These days it is fashionable for pundits to point out the supposedly disastrous consequences for the United States that will result from China’s efforts to modernize its military. The latest variant of this argument was presented by Aaron Friedberg in The New York Times on September 4 and in his new book, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia.
The basic facts about China’s military buildup have been well known for years and are hardly disputed: Beijing is gradually acquiring the capability to interdict and possibly destroy U.S. ships and bases operating near China’s coastline, primarily using missiles, submarines, cyber warfare and ground-based satellite blinders.
It’s also true that this development puts at risk Washington’s position as the predominant maritime power in that critical region. That is a legitimate issue that requires far more serious consideration than it has thus far received from most U.S. policy makers.
The question is: what does China intend to do with its growing capabilities and how should Washington respond? Self-proclaimed realists such as Friedberg offer a relatively simple solution: The White House must recognize China’s buildup as an intended effort to eject the United States from Asia, convince the American public (and its allies) of the dire threat to hearth and home that it presents and, with public support in hand, plow untold additional defense dollars into maintaining an unambiguously superior military posture in the Western Pacific. Only then will Beijing give up its determined plans for regional dominance.
In reality, there is little if any hard evidence to indicate that China’s strategic intent is to establish itself, in Friedberg’s words, as “Asia’s dominant power by eroding the credibility of America’s security guarantees, hollowing out its alliances, and eventually easing it out of the region.” If this is Beijing’s goal, the Pentagon has yet to discover it—and presumably not for lack of trying. The recently published annual Department of Defense report on the Chinese military asserts that Beijing’s ultimate military intentions in Asia and elsewhere are unknown. And privately, DoD analysts will acknowledge that the PLA is not currently acquiring the kinds of capabilities that would be required to project substantial power far from its shores and eject the United States from Asia.
When confronted with such information, proponents of the “China is out to displace us” theory counter that Beijing’s strategy is so stealthy as to avoid detection, and that in any event, it is the so-called realist “logic” of China’s situation that demands such a strategy. According to this logic, Beijing has no choice but to seek to eject the United States from Asia to ensure its own security. So much for free will and the growing imperative both countries face to work together to solve worsening global problems, such as climate change.
China’s strategic mindset is quintessentially defensive, largely reactive, and focused first and foremost on deterring Taiwan’s independence and defending the Chinese mainland, not on establishing itself as Asia’s next hegemon. Although it is not inconceivable that China might adopt more ambitious, far-flung military objectives in the future—perhaps including an attempt to become the preeminent Asian military power—such goals remain ill-defined, undetermined and subject to much debate in Beijing. This suggests that China’s future strategic orientation is susceptible to outside influence, not fixed in stone.
Moreover, the United States is entering a possibly lengthy period in which resolving China’s military buildup by throwing more money at it is likely to become increasingly untenable, given America’s deepening budget constraints and the obvious inability of a dysfunctional Congress to address the causes of our underlying economic malaise. Instead, both countries need to engage in a fundamental examination of their bilateral relationship.
Washington must consider alternatives to U.S. military predominance in maritime Asia as the supposed sine qua non of regional stability, while Beijing must reconsider any plans it might have to achieve sea control in the Western Pacific. Second, both sides must reexamine the long-term advisability of policies that obstruct efforts to reduce mutual strategic distrust, including Washington’s refusal to discuss any possible quid pro quos involving U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and China’s military threat to the island and Beijing’s refusal to define clearly the basis of its territorial claim to the South China Sea.
Instead of more tough talk and increased defense spending, the United States and its allies in Asia need to grasp the malleable nature of China’s strategic intentions and shape a “mixed” regional approach focused more on creating incentives to cooperate than on neutralizing every possible Chinese military capability of concern to U.S. defense analysts. In particular, there is a need for a more far-reaching U.S.-China strategic dialogue that focuses on long-term interests and intentions and on what steps each country could take to avert growing security competition.
This is not pie-in-the-sky utopian thinking. It is rooted in the realities of America’s changing economic position in the world, China’s own internal problems and debates, and Asia’s increasing openness to cooperative multilateral security approaches. Forward-thinking leaders will recognize the growing need for our two countries—and the region—to create opportunities for collaboration on global challenges rather than engaging in destabilizing military competition.
Michael D. Swaine is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of the new book America’s Challenge: Engaging a Rising China in the Twenty-First Century.