IT IS past time for Americans to take seriously the challenge posed by the continuing growth of China's military power.
Triggered by the geopolitical shifts that accompanied the end of the cold war, fueled by the nation's rapid economic growth, and driven by a mix of insecurity and ambition, today's buildup has been under way for the better part of two decades. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chinese strategists began to shift their attention from preparing for a massive, all-out "People's War" against a nuclear-armed northern invader toward what they labeled "local war under high-tech conditions." Such a war would be fought for limited aims, using only conventional weapons, in the sea and airspace off China's eastern coasts. It was from this direction that the greatest threats to the nation's security were expected to come, whether from Taiwanese "separatists," Japanese "militarists," American "hegemonists" or, in the most nightmarish scenarios, all three at once.
Over the course of the past twenty years, this shift in priorities has been reflected in a substantial, sustained military buildup, especially in China's aerospace and naval capabilities. With the nation's economy expanding at near double-digit rates, Beijing was able to increase defense budgets even faster without imposing noticeable burdens on society. According to the Defense Department's latest figures, between 1996 and 2008 China's officially disclosed (and likely understated) defense budget grew by an average of 12.9 percent per year, while GDP grew at around 9.6 percent.