America Must Face Up to the China Challenge

There are four harsh realities regarding China's rise with which America must soon come to terms. 

Regular readers of the National Interest enjoy a rich flow of essays debating the consequences of China’s return as a great power and how U.S. policy makers should respond to the challenge China’s rise will create for U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region and around the world.

But elsewhere in Washington’s corridors of power and across the country, the subject of China’s rise, its implications for U.S. and regional security, and how U.S. foreign policy should adjust to this development is commonly treated like the proverbial elephant in the room, clearly present, but not clearly discussed.

U.S. policy makers and the American public must face up to the fact that China’s return as a great power is inevitably creating a contest that will likely evolve into the most consequential and taxing security challenge the United States will face in the decades ahead. It will be the most consequential because the stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region is of paramount importance to America’s economy, its standard of living, its future prosperity and its own role as a global power. It will be the most taxing, because China will have at its disposal far more resources than the Soviet Union ever dreamed of having. The Cold War security competition demanded much of the United States; the China challenge will demand as least as much, if not more. The China challenge is the elephant in most rooms in Washington perhaps because the magnitude of the challenge is so unsettling to policy makers and planners.

Nevertheless, U.S. policy makers and America’s political system will inevitably have to face up to the China challenge. Indeed, there are four harsh realities with which America must soon come to terms.

First, the next American president and his or her advisers will need to face up to the fact that a policy of forbearance toward China has now been tried and has failed. Forbearance has been a bipartisan policy. In 2005, former deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick politely asked China to be a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system, with the hope and expectation that China would see its interests best fulfilled by cooperating with the existing international system. Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for Asia during Barack Obama’s first term, argued for a policy of conciliation in order to avoid the “Thucydides Trap,” the tragic clashing of great powers that has littered so much of world history. It was defensible to have tried forbearance first. However, China’s response since 2008 to forbearance has been clear: more assertiveness, more salami-slicing and an acceleration of its military modernization. Part of the deal of trying forbearance first must include a willingness to admit when it has run its course. The next set of U.S. policy makers will have to acknowledge the end of forbearance as a useful China policy.

Second, U.S. military commanders and planners have to face the fact that their traditional operational concept in the Western Pacific—a reliance on short-range aircraft and firepower operating from heretofore (but no longer) secure, large and concentrated forward bases and naval task forces on Asia’s immediate periphery—can no longer work now that China is fully exploiting the missile and sensor revolution. Recent attempts to compensate for China’s growing missile inventories by stationing even more vulnerable short-range forces in the theater only compounds the danger by creating the incentives for both sides to strike first during a crisis. The U.S. military needs to break with operational and procurement habits built up over seven decades—not an easy thing to do.

Third, Congress and the military industrial base must face up to the adjustments that come with rebuilding U.S. military forces around long-range, rather than short-range aircraft, more submarines and fewer large surface ships, and the need for a portfolio of theater-range missiles for all the services, an idea now largely absent from the program of record. Congress and the contractors will not look kindly on the large and disruptive changes to procurement policy for which the China challenge now calls. But with an open mind, adaptation need not be painful.