Assessing the China Threat

Assessing the China Threat

Mini Teaser: Does China's military really threaten America's position in Asia? Not yet, but it still must be taken seriously.

by Author(s): Robert S. Ross

After a period of calm in U.S.-Chinese relations, in which U.S. China policy stressed economic engagement, cooperation against terrorism and stability in the Taiwan Strait, attention has returned to the military and economic rise of China and the challenges to American security.

China's economy has been growing at 9 percent per year since 1979. China's reforms have transformed its bankrupt socialist system into an increasingly unregulated and openly trading economy that drives economic growth throughout the world. Since the early part of this decade, China has been replacing the United States as the most important market for all of East Asia. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore already export more to China and send more investment capital to China than they do to the United States. The export and investment trends elsewhere in East Asia make it increasingly clear that the East Asian economies depend more on China than on the United States for economic growth, employment and political stability. Moreover, Chinese trade policy actively reinforces these trends. Its free trade agreements with the ASEAN countries promote expansion of their exports to China. The result of these developments is the determined emergence of an East Asian economic system with China as its hub.

Will Chinese economic power cause local states to align increasingly with China? The behavior of the regional states clearly answers this question. Where the United States retains military supremacy, states are enhancing their military cooperation with the United States, despite regional economic trends. The rise of Chinese economic influence is not a threat to U.S. strategic interest in a divided East Asia.

There is no question that countries that are vulnerable to China's improving ground force and land-based capabilities are realigning toward China. South Korea understands that the United States cannot offset Chinese ground force improvements, given constraints on U.S. military power in mainland theaters, and the ROK has readjusted accordingly. It no longer supports U.S. policy toward North Korea, but rather cooperates with China to undermine U.S. efforts to isolate and coerce North Korea.

The growth of Chinese military power also affects Taiwan's foreign policy. Chinese short- and medium-range missiles and Su-27 and Su-30 fighter aircraft threaten Taiwan's economy and democracy. Even if the United States intervened in a war between China and Taiwan, China would still likely penetrate Taiwan's defenses. Although the U.S. defense commitment to Taiwan is stronger today than at any time since the 1960s, the Taiwanese independence movement is dying. Taiwanese polling consistently reveals that less than 10 percent of the population supports a declaration of independence. Eighty percent of the people oppose changing the name of the island from "Republic of China." The defeat of Chen Shui-bian's party in the December 2004 legislative election reflected widespread dissatisfaction with his mainland policy. Since then, opposition politicians have made popular high-profile visits to Beijing and made strong statements against independence, while Chen's popularity has plummeted. Meanwhile, Taiwan resists U.S. pressure to purchase advanced American weapons. Fifty-five percent of the respondents in a recent poll believe that U.S. weaponry cannot make Taiwan secure, and only 37 percent support purchasing the weapons. Another poll reported that nearly 60 percent of the public believes that Taiwan cannot defend itself against the mainland. Taiwan's Ministry of Defense concurs. In 2004 it concluded that the mainland would gain military superiority over Taiwan in 2006.

China's soft power has followed the rise of its hard power. More than one million Taiwanese now have residences on the mainland. By the end of 2004 there were more than 250,000 "cross-strait marriages", and these marriages had grown to over 20 percent of all new Taiwanese marriages. In early 2004 there were 5,000 students from Taiwan enrolled in Chinese universities, even though Chinese degrees are not recognized by Taiwan.

But while South Korea and Taiwan reconsider their dependency on the United States for security, the countries of maritime East Asia, despite their growing dependence on the Chinese economy, are moving closer to the United States. As early as 1995 Tokyo agreed to revised guidelines for the U.S.-Japanese alliance, facilitating closer war-time coordination between the Japanese and U.S. militaries, including U.S. use of Japanese territory in case of war with a third country. Since then, Japan has become the most active U.S. partner in the development of missile defense technologies. It has agreed to a five-year plan for U.S.-
Japanese joint production of a missile defense system, and it will contribute $10 billion by the end of the decade. In 2001 it passed legislation allowing the Japanese military to provide non-combat support to U.S. anti-terrorist operations and then sent its navy to join in the search for Al-Qaeda forces in the waters off Pakistan and Iran. That same year Japan passed legislation allowing the government to deploy ground troops in support of U.S. operations in Iraq. As China has risen, Japan has strengthened defense cooperation with the United States. It has become Washington's closest global strategic partner and its most robust partner against the rise of China.

Southeast Asian countries critical to U.S. security have similarly strategically moved closer to the United States. Since 1995, maritime Southeast Asian militaries have conducted annual bilateral Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises with the U.S. Navy. Even Indonesia, whose regional aspirations discourage alignment, continued to participate in these exercises despite the U.S. military embargo imposed on Indonesia following the 1999 crisis in East Timor, and in 2002 it resumed security cooperation talks with Washington. Singapore and Malaysia now participate with the United States in the annual Cobra Gold military exercises, the major U.S. defense exercise in Southeast Asia.

Singapore and the Philippines have been the most active in cooperation with the U.S. military. In 2001 Singapore completed construction of its Changi port facility, which is explicitly designed to accommodate a U.S. aircraft carrier, and in March 2001 it hosted the first visit of the USS Kitty Hawk. As Singapore's defense minister explained, "It is no secret that Singapore believes that the presence of the U.S. military . . . contributes to the peace and stability of the region. To that extent, we have facilitated the presence of U.S. military forces." In 1999 the Philippines reached a Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, permitting U.S. forces to hold exercises in the Philippines. Since then, the size of the U.S. participation in joint exercises has steadily expanded, doubling between 2003 and 2004. In addition, the focus of the exercises has expanded beyond anti-terrorist activities to include U.S. participation in amphibious exercises in the vicinity of the Spratly Islands, which both Beijing and Manila claim as their territory. Then, in late 2004, the U.S. and Philippine air forces conducted joint exercises. Since 2001, annual U.S. military assistance to the Philippines increased from $1.9 million to a projected $126 million in 2005, and the Philippines is now the largest recipient of U.S. military assistance in East Asia. Manila is also planning to purchase U.S. fighter planes. Whereas for most of the 1990s the Philippines was hostile to the U.S. military, it is now a "major non-NATO ally" with an expanding U.S. presence on its territory.

In conjunction with the development of its economy, China has been modernizing its military since 1979. Chinese purchases of Russian military hardware, including missiles, naval vessels and fighter aircraft, are a well-known trend. Annual Defense Department reports on Chinese military power have repeatedly warned of emerging Chinese superiority over Taiwan and of Chinese efforts to develop "asymmetric capabilities" to disrupt U.S. naval superiority in the western Pacific. Taken with the realignment toward China--for both economic and military reasons--of some East Asian nations, China's ongoing military improvements seem to pose a serious problem to U.S. strategy in the region.

The key issue in appraising the Chinese threat to U.S. security, however, is not the ongoing growth of Chinese military and economic power per se, but its effect on the U.S. presence in the western Pacific and maritime Southeast Asia. Chinese military and regional political advances to date reflect its improved ground force and land-based capabilities. But the United States keeps the peace and maintains the balance of power in East Asia through its overwhelming naval presence. This is the source of ongoing local alignment with the United States. For the rise of China to pose a direct threat to U.S. security, China must possess sufficient military capabilities to challenge the United States in the western Pacific, including sufficient capability to risk war. Alternatively, it must have at its disposal sufficient economic or military power to undermine U.S. security guarantees for the region's maritime countries, compelling them to align with China.

At the strategic level, after decades of research and testing, China is preparing to deploy solid-fuel ballistic missiles that can target U.S. allies in East Asia and may be nearing completion of an intercontinental ballistic missile that can target the continental United States. It is also making advances in development of its next-generation submarine-launched ballistic missiles. None of these developments should come as a surprise; U.S. intelligence has been following these programs since their inception. Moreover, these programs should not be considered a challenge to U.S. military superiority. Once these weapons are fully operational, perhaps by the end of the decade, China will have a more credible minimal second-strike capability. Despite recent Chinese bravado, not only is it hard to imagine a scenario in which China would use nuclear weapons in response to conventional hostilities, but U.S. retaliatory capabilities would make Chinese first-use suicidal. Continued modernization of its nuclear forces and massive quantitative superiority over China give the United States a far more robust deterrent posture vis-Ã -vis China than it ever possessed vis-Ã -vis the Soviet Union. Similarly, overwhelming U.S. nuclear superiority provides greater strategic security for our East Asian allies than U.S. nuclear capabilities ever provided for our European allies during the Cold War.

Essay Types: Essay