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.
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."