012–2013, ships from the Philippines and China regularly tangled in the vicinity of Scarborough Reef, or Huangyan Island. Some retired Chinese flag officers are apparently eager to “yi luan ji shi” (break an egg with a stone) when it comes to the maritime dispute with Manila.22 The fact that the U.S. Navy has been regularly deploying its most advanced nuclear attack submarines to the Philippines may indicate that Washington considers a clash to be a disquieting possibility. 2014 has witnessed a new crisis in China‐​Vietnam relations as Vietnam sought to directly challenge oil and gas exploration in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

Korean Peninsula

The primary danger in a Korean conflict is not of a direct U.S.-China clash of arms. However, there is a substantial danger that a failure by Washington and Beijing to cooperate effectively in those most challenging circumstances could precipitate a further nuclear buildup by Pyongyang or could even fail to stop a catastrophic—possibly nuclear—inter-Korean conflict. There is no doubt that after North Korea’s third nuclear test in February 2013, many Chinese experts are pressing to reform their relationship with North Korea.23 And yet, the lack of trust between Beijing and Washington may inhibit any coordinated approach to the ongoing nuclear crisis on the peninsula.24

The finger‐​pointing in U.S.-China relations in the aftermath of the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March 2010 seems to have been a major factor in the development of the Obama administration’s harder line in the region, especially after Beijing seemed to warn against major U.S. military exercises in the Yellow Sea in mid‐​2010. Such tensions are indicative of sloppy diplomacy on both sides; regrettably, U.S.-China cooperation regarding the Korean Peninsula is not much improved since that time. A not insignificant problem is the tendency on both sides to view the Korean Peninsula in zero‐​sum terms.25 In that most deleterious conceptual framework, interests in both Beijing and Washington seek to prolong the terrifying stalemate and brinkmanship for fear that the other will achieve inordinate relative gains. Thus, the Chinese are generally anxious about a unified peninsula in which the U.S. alliance with the Republic of Korea extends right up to the Chinese border, while the Americans are fearful lest China’s charms cause Seoul to question the value of the ROK-U.S. alliance. Those fears reflect excessive paranoia and distract from the shared purpose of achieving the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Regarding the problem of U.S. force structure on the peninsula, a recent study by a RAND Corporation analyst concludes that up to a quarter million U.S. ground troops could be required for a Korean contingency, but coordination with Beijing could obviate the need for such forces.26

China‐​India Conflict

After an era of relative quiet in Sino‐​Indian relations since rapprochement occurred in the 1980s, rivalry has now begun to develop with renewed vigor. Tense confrontations are occurring between Indian and Chinese forces both at sea and along the disputed mountain border.27 Undoubtedly, India’s stark defeat in the 1962 border war with China leaves a history of enmity in the relationship that feeds further rivalry. Still, many American strategists see opportunity in that rivalry, whether to sell arms to New Delhi or to distract Beijing. A recent analysis of American interests in the rivalry concludes that Washington should not encourage maritime rivalry in the Indian Ocean, which might just fuel China’s desire to build a superpower‐​type navy, but rather it should foster rivalry on the mountain border—the better to convince Beijing that it must invest further in land power vice naval power. At this point, one can only speculate on the reactions of Indian strategists to that less than subtle approach of being used to keep China’s rise in a box. Indeed, there can be little doubt that Chinese strategists now perceive a major threat from Washington’s efforts to build up its defense relationship with New Delhi.28


The Taiwan scenario has generally been out of the headlines, and that is a positive development for both U.S.-China relations and U.S. national security. It is no exaggeration to say that peace has been breaking out across the Taiwan Strait. For 2012, it was projected that 2.3 million tourists would visit Taiwan from the Chinese mainland—an almost eightfold increase from 2008.29 Some innovative proposals have emerged for reforming Taiwan’s status in U.S. foreign policy to take advantage of the warming in cross‐​strait ties.30 Some restraint in arms sales to Taiwan may be discernible in Obama administration policy, but the official line is that the arms sales are crucial to maintaining cross‐​strait peace and stability.31

Meanwhile, Beijing continues to be extremely suspicious of U.S. motives regarding the Taiwan issue. For example, a mainland analysis asserts that the Obama administration has shifted, in accordance with the “rebalance to Asia,” from “countering independence” to “countering unification.”32 What is essential to realize regarding the Taiwan scenario, which was by far the most dangerous scenario for East Asian security during 1996–2008, is that positive developments across the strait should be the building blocks of a larger U.S.-China strategic partnership. Instead, the tendency to forget about Taiwan in Washington amounts to a troubling phenomenon of what Professor Johnston calls “selecting on the dependent variable.”33 In other words, if China’s actions are peaceful and constructive on the difficult cross‐​strait issue, then the focus turns elsewhere, for example, to the East China Sea and South China Sea. But then, it is obvious that rivalry sells more than peace and interdependence.

The examples provided reveal troubling tendencies toward U.S.-China military rivalry across a wide variety of circumstances. However, the development of U.S.-China rivalry is not limited geographically to East and South Asia. A recent scholarly study of mineral exploitation in southern Africa in mid‐​2013, for example, finds, “Given the rising levels of Chinese demand for resources … the probability exists of friction and eventual conflict between China and the United States.”34 American officials have reportedly expressed serious concerns about Turkey’s major, prospective purchase of air defense systems from China.35 Major tensions have also arisen over various functional areas of future warfare, whether cyberwarfare or other new and potentially destabilizing weapons systems, such as the U.S. concept of “prompt global strike”—a significant concern among Chinese military strategists.36

Rebalancing the Rebalance

As noted at length, tensions in the Asia‐​Pacific have been growing steadily since about 2009 with the noteworthy exception of the Taiwan Strait. Pinpointing the cause of that increasing tension is difficult, to say the least. The tensions, moreover, may well be attributable to certain factors completely outside of U.S.-China relations, for example, the election of conservative South Korean President Lee Myung‐​bak and leadership transition in North Korea, or alternatively the submission of the joint Vietnamese‐​Malaysian statement on the limits of their respective claims in the South China Sea to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.37 Still, there was a widely held belief in Washington that China had become more assertive in 2008–2009, because of perceived U.S. weakness owing to the financial crisis and also a concomitant rise in China’s self‐​confidence. As previously suggested, recent scholarship has called into question that pervasive conventional wisdom.38 Moreover, the argument can be made that the positive trends in the difficult Taiwan situation should logically outweigh wrangling over rocks and reefs. However, it is quite clear that such notions were held by the key decisionmakers in the Obama administration.39 Out of that perception, it seems, the pivot or rebalancing to the Asia‐​Pacific was born.

The Obama administration’s policy of rebalancing—the single most important proactive foreign policy initiative undertaken by the administration—envisioned at least three key elements: diplomatic, military, and economic, with an emphasis on the latter. In theory, the primary driver of the rebalancing is the economic dynamism of Asia‐​Pacific economies, and the primary mechanism for realizing the rebalance is, therefore, the Trans‐​Pacific Partnership trade agreement. But in practice, economic factors seem to take a distinct back seat to diplomatic and especially military considerations.

There is insufficient space in this chapter to present a full critique of the Obama administration’s rebalance to the Asia‐​Pacific. Much of the criticism of the present policy is that it is not vigorous enough— nice words, but too little action or military muscle to back them up. That is not the approach taken here; quite to the contrary. Robert Ross succinctly described the policy’s shortcomings in Foreign Affairs in late 2012: “The new U.S. policy unnecessarily compounds Beijing’s insecurities and will only feed China’s aggressiveness, undermine regional stability, and decrease the possibility of cooperation between Beijing and Washington.” Ross asserts that Washington has turned to “costly initiatives whose force is disproportionate to the threat from China,” and he squarely blames former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s clumsy diplomacy in Southeast Asia during mid‐​2010. He concludes quite ominously, “The outbreak of hostilities in the region will become a real possibility, as China pushes back.”40 Undoubtedly, the most significant danger of the rebalance is that it increases the risks of superpower military conflict over issues of trivial importance—myriad and rather insignificant “rocks” in the seas surrounding China.

A few other critiques of the present policy should be noted, including the drain on U.S. resources during an era of austerity and the inappropriate influence in Washington of other states and their various and sundry parochial interests. In addition, there is the misconception that American credibility and the global balance of power are both at stake in those sensitive disputes over maritime claims. In fact, the global balance of power is not remotely likely to swing against the United States given its fundamental military strength, and the fact that American friends and partners are unlikely to bandwagon against the United States under any circumstances. Perversely, American credibility is always under threat because Washington is so reluctant to make hard choices and to establish limits to U.S. security guarantees. If alliances were interpreted in a clearly defensive manner (e.g., defense of home islands), issues of credibility would not arise, U.S. credibility would actually be strengthened, and defense requirements would be clarified. Those defense requirements will be discussed briefly in the next section of this chapter.

If the current policy of rebalancing to the Asia‐​Pacific is both poorly conceived and poorly executed, what are the alternatives for reform? An obvious start is to rebalance the rebalance by prioritizing engagement (and especially military cooperation) with Beijing. Some preliminary evidence indicates that has now begun to occur, in part to limit the damage and risk that have already resulted from the overheating U.S.-China rivalry. A more responsible course for both U.S.-China relations and global order would not seek to avoid multipolarity but would embrace it. At the core of a functioning multipolarity—which would involve rising powers such as Brazil and India working together with risen powers, including Russia, Japan, and especially Europe—would be an effective “G-2 partnership” between Beijing and Washington. Such a partnership is unworkable at present, given numerous conflicting interests and clashing political ideologies, not to mention a gaping trust deficit.

To bridge that gap and form a strong foundation for partnership, the imperative is not for more dialogues, photo ops, and cocktail parties.

On the contrary, what is required is hard‐​headed bargaining that leads to compromise on some of the thorniest issues. Such compromises will serve U.S. national security interests by strictly limiting the costs and risks for the United States in an era of tremendous and somewhat dangerous flux in Asian politics. The process of a compromise or a grand bargain could take a variety of forms, but a few aspects are suggested here to illustrate the broad range of issues that would benefit from mutual accommodation. If the United States were to reform its Taiwan policy, could China also reform its policies with respect to nuclear proliferators (e.g., North Korea)? If China were to limit its development of the antiship ballistic missile and threatening space weaponry, could the United States halt development of Prompt Global Strike? If the United States were to decrease surveillance activities proximate to China’s coast, could China radically increase military transparency? If China were to accept a midpoint division for the demarcation of the East China Sea, could the United States push Japan to accept that the Senkaku/​Diaoyu islets are in dispute and to enter into negotiations? If the United States were to support bilateral “joint development” negotiations to resolve the contested claims in the South China Sea, could China redefine its U‐​shaped line claim to conform with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea? Many more such compromises could be envisioned.

For those who think that the climate‐​change issue could outweigh in significance the disposition of tiny rocks and reefs thousands of miles from American shores, one could even consider American acceptance of using per capita emissions for setting country totals in return for a Chinese acceptance of the need for intrusive verification as part of any global climate‐​change treaty. Compromise is a bad word in Washington and may be even more so at Foggy Bottom, at least until recently. However, good diplomacy consists of much more than information operations or preparation of the battle space. Indeed, compromise will be the only way to work constructively with China in the emerging multipolar world.

A Rational Defense Calculus

U.S. defense policy has long suffered from overly ambitious goals. In the 20th century, the armed forces strayed far from the principles first laid down wisely by the country’s Founders. Those principles warned against both foreign entanglements and colossal military establishments that formed a drain on resources and an inappropriate influence on the nation’s policy. Arguably, the triple threat posed by the Soviet Union’s battle‐​hardened legions in the heart of Europe, Moscow’s development of nuclear weaponry, and the specter of hungry and desperate masses (including in China) across the globe turning to the Kremlin for leadership did perhaps warrant a massive military buildup, at least for a time. But already in the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower raised major concerns about the unseemly power of the military industrial complex and the threat posed by militarization to the American way of life. Despite his prescient warning, it is clear that during the Cold War the U.S. defense and intelligence establishment overreached more than a few times.

An unfortunate byproduct of the rapid demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, was that that victory in the Cold War provided a new and hallowed template for U.S. national security policy. Since that time, Washington has bestrode the world like a drunken sailor, searching for any opportunity to wield fists, taking a bloody nose and black eye here and there, while occasionally getting knocked to the ground. However, as the euphoria of the unipolar moment passes into the history books, it is imperative that the sailor undertakes more sober and prudent policies in order to forestall a looming disaster for U.S. national security.

Factions and interests on both the right and the left are now disturbingly united in an effort to cast China as the next multidimensional threat to the U.S.—on par with or even exceeding that of the Soviet Union in its dimensions. Many of those interests, moreover, are poised to profit from such a characterization. A few obvious facts, however, are worth repeating when considering the putative threat posed by China to U.S. national security: China has not resorted to any significant use of force in more than three decades, it has no foreign bases, and it remains rather weak (compared with U.S. forces) in the domains of power projection and nuclear war fighting. In the coming decades, all of those metrics may reverse, and China could morph from a bungling, paranoid panda into a fire‐​breathing, goose‐​stepping dragon. It seems likely that Beijing will have the requisite resources, bureaucratic discipline, and talent to make such a transition. Moreover, it is not short of strategists advocating for more aggressive steps to counter the United States.41 Washington’s overall goal should be to forestall that metamorphosis, in part by acknowledging China’s security concerns and by seeking compromises on the many issues that divide the United States and China, as outlined in the previous section. It is worth reiterating that Beijing is planning neither to attack the United States nor to conquer East Asia. Rather, its foreign policy behavior has, by and large, comported itself well with current international norms—in rather stark contrast to Moscow’s much more confrontational approach toward the West.

Strategy involves tough choices. The United States simply cannot defend to the maximum extent against all possible threats. The preceding analysis implies that some significant reductions in U.S. defense outlays are quite feasible. The most obvious place to cut involves the ground forces, which is presently occurring in light of the belated ending of counterinsurgency conflicts in Iraq and now Afghanistan.42 Indeed, a cynical interpretation of the pivot is that it is designed to focus and preserve the bulk of Defense Department spending even as that painful drawdown occurs. But major cuts can also be made to the other services. The U.S. Marines have gotten approval to return to beloved Australia, but it is hard to imagine how their still extensive presence in Okinawa could be useful in any of a range of contingencies, with the noteworthy exception of disaster relief operations as undertaken, for example, in the Philippines recently. The U.S. Air Force should scrap its costly dreams of a next‐​generation manned bomber. In the era of longrange precision strike, it is simply not clear that air bases can be defended. Navy carrier forces should also be substantially cut to perhaps six total vessels or fewer. They are too vulnerable and too costly to operate further as the fleet’s capital ships. Other major problems with the composition of the surface fleet are suggested by a littoral combat ship that lacks anti‐​ship cruise missiles and a next‐​generation destroyer built around a long‐​range gun optimized for shore bombardment. Nuclear forces can also be pared down much further. None of those capabilities are crucial, and most are hardly relevant to hedging against China. If those capabilities can be reduced, the resultant savings can be channeled to much more pressing priorities, whether homeland security or better schools.

One of the most serious problems with current Pentagon thinking is the inability to understand the concept of a hedge. A hedge is, almost by definition, not the main effort. It is a narrow and purposeful, secondary or tertiary effort to cope with the risk of a very low probability event. Some capabilities are useful for hedging against a U.S.-China conflict. A particularly suitable capability in that regard is the nuclear attack submarine force. At over $2 billion per boat, the vessels are not cheap, but they are useful for at least three reasons: (a) they are highly survivable given China’s weak anti‐​submarine capability; (b) they could be useful in applying military pressure against China’s merchant or naval fleets if the need arises in the intermediate range of escalation; and (c) they could also be employed effectively in the most intense war‐​fighting scenarios up to and including conventional mainland strikes and nuclear warfare. Approaching a low level of 40 boats in the 2020 time frame is not especially prudent. Rather, a fleet of nuclear attack boats of at least 80 vessels would form the most effective force to hedge against China’s rise. Although that number of vessels seems high, it would merely be taking account of the general transition from vulnerable surface forces to much less vulnerable subsurface forces as the fleet’s backbone. Eighty or more boats would be needed to account for the fact that submarines are highly complex systems that are difficult and slow to build, that require frequent maintenance, that are not completely invulnerable even at present, and that do not have large magazines. Furthermore, the Chinese navy may improve its anti‐​submarine warfare proficiency, and U.S. submarine bases could be targets for preemptive attack. Another pricey weapons system that could play a role in the hedge is the F-35 vertical takeoff variant. Such a capability, allowing for substantial stealth and dispersal, could be essential to the street‐​fighter aspect of future warfare in which there is no guarantee that any given air base would survive the first few hours of combat.

If hedging against China is not the main effort of U.S. defense policy in coming decades, then what should be the focus of the main effort in national security? It should be on integrating the U.S. armed forces into a multipolar system that has some capability to form coalitions to respond to the most dire, regional contingencies. Paramount in that integration process should be robust cooperation with the Chinese armed forces in all of the following areas: crisis management, search and rescue, disaster relief, environmental enforcement and mitigation, sea‐​lane security, counterterrorism, and even counterproliferation. Such activities should also be carried out on a bilateral and multilateral basis with other major powers, such as Brazil, India, Japan, and so forth. But the security relationship with China should not be neglected because it is problematic. To the contrary, because it is extremely difficult, that relationship deserves to be prioritized.


Recent events have shed greater light on the emerging multipolar world order. The Obama administration sensibly walked back from the brink on the question of war with Syria. With respect to the emergent Ukraine crisis, the use of force and the specter of a clash of arms between the United States and Russia have generally not been under serious consideration, thankfully. Hawks in Washington will undoubtedly attribute the Kremlin’s aggressive behavior to an alleged failure of leadership and a general lack of toughness by the Obama administration. But a more sophisticated analysis of the Ukraine situation reveals that American power and influence are finite, and there is little opportunity to affect that complex situation positively.

An analogy to the difficult situations along China’s flanks turns out to be instructive. Although Beijing is not on the verge of annexing large parts of neighboring states, Chinese strategists have repeatedly suggested their admiration for Moscow’s boldness. Certainly, some of the same dynamics with regard to historical grudges—anger at Washington’s predilection for interfering and a sense of great power prerogatives—are also at work. American diplomats would be wise to be a little less concerned with those episodes in the areas immediately proximate to China (as well as Russia). American leaders would likewise do well to spend more time thinking about domestic quandaries rather than obsessing about the integrity of various alliances or about the possibility of minor clashes over contested rocks brought on at least in part by the narcissism and parochial interests of regional states.

Renewed and reinvigorated American focus on domestic challenges is not the whole solution to developing more stable and productive U.S.-China relations, however. As outlined herein, the hardest part of achieving a modus vivendi with China will involve difficult compromises and concrete agreements that are not popular in either Washington or Beijing. An American withdrawal from the region altogether is hardly desirable and not what China seeks. But a key plank of more cautious and restrained policies in the Asia‐​Pacific would require from American leaders the courage to declare that islets are no more than “rocks” and hence not worth a drop of American blood. Developments, such as the current controversy over the Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone, need to be described merely as the teapot tempests that they are. Contrary to prevailing conventional wisdom, therefore, U.S. forces in the region can safely be reduced, U.S. security commitments could be substantially narrowed, and alliance relationships could be reformed in a way that brings U.S. strategy, interests, and capabilities into closer alignment and hence upholds our genuine national security interests.

About the Author

Lyle Goldstein is an associate professor in the Strategic Research Department at the US Naval War College.


1 This chapter reflects solely the opinion of the author and not any agency of the U.S. government.

2 The two most important, recent books on U.S.-China relations and the possible Chinese challenge to U.S. national security are Hugh White, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power (Collingwood, Australia: Black, 2012); and Aaron Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (New York: Norton, 2011). Together, the two books form the poles of the unfolding debate.

3 See, for example, Bill Gertz, “Rising Red Tide: China Encircles U.S. by Sailing Warships in American Waters, Arming Neighbors,” Washington Times, June 7, 2013.

4 See, for example, Minxin Pei, “Asia’s Real Challenge: China’s ‘Potemkin’ Rise,” Diplomat, May 7, 2013,

5 “Catching the Eagle,” The Economist, November 20, 2013.

6 Wenfang Tang, Michael S. Lewis-Beck, and Nicholas F. Martini, “Government for the People in China? Surveys Belie Claims That Chinese Are Becoming Fed Up with Their Government,” Diplomat, June 17, 2013,

7 James Hacket, ed., The Military Balance 2013 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2013), pp. 74–76, 289–90.

8 “Zhongguo shitian zhinei jinxing liang zhong xinxing zhouji he daodan fashe shiyan” [In the space of ten days, China test fires two new types of intercontinental nuclear ballistic missiles], Huanqiu Shibao [Global times], December 23, 2013, http://

9 “Beijing Confirms Hypersonic Missile Carrier Test,” Reuters, January 15, 2014,….

10 See, for example, John Patch, “Regain ASCM Standoff: Improve the Harpoon,” USNI Proceedings, June 2010, pp. 78–80.

11 Counted among those aircraft are 73 Su-30MKKs, more than 110 J-11B/BSs, more than 240 J-10A/Ss, 32 Su-27UBKs, 43 Su-27SKs, and 95 J-11 fighters of the PLA Air Force. From the PLA Navy, we may add an additional 28 J-10A/S, 28 J-11B/BS, and 24 Su-30MK2 aircraft. See Hacket, ed., The Military Balance 2013, pp. 290–92.

12 The term is bizarre because it does not draw on any explicit Chinese formulation of military strategy or doctrine. “Access” is taken to be a universal good, but if that involved Chinese access into the eastern Pacific and proximate to U.S. shores and bases, then U.S. strategy for preventing such “access” could be termed an anti-access strategy. In that sense, all military strategy is “anti-access” in that it seeks to constrain the movement or striking power of the adversary. Therefore, not only does the term have built-in subjective bias, but also, in the end, it is rather tautological.

13 Norman Polmar and Jurien Noot, Submarines of the Russian and Soviet Navies, 17191990 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991), pp. 281–84, 290–300.

14 See, for example, Lu Xue, “Dui Lengzhan shiqi Meisu liangguo guojia zhanlue xuanze jingyan he jiaoxun de sikao” [Experience and lessons of American-Soviet national strategic choices during the Cold War], Junshi Lishi [Military history], no. 2 (2008): 50–51.

15 Such an argument is made, for example, in Yan Xuetong, “Cong Nanhai wenti shuodao Zhongguo waijiao tiaozheng” [From the South China Sea issue calling for a revision of Chinese foreign policy], Zhongguo Waijiao [Chinese foreign policy], April 2012, p. 58.

16 See, for example, Shen Benqiu, “Meiguo bachuan shiwei: Guoji maoyi gonggong chanpin gonggei de shijiao” [The decline of U.S.-style hegemony: An international trade and public goods perspective] Guoji Zhengzhi [International politics] August 2011, p. 4; especially, Wang Yizhou, “Zhongguo xuyao dali tuozhan ‘gao bianjiang’ he tigong guoji gonggong chanpin” [High time for China to vigorously expand the “high frontier” and provide international public goods], Zhongguo Waijiao [Chinese foreign policy], September 2012, pp. 3–5.

17 Alastair Iain Johnston, “How New and Assertive Is China’s New Assertiveness?” International Security 37, no. 4 (Spring 2013): 7–48.

18 See, for example, Xu Yan, PLA general, National Defense University, “Zhongmei jingji, junshi shili de chaju you duoda” [The gap in economic and military power between China and the United States], Zhongguo Waijiao [Chinese foreign policy], October 2012, pp. 60–62.

19 Xiong Guangqing, “Dongya jushi: Meizhongri sanbian jiaoli” [The East Asian situation: A three-sided trial of strength], Xuexi Shibao [Study times], August 26, 2013, p. 2.

20 See, for example, Wang Chong, “Miandian feizhengfu zuzhi fanba yundong chuyi” [Analysis of the anti-dam movement of Myanmar’s nongovernmental organizations], Dongnanya Yanjiu [Southeast Asian studies], April 2012, p. 81.

21 Gao Weimin, “Nanhai Wenti: Gefang yao jinshen yingdui” [The South China Sea: All sides need to react prudently], Dangdai Haijun [Modern navy], July 2011, pp. 54–57.

22 Major General Luo Yuan (PLA, ret.) quoted in an interview with Zheng Ming, PLA Navy admiral (ret.), “Diaoyu Dao, Huangyan Dao shijian: Huoke chengwei woguo zhiding he shishi haiyang fazhan zhanlue de yige qierudian” [The events related to the Diaoyu and Huangyan Islands: How they might become defining points for laying out and realizing of our country’s maritime development strategy], Xiandai Jianchuan [Modern ships], September 2012, pp. 12–17.

23 Zhang Liangui, “Weihu Chaoxian bandao wuhehua chuyu chengbai jianqi” [The critical period for the success or failure of Korean denuclearization], Dongbeiya Luntan [Northeast Asia forum], March 2013, pp. 17, 19, 21.

24 Shen Dingli, “Chaoxian yitui weijin yong he wuqi” [North Korea retreats in order to advance: It does not alter its stance on possessing nuclear weapons], Dongfang Zaobao [Oriental morning post], June 19, 2013, p. 15.

25 For a recent analysis by an American strategist that falls into this rather unhelpful paradigm, see Edward Luttwak, The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), p. 175.

26 David C. Gompert, “North Korea: Preparing for the End,” Survival 55, no. 3 (June–July 2013): 39.

27 See, for example, Heather Timmons, “In China-India Border Battle, Some Echoes of Run-Up to 1962 War,” New York Times, May 3, 2013,; and Ben Bland and Girija Shivakumar, “China Confronts Indian Vessel in South China Sea,” Financial Times, August 31, 2011.

28 Those efforts have not been subtle. For example, U.S.-India joint naval exercises have been held in proximity to the Chinese coast. For the Chinese navy’s predictably alarmed reaction to that development, see Wan Peihua, “Meiyinri ‘Malabaer 09’ junyan nairen xunwei” [The U.S.-India-Japan ‘Malabar 09’ military exercise provides food for thought], Dangdai Haijun [Modern navy], December 2009, pp. 15–18.

29 Sarah Mishkin, “Chinese Tourists Boost Taiwan’s Economy,” Washington Post, August 30, 2012.

30 See, for example, Bruce Gilley, “Not So Dire Straits: How the Finlandization of Taiwan Benefits U.S. Security,” Foreign Affairs, January–February 2010, pp. 44–60; and Philip Saunders and Scott Kastner, “Bridge over Troubled Waters: Envisioning a China- Taiwan Peace Agreement,” International Security 33, no. 4 (Spring 2009): 87–114.

31 See, for example, Jeffrey Bader, Obama and China’s Rise: An Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy (Washington: Brookings Institution, 2012), pp. 71–77.

32 Liu Guofen, “Chongfang Yazhou zhanlue xia de Meiguo yu taihai liangan guanxi zhi tantao” [A discussion on U.S. policy toward cross-strait relations behind its “return to Asia“ strategy], Xiandai Taiwan Yanjiu [Modern Taiwan studies], December 2011, pp. 12–16.

33 Johnston, “How New and Assertive Is China’s New Assertiveness?,” p. 32.

34 Stephen Burgess and Janet Beilstein, “This Means War? Scramble for Minerals and Resources Nationalism in Southern Africa,” Contemporary Security Policy 34 (Spring 2013): 120.

35 Edward Wong and Nicola Clark, “China’s Arms Industry Makes Global Inroads,” New York Times, October 20, 2013.

36 See, for example, Liang Yi, Luo Xiaoming, and Cai Yequan, “Meiguo zhanluedaji liliangtixi fazhan jiqi yingxiang yu qishi” [Development of American strategic strike forces and their effect], Junshi Yunchou yu Xitonggongcheng [Military operations research and systems engineering], December 2011, p. 30.

37 On the latter, see “Joint submission by Malaysia and the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam,” May 3, 2011,….

38 Johnston, “How New and Assertive Is China’s New Assertiveness?”

39 Bader, Obama and China’s Rise, pp. 69–82.

40 Robert S. Ross, “The Problem with the Pivot: Obama’s New Asia Policy Is Unnecessary and Counterproductive,” Foreign Affairs, November–December 2012, pp. 72, 77–78. See also Justin Logan, “China, America, and the Pivot to Asia,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 717, January 8, 2013.

41 See, for example, Gen. Qiao Liang, PLA Air Force, “Dongcha Meiguo ‘2013 nian Zhongguo junli baogao’” [A clear view regarding the U.S. “2013 report on Chinese military power”], Hangkong Zhishi [Aerospace knowledge], August 2013, p. 26.

42 For a rendering of the somewhat pathetic attempt by the ground forces components of the U.S. armed services to benefit from the “rebalance,” see Rajiv Chandresekaran, “Army’s ‘Pacific Pathways Initiative’ Sets Up Turf Battle with the Marines,” Washington Post, December 29, 2013.