President Obama recently announced the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq and plans to pull them out of Afghanistan. But the administration is sending Marines to a new U.S. military base—in Australia. Although the number of the Marines is small, perhaps a symbolic move, many interpret it as part of an American “pivot” from the Middle East to the Far East. And the Far East is a code word for China, increasingly viewed as a major threat to American interests.
All but the most hawkish hawks agree that the Chinese military will not pose a threat to the United States for decades. Still, some argue that Washington must scale up its military for that future—particularly increasing capabilities of the navy and air force—because such preparations take decades.
The United States often acts as if a confrontation with China is on the immediate horizon, as if attempts to make China a global partner have already failed. To be sure, Washington is still talking engagement and partnership but also is moving to contain and balance China, positioning its forces close to and within the Chinese arena. Recently the administration released a new defense strategy stating that in light of “the growth of China’s military power . . . the United States will continue to make the necessary investments to ensure that we maintain regional access and the ability to operate freely in keeping with our treaty obligations and with international law.” A Chinese spokesman responded by insisting that U.S. concerns “are totally baseless.”
Through a role reversal, we can see the way these U.S. moves might appear to China. Imagine China announces that it sees itself as the guarantor of security in the Americas, the way President Obama stated the United States sees itself as “a resident Pacific power” and “a guarantor of security in the Asia Pacific region.” In this scenario, China sends its Marines to Venezuela, paralleling those the United States is sending to Australia; provides Cuba with the same arms Washington sold to Taiwan; and positions aircraft carriers up and down the east and west coasts of the United States, the way the United States sent the USS George Washington to the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan.
Assume further that China begins conducting military exercises close to U.S. borders, as the United States did with the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam, and builds up the navies of Mexico and Nicaragua, as the United States is doing with the Philippines and Vietnam. And most provocatively, imagine China regularly sending its trawlers and military reconnaissance planes on patrol close to U.S. shorelines, just as Washington sends reconnaissance patrols near China, a practice the Pentagon says is “fairly routine.” (China responded to such close scrutiny by harassing American surveillance ships and warplanes, leading the United States to see China as belligerent.)
There are different assessments about the scope of Chinese military modernization and the country’s intentions; however, there is little doubt that China notes America’s six-fold budget advantage on defense. The United States maintains a stockpile of 5,113 nuclear active and inactive warheads. China has about 250. The United States has eleven aircraft carriers; China has one. Moreover, China’s military has little battle experience. And China’s history contains many chapters of occupation by foreign powers bringing great suffering. In short, China sees itself as weak and vulnerable.
At the same time, China is proud of its recent economic growth and sensitive to outside criticism and pressure. Hence military moves that command the attention of a much stronger, longer-established power reverberate strongly in Beijing. More of these moves are likely to push China to accelerate its military buildup and become less cooperative with the West. Indeed, they could quite readily lead to the kind of vicious cycle of which psychologists have long warned, in which the perceived threats of one nation lead the other to respond, leading the first to feel its fears have been validated, and so on—ultimately resulting in an arms race, if not in war.
This kind of escalation is always distressing, but particularly at a time when both the United States and China need to dedicate their economic resources to domestic pursuits: Washington must reduce its debt (and dependence on Chinese financing) and restore economic growth; much of China’s population is growing restless as their living standards lag behind affluent urban centers. Anybody who imagines an arms race that will bankrupt China—as the United States did with the USSR—should remember that for now China is growing strong, while the U.S. economy remains in the doldrums.
Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University.