U.S. military spending continues to increase even though conventional threats against America are de minimis. Advocates of a bigger military point to supposed adversaries old and new, with China the leading contender for Enemy Number One. But if Beijing poses a threat, it is to U.S. domination of East Asia, not America. Only the latter, however, is worth fighting for.
Some policy advocates identify the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a potential danger, while others view war with Beijing as likely. Common to all is the fear of growing Chinese military outlays. The Pentagon highlighted its concern with the latest annual report on the PRC’s defense budget. Beijing responded by calling the document a “gross distortion of the facts” and product of “Cold War thinking” which plays “up the fallacy of China’s military threat.”
To its credit, the Department of Defense (DOD) takes a measured tone as it details China’s increased military efforts. Beijing’s armed forces are making real strides—but remain dwarfed by America’s military, which starts at a vastly higher base and spends several times as much. The U.S. report is equivalent to nineteenth century Great Britain, with its globe-spanning empire, publicly complaining about America’s expanding navy. Washington eventually did surpass British power, but only after two global wars simultaneously roused America and exhausted Britannia.
Washington has vital interests to protect, but not all of its interests are vital.
The Pentagon report opens by proclaiming that “the United States welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China, and encourages China to participate responsibly in the international system.” However, the Pentagon adds, “much uncertainty surrounds China’s future course, particularly regarding how its expanding military power might be used.”
True enough, but how does Washington define “responsibly”? The report doesn’t say. However, one suspects it means accepting American military hegemony in East Asia. And with this Beijing isn’t likely to agree.
The PRC military buildup so far has been significant but measured. “The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is pursuing comprehensive transformation from a mass army designed for protracted wars of attrition on its territory to one capable of fighting and winning short-duration, high-intensity conflicts against high-tech adversaries,” explains the Pentagon. This transformation is “fueled by acquisition of advanced foreign weapons, continued high rates of investment in its domestic defense and science and technology industries, and far-reaching organizational and doctrinal reforms of the armed forces.” Finally, China’s armed forces continue to develop and field disruptive military technologies, including those for anti-access/area-denial, as well as for nuclear, space, and cyber warfare, that are changing regional military balances and that have implications beyond the Asia-Pacific region.
Yet this concerted expansion little threatens U.S. security. Only the PRC’s nuclear force is theoretically able to strike America today. Beijing possesses about forty intercontinental ballistic missiles, some of limited range, and fifteen to twenty submarine-launched ballistic missiles. China is improving its strategic capabilities, “modernizing its longer-range ballistic missile force by adding more survivable systems,” observes the Pentagon, but in practice the result will be a defensive, not offensive, force. The U.S. nuclear arsenal, in contrast, includes thousands of sophisticated warheads on hundreds of missiles. There is a dangerous “missile gap,” but it runs entirely in Washington’s favor, and Beijing is going to have to spend years to build a modest force simply capable of deterring America.
Of course, China intends to move beyond its own shores. The PRC is “developing longer range capabilities that have implications beyond Taiwan,” which “could allow China to project power to ensure access to resources or enforce claims to disputed territories,” warns the Pentagon. Beijing “is acquiring large numbers of highly accurate cruise missiles.”
Moreover, the PRC’s “airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) and aerial-refueling programs would permit extended air operations into the South China Sea and beyond,” while “advanced destroyers and submarines reflect Beijing’s desire to protect and advance its maritime interests up to and beyond the second island chain.” China’s “new missile units outfitted with conventional theater-range missiles” reach past Taiwan. Beijing also is developing asymmetric war capabilities, including antisatellite technology and cyberwarfare potential.
These steps sound ominous, but the PRC still has a long way to go in creating a highly capable military. Notes DOD, China’s military “continues to face deficiencies in inter-service cooperation and actual experience in joint exercises and combat operations” and must continue replacing “outdated aircraft and maritime vessels,” adjusting “operational doctrine to encompass new capabilities,” and tailoring “logistics equipment and training.” Beijing is not yet capable of “defeating a moderate-size adversary.” Moreover, “China will not be able to project and sustain small military units far beyond China before 2015, and will not be able to project and sustain large forces in combat operations far from China until well into the following decade.”
In any case, such capabilities would seem consistent with the economic and geopolitical interests of a country bounded by nations that it has battled in the past. Even if one doubts that the PRC’s military activities are “purely defensive,” as Beijing insists, they pose little direct danger for America. After all, the PRC has minimal strategic conventional reach. Despite expressions of interest from various Chinese officials in acquiring an aircraft carrier, so far Beijing has done little to add this capability. In contrast, the United States possesses eleven carrier groups. China also lacks a significant strategic air capability. There will be no Chinese strike force heading towards America’s Pacific possessions, let alone Hawaii, in our lifetime.
East Asian countries may be at greater risk, since the PRC likely wants to back up its words with the presence, if not necessarily the use, of military force in settling territorial disputes in the region. But defending the East Asian Tigers—who are largely capable of protecting themselves—is not the same as defending the United States.
Moreover, so far the PRC’s foreign policy has been pragmatic and restrained. China’s most obvious objective is to create a military capable of enforcing its will on Taiwan, separated from the mainland for most of the last century. However, tensions in the Taiwan Strait are abating thanks to political changes in Taipei, though the threat of military action has not disappeared. Moreover, DOD admits that “an attempt to invade Taiwan would strain China’s untested armed forces and invite international intervention.” Taipei also could do significantly more to protect itself: “Taiwan’s investments to harden infrastructure and strengthen defensive capabilities could also decrease Beijing’s ability to achieve its objectives.”
Ironically, in principle China appears to be mimicking America’s behavior. David Isenberg reports that at the DOD press briefing, the Pentagon official explained that China’s priorities appeared to be “perpetuating the role of the Chinese Communist Party, continuing economic development, ensuring domestic stability, protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity and obtaining great-power status.” Only the first differs from U.S. objectives in the abstract, and while Washington prefers diplomacy to advance its perceived interests, whether explicitly territorial or more broadly geopolitical, it is ever-ready to use military force to enforce its claims. The U.S. government may warrant greater trust than Beijing, but it cannot insist that America automatically is right and China automatically is wrong and therefore only the former is entitled to arm itself.
In fact, Beijing can argue that its military buildup reduces the likelihood of war with the United States. The PRC’s most important goal vis-à-vis Washington is not attacking America, but preventing America from attacking China. The Pentagon admits as much without explicitly saying that Beijing is focused on deterring Washington:
Since 2000, China has expanded its arsenal of anti-access and area-denial weapons, presenting and projecting increasingly credible, layered offensive combat power across its borders and into the Western Pacific. China has or is acquiring the ability to: 1) hold large surface ships, including aircraft carriers, at risk (via quiet submarines, advanced anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), wire-guided and wake-homing torpedoes, or anti-ship ballistic missiles); 2) deny use of shore-based airfields, secure bastions and regional logistics hubs (via conventional ballistic missiles with greater ranges and accuracy, and land attack cruise missiles); and 3) hold aircraft at risk over or near Chinese territory or forces (via imported and domestic fourth generation aircraft, advanced long-range surface-to-air missile systems, air surveillance systems, and ship-borne air defenses). Advances in China’s space-based reconnaissance and positioning, navigation, and timing, as well as survivable terrestrial over-the-horizon targeting, are closing gaps in the creation of a precision-strike capability.
Who would be sending in “large surface ships” using “shore-based airfields, secure bastions and regional logistics hubs,” and deploying aircraft against the PRC? Don’t ask.
The outcome of the twenty-first century depends much on the nature of the relationship between the globe’s current superpower, the United States, and the globe’s likely next superpower, China. America’s growth transformed the international order without causing world conflict, while Germany’s rise triggered two global conflagrations. Will the United States—and the larger existing order—successfully accommodate the PRC’s growing influence?
Washington has vital interests to protect, but not all of its interests are vital. Defending American territory, liberties and people at home is vital; ensuring dominant American influence half-a-world away is not. And doing the latter at acceptable cost will grow ever more difficult. By spending a fraction of America’s defense budget, Beijing is constructing a military able to deter U.S. intervention against China. To overcome this force, Washington will have to spend far more money which it does not have. It is one thing to ask the American people to sacrifice to defend their own nation. It is quite another to impose ever higher financial exactions to protect populous and prosperous allied states. Especially since an increasingly wealthy China, which is beginning to challenge America’s lead economic status, is unlikely to retreat gracefully and accept perpetual U.S. hegemony.
With China on the move, DOD observes that “The United States continues to work with our allies and friends in the region to monitor these developments and adjust our policies accordingly.” But the resulting policy adjustment should be reducing America’s international ambitions rather than increasing America’s military spending. Washington should replace dominance with defense as the core of its foreign policy.