Turning China into the Next Big Enemy

I‘m running out of enemies, Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, famously said after the end of the Cold War: I’m down to Kim Il Sung and Fidel Castro. They were evil enough, but weren’t much of a military threat to America. George W. Bush and his neocon coterie have sought to turn Islamic terrorists into the equivalent of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, but few people other than GOP activists take that comparison seriously.

In fact, America remains a military colossus. The Bush administration has proposed spending $515 billion next year on the military; more, adjusted for inflation, than at any time since World War II. The U.S. accounts for roughly half of the world’s military outlays.

Washington is allied with every major industrialized state except China and Russia. America’s avowed enemies are a pitiful few: Burma, Cuba, Syria, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea. The U.S. government could destroy every one of these states with a flick of the president’s wrist.

Russia has become rather contentious of late, but that hardly makes it an enemy. Moreover, the idea that Moscow could rearm, reconquer the nations that once were part of the Soviet Union or communist satellites, overrun Western Europe, and then attack the U.S. – without anyone in America noticing the threat along the way – is, well, a paranoid fantasy more extreme than the usual science fiction plot. The Leninist Humpty-Dumpty has fallen off the wall and even a bunch of former KGB agents aren’t going to be able to put him back together.

Which leaves the People’s Republic of China. Beijing, like Russia, should not be considered an enemy. However, it has the makings of a great power, even a superpower, which could ultimately face America as a peer. Moreover, with its influence rising in a region that the U.S. government has grown used to dominating, there is real potential for future conflict.

That potential makes the PRC the best excuse for Washington to spend ever more on the U.S. military.

There are more than a few advocates of the "China as enemy" thesis, penning articles and books about how Beijing is preparing for, and determined to wage, war against America. There are many more practitioners of what passes for cautious centrism: the PRC could become a threat, so the U.S. needs to enhance its alliances and forces in East Asia. Toss in human rights activists and protectionists, who have other reasons for disliking Beijing, and the anti-China coalition grows.

The latest addition to the "China as enemy" literature is the Pentagon’s newly released "Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2008." In contrast to more fevered attacks on Beijing, this publication is a sober analysis of the PRC’s ongoing defense build-up, which we can see but through a glass darkly. China has announced a 17.6 percent increase in military spending this year, bringing it to $58.8 billion, but that number is incomplete at best and misleading at worst. This uncertainty understandably worries the Pentagon. American military expenditures are outlandish, but they are obviously outlandish. Although Washington does hide intelligence expenditures, it’s hard not to know how many air wings, carrier groups, and armored divisions, as well as foreign bases, the U.S. is funding.

But the Defense Department is even more worried that the Chinese are spending too much, which is essentially defined as developing a military which one day could confront American forces – successfully. It’s a fair concern, since Beijing’s military build-up is transforming the international environment far more quickly than most American analysts had expected.

The PRC has numerous reasons for seeking to create a superior military. The Pentagon notes that China probably is developing forces for use in such contingencies "as conflict over resources or disputed territories." Moreover, Beijing’s growing "capabilities will increase Beijing’s options for military coercion to press diplomatic advantage, advance interests, or resolve disputes in its favor." As Washington well knows, international political influence is more likely to follow a larger military. Russia has regained regional clout, but remains a smaller global player; Europe is an economic giant but a military midget. Beijing seems intent on twinning soft and hard power to enhance its global clout.

Despite the multiple ends, however, the PRC appears to have two more basic goals with its military build-up. The first is to enable the PRC to compel Taiwan, through use of military force, if necessary, to accept some form of reunification. The second is to deter the U.S. from intervening to stop China from using coercion. As the Pentagon observes, "A potential military confrontation with Taiwan, and the prospect of U.S. military intervention, remain the PLA’s most immediate military concerns."

Indeed, much of the PRC’s military program seems directed at creating a credible deterrent to America. The Pentagon reports:

"China’s nuclear force modernization, as evidenced by the fielding of the new DF-31 and DF-31A intercontinental-range missiles, is enhancing China’s strategic strike capabilities. China’s emergent anti-access/area denial capabilities – as exemplified by its continued development of advanced cruise missiles, medium-range ballistic missiles, anti-ship missiles designed to strike ships at sea, including aircraft carriers, and the January 2007 successful test of a direct-ascent, anti-satellite weapon – are expanding from the land, air, and sea dimensions of the traditional battlefield into the space and cyber-space domains."

It’s an impressive list. But America’s military capabilities remain far greater. Why does the PRC need anti-ship missiles for use against aircraft carriers? Because it lacks even one carrier, while the U.S. controls the seas with 12 carrier groups. This country dominates most other military fields as well. America’s nuclear missile arsenal is much bigger, more sophisticated, and more deadly than that possessed by China. Washington already is reaching into space with its missile defense program.

Thus, the PRC is seeking to deter America from deploying its more powerful forces. Notes the Pentagon, "Through analysis of U.S and coalition warfighting practices since 1991, Beijing hopes to develop approaches to waging future conflict by adapting and emulating lessons learned in some areas while seeking perceived vulnerabilities that could be exploited through asymmetric means in others." In particular, "As part of its planning for a Taiwan contingency, China is prioritizing measures to deter or counter third-party intervention in any future cross-Strait crisis."

Thus, Beijing might be preparing to confront the U.S. But the critical question is, confront the U.S. over what?

If Beijing was plotting the conquest of Guam, Hawaii, and ultimately the North American continent, then Beijing’s ongoing military build-up would look dangerous indeed. But there is nothing in China’s long history that suggests such overarching ambitions. Unwilling to remain weak and thus subject to coercion by a trigger-happy superpower across the Pacific. Yes. Determined to vigorously assert its perceived interests. Yes. Expecting international respect and consultation that reflects its increasingly expansive interests and growing power. Yes. Ready to commit global aggression, initiate world war, and wreck both China’s and America’s futures. No.

Which means the U.S. should think carefully before responding to China’s ongoing build-up. The Pentagon speaks of a situation which "will naturally and understandably lead to hedging against the unknown," meaning Washington will need to spend even more on the military. If half of the world’s military outlays aren’t enough, one wonders how much would be. Two-thirds? Three-fourths? Even more?

Washington should not fret. If the goal is defending America, the U.S. possesses sufficiency today. Just catching up with the U.S. will be a daunting task for the PRC. Explained the Pentagon: "The U.S. Intelligence Community estimates China will take until the end of this decade or longer to produce a modern force capable of defeating a moderate-size adversary. China will not be able to project and sustain small military units far beyond China before 2015, and will not be able to project and sustain large forces in combat operations far from China until well into the following decade."

Washington already occupies the global summit, with the enormous military infrastructure of a superpower. China will not easily displace America with the world’s most powerful military. Assume that China, still desperately poor and surrounded by potentially hostile states, decides to deploy one new carrier group a year, no mean task. The PRC still wouldn’t match America until 2020. Even then Beijing wouldn’t be strong enough to take aggressive action against the U.S. homeland or dependencies. To develop an air force capable of dominating U.S. airspace and ground forces capable of invading U.S. territory would be another step well beyond.

Most important, the U.S. possesses what would remain an effective nuclear deterrent against almost any imaginable Chinese missile force. It’s not that the PRC couldn’t theoretically construct and deploy more and better nuclear missiles, strategic bombers, and nuclear-armed subs than the U.S., though such a process would take an enormous commitment over many years. But it’s hard to imagine that China could ever deploy enough to create a first strike capability.

The essential point of military power is that it is a lot easier to defend and deter than attack and defeat. Which is why Washington spends so much on the military today. Very few of America’s military assets are devoted to defending the U.S. After all, where’s the threat? Terrorism is our most pressing national security concern, but as Iraq dramatically demonstrated, conventional forces are not the answer. More subtle tools, including detailed intelligence, cooperation with allied states, and judicious use of special forces, are far more relevant.

Rather, most of what the Pentagon does is devoted to defending and dominating other nations. Troops in Europe, which has a bigger economy and population than America – for what? Troops in South Korea, which vastly outranges its northern antagonist – why? Troops in Japan, the world’s second-ranking economic power – hunh? Garrisons scattered across the globe in nations of but peripheral interest to America – how come? Deployments which made sense in the immediate aftermath of World War II are hopelessly outdated today. They exist because Washington finds it impossible to ever end a commitment once undertaken, not because they make the U.S. safer.

Thus, what Washington must decide is how high a price it is willing to pay to attempt to maintain its domination in East Asia, even along the borders of what already has become a significant regional power and will almost inevitably become a global one. Is the U.S. prepared to spend the money and take the risk necessary to confine the PRC within its borders?

That was the implicit concern of Adm. Timothy Keating, America’s top commander in Asia, who declared China’s military build-up to be "troubling" since "some of these weapons systems would tend to exceed our own expectations for protecting those things that are ‘ours’." He added that such weapons "could be characterized as having, amongst perhaps other purposes, an ability to restrict movement in and around certain areas on the sea, in the air or under the sea," most notably in the Taiwan Strait.


For China this is defensive. The PRC is aware that Washington cheerfully bombs and invades other nations at its discretion: Bosnia, Grenada, Haiti, Iraq, Panama, Serbia, Somalia. While Washington policy-makers might prefer that China remain militarily naked, vulnerable to coercion by the U.S., they hardly can expect it to do so. Which is what the PRC’s military build-up is all about.

The issue, then, is whether the U.S. will engage in a counter build-up not to defend America, but to preserve America’s ability to coerce China. Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, notes that "By 2010, most of China’s anti-access forces will be in place, making it very difficult to use Pacific forces to help Taiwan. Unless we double the number of our aircraft carriers and triple our bomber fleet, China is going to be a peer competitor by 2030."

That is, double our carriers and triple our bombers not to defend the U.S., but to retain the ability to attack another nation far from home. In this case, to do so to defend Taiwan if it refuses to reunify with the mainland.

Taiwan is a good friend whose people have created a separate existence. Whatever the merits of the PRC’s contention that the island remains part of China, Beijing should not use force to resolve the issue. Nevertheless, preserving Taiwan’s independence through war is far more than friendship requires of America. Should the U.S. risk Los Angeles to protect Taipei, as a Chinese general unkindly asked a few years ago? No.

Moreover, Fisher’s analysis presumes that Beijing would not respond to an American decision to engage in such a massive build-up by spending even more. The PRC will eventually have the world’s largest economy: a military competition between America and China could turn into the most expensive arms race in history. How much should Americans be forced to pay so that the U.S. government retains the ability to wander the globe imposing its will on other nations, even when American security is not at stake? Is it worth eventually bankrupting the U.S.?

Americans might not believe a stronger, more assertive Chinese military to be desirable. However, their view is irrelevant, since Beijing is not going to be dissuaded from increasing its forces by caterwauling from across the Pacific. Especially when the loudest complainers are the architects of a continuing American military build-up far in excess of U.S. defense requirements.

Should Washington be watchful and wary? Of course. Should the U.S. press China for greater transparency in its defense spending? Absolutely. Should American policymakers work with Beijing to promote military exchanges, create mechanisms (such as the planned hotline) to avoid inadvertent conflicts, and conduct regular discussions to defuse incipient crises? Without doubt. Should Washington encourage its allies and friends to work together to ensure regional security and stability? Yes.

Should Washington undertake a massive military build-up in an attempt to maintain absolute military control along China’s borders? No.

If the U.S. is willing to temper its objectives, America can remain confident even as China grows more powerful. The convenient world of Pax Americana is ending, especially in East Asia: a stronger PRC is inevitable. But a less dominant U.S. is not necessarily a less secure U.S. Indeed, a less meddlesome America is likely to be a more peaceful America.

The U.S. has no serious enemies today, but it has begun the slow process of moving from the unipower back to one of two, or perhaps more, superpowers: America’s current dominance always was artificial. Europe lacks the will and Russia lacks the ability to challenge U.S. military primacy. Not so China. Washington must come to terms with a new order in East Asia, one in which China increasingly demands to be treated as an equal. Painful though that might be for Washington, treating Beijing with respect beats turning the PRC into an enemy.