Get Serious About China's Rising Military

By Dan Blumenthal
Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Pentagon's annual report to Congress on China's military power, released this week, reveals that Beijing's buildup has advanced well beyond what most analysts considered likely just 10 years ago. Some highlights: The new arsenal of the People's Liberation Army includes more than 700 missiles deployed opposite Taiwan, a fleet of sophisticated diesel electric submarines, a growing nuclear submarine capability and advanced destroyers armed with lethal anti-ship cruise missiles. By making the potential cost of any U.S. intervention in the Taiwan Strait extraordinarily high, Beijing has accomplished its decade-long goal of establishing a credible military threat to Taiwan -- as well as a deterrent to the United States. The question is, what next?

The report points to some answers. With a growing dependence on oil imported from the Middle East and Africa, Chinese strategists are talking about creating a blue-water navy to secure Beijing's energy supply lines. The military may be reconsidering its nuclear "no-first-use policy" and examining ways to secure China's territorial claims in the South China and East China seas. Simply stated, as China's military power has grown, so too, it appears, have the strategic tasks that it may be assigned. This shouldn't be surprising. Our own history teaches that as a nation's power grows so do its ambitions.

As if to underscore this point, an official Chinese military journal recently published an article arguing that Beijing should develop a military "commensurate with its international status." Since Beijing's economic and diplomatic interests span the globe, such strategic thinking can take the People's Liberation Army in some troubling directions. For example, Beijing may conclude that relying on the U.S. Navy for the safety of its energy supplies is too risky, and decide to increase its naval presence along the expanse between the Persian Gulf and East Asia. This would make the Chinese navy the first since the Cold War to compete for sea control with the United States. In addition, there are numerous disputed territorial claims in the East China and South China seas that China could settle by military means. Japan and China already have come close to skirmishing over energy resources in nearby disputed waters.

Of course, given the opaque character of Chinese military planning and government decision making, analysts can only speculate as to what turns the Chinese military buildup will take. It would help if China were to open up its political system so that we and other regional powers could get a better handle on the country's long-term ambitions. But this seems unlikely, at least anytime soon. Indeed, the Pentagon report notes that secrecy, deception and surprise remain key components of Chinese strategic practice.

China has already changed Asia's balance of power. It is past time for America to get serious about deterring the potentially worst sorts of Chinese behavior and to provide allies in the region with reason for renewed confidence in the U.S. security umbrella. Unfortunately, we are only just beginning to grapple with this daunting strategic task.

The latest Quadrennial Defense Review states that China "has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States." The Pentagon seeks to "shape [China's] strategic choices" and to "dissuade any military competitor from developing disruptive or other capabilities that could enable regional hegemony." The Bush administration has taken some concrete action toward these ends. An upgraded alliance with Japan will improve our deterrent posture. The opening of a strategic relationship with India reflects in part an American desire to ensure that China does not gain hegemony over South or Central Asia. An increase in the size of the U.S. Navy's attack submarine fleet in Guam also brings more American capability into the Pacific. A nascent defense relationship with Vietnam may over time provide the American military with what it needs most in Asia -- more bases.

But our China policy leaves us a day late and a dollar short when it comes to the challenge posed by the speed of Beijing's military buildup. We still have restrictions on relations with Taiwan dating to the Carter era that make the island more difficult to defend. A stronger commitment by the Pentagon to developing long-range surveillance and strike capabilities would make Beijing less confident that it could use its vast territory as a sanctuary for its missile and other "disruptive" forces. Upgrading our undersea warfare capabilities will improve our regional freedom of action.

Washington's largely reactive and tepid response to China's growing military power is understandable given what is on America's plate at the moment. And policymakers are still hoping that they can gain China's cooperation on pressing international security crises. But as the Pentagon report says, China has been less than cooperative on those supposed common interests: denuclearizing North Korea and Iran, for example. A policy seeking to shape China into a responsible global actor works only if you are willing to recognize when it is not working. That time may be fast approaching.

The writer is resident fellow in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He formerly was senior country director for China and Taiwan in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.


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