Contending effectively with China’s ambitions requires a better understanding of our own
When President Bush took office, in 2001, the dominant national-security issue for his administration—and for most foreign-policy analysts, whether Republican or Democrat—was not terrorism or even Iraq but China. The issue, specifically, is that China will eventually emerge as what Pentagon planners call a “peer competitor” to the United States in East Asia—that is, a great power with the economic and military muscle to challenge America’s preponderant position in a region that is sure to be the economic pivot of the new century.
When “eventually” may roll around is a matter of intense debate between moderates and hardliners. The moderates have a better case. Hardliners, some of whom hold powerful positions in the current administration, see a hegemon on the horizon. But China is a defense-minded state, vulnerable to domestic turmoil and burdened with colossal environmental problems and natural-resource demands. True, over the past several years China has selectively and impressively modernized its armed forces, but they’re still debilitated by pervasive corruption and are organizationally and technologically far behind not only America’s but also Japan’s and South Korea’s. Hardliners point, correctly, to Beijing’s ambitions to play a more active role in the eastern Pacific. But they exaggerate when they claim that soon China will be able to disrupt sea-lanes and intimidate Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and even Australia and Japan—because the problems posed by projecting air and naval power far from home waters are a good deal more complicated than those in a game of Risk. To bid for mastery of East Asia, China will have to fundamentally transform the doctrine, training, and structure of its military (which has traditionally focused on defending home territory), not to mention acquire aircraft carriers—no easy task in itself. Hardliners warn that China has recently bought first-rate fighter planes from Russia, but America’s fighter pilots are vastly superior, owing to their incomparably better experience, tactics, and training (the Chinese air force has been training to fly over open waters for only seven years, and its pilots can devote barely half the hours to flight training that U.S. pilots can). Forget about fighting the United States or Japan; today China’s navy would lose a battle in the home waters of Singapore or Malaysia. To be sure, China’s newly acquired midrange missiles, and even its diesel submarines, complicate aspects of U.S. naval planning in the eastern Pacific. The United States, however, has such a jump on Beijing in its command, control, communications, computer, and intelligence capabilities—by far the most vital elements of a modern military’s effectiveness, and by far the most difficult to develop—that American strategic supremacy in East Asia will grow, not diminish, in the coming years.
But these points merely deflate alarmist arguments. Given its economic dynamism, China probably will—in twenty-five years or longer—become a powerful and militarily sophisticated geopolitical actor in East Asia and the eastern Pacific. And so America’s overwhelming military and political influence in the region will decline. But the United States has plenty of time to consider the implications of China’s rise before it is complete. We must examine our own stance toward the world, and the way we define threats to our national security. In other words, to understand the consequences of China’s (slowly) growing ambitions, we have to understand our own.
We should first acknowledge that the pace of China’s military modernization and the nature of its geopolitical alignments are very much tied to the post—Cold War imbalance of power in Washington’s favor. Never before in history has one state held so pre-eminent a position as that which America has enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Of course, both Democratic and Republican administrations hold that other countries regard us as a “benevolent hegemon.” But in fact states must always be more concerned with a predominant power’s capabilities than with its professed intentions. China and Russia saw the U.S. intervention in Kosovo as a dangerous precedent establishing Washington’s asserted right to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs; and although long estranged, they formed a nascent alliance aimed expressly at re-establishing a “multipolar world.” With the invasion of Iraq, of course, the world’s suspicion of American hegemony intensified enormously, and now China and Russia have expanded their military cooperation and are conducting joint military exercises. Similarly, the wars in both Kosovo and Iraq spurred Chinese military planners to focus on countering America’s high-tech dominance on the battlefield. The United States should conduct whatever foreign policies it deems appropriate—but it must recognize that actions it perceives as selfless, others will most likely see in an entirely different light. An interventionist global role may serve a number of American interests, but history has repeatedly shown that intervention by a dominant power accelerates the rise of other great powers and ensures their wariness, if not their hostility, toward it.
We should also rigorously examine how Washington defines a “China threat.” Hardliners and moderates, Republicans and Democrats, agree that America is strategically dominant in East Asia and the eastern Pacific—China’s back yard. They further agree that America should retain its dominance there. Thus U.S. military planners define as a threat Beijing’s efforts to remedy its own weak position in the face of the overwhelming superiority that they acknowledge the United States holds right up to the edge of the Asian mainland. This probably reveals more about our ambitions than it does about China’s. Imagine if the situation were reversed, and China’s air and naval power were a dominant and potentially menacing presence on the coastal shelf of North America. Wouldn’t we want to offset that preponderance? America’s direct sphere of influence extends from the Canadian Arctic to Tierra del Fuego, and from Greenland to Guam. Surely we can tolerate other great powers’ enjoying spheres of influence in other parts of the world. China’s sphere certainly includes Taiwan, which is just a hundred miles off its shore.
More generally, we have to examine the strategic implications raised when regional and great powers emerge. Americans are understandably happy with U.S. global hegemony. It’s a misreading of history, however, to suggest that the rise of new great powers will perforce engender conflict. Admittedly, German interests in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries could not be accommodated without hazarding the interests of others, because several great powers were crowded onto a small continent. But it’s also true that in the same period the United States peacefully rose to be a great power in a region far from other great powers. Britain, the dominant naval power in the Western Hemisphere, wisely acquiesced to U.S. ascendancy there and, more important, recognized that America could collaborate with rather than challenge the effort to maintain international stability. London thereby transformed a potential conflict into a strategic partnership that has served it well for a century.
China’s emergence as a great power may be inevitable, but it’s going to be a long process, which we should seek to manage with Beijing. Far from discouraging the rise of China and other independent powers, such as the European Union and Japan, Washington should recognize the significant benefits that can result. There will be more jockeying for advantage in global politics; but accommodating other powers, giving them a stake in the stability of the international system, and making them share the responsibility for maintaining it can substantially reduce America’s globe-girdling defense commitments and the concomitant international suspicion toward the United States. The alternative in the long run is to create enemies where none need exist.