You Cannot Be Serious, Redux

As readers probably know, John McEnroe is one of my all-time favorite tennis players. The title of his autobiography are words made infamous by his outburst in a match against Tom Gullikson at Wimbledon in 1981: "You cannot be serious." Those words also aptly describe the state of U.S. foreign policy when it comes to China.

In January, President Obama issued new U.S. strategic guidance, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century, which states:

[W]hile the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally,  we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region. Our relationships with Asian allies and key partners are critical to the future stability and growth of the region. We will emphasize our existing alliances, which provide a vital foundation for Asia-Pacific security. We will also expand our networks of cooperation with emerging partners throughout the Asia-Pacific to ensure collective capability and capacity for securing common interests. The United States is also investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region.

Over the long term, China’s emergence as a regional power will have the potential to affect the U.S. economy and our security in a variety of ways. Our two countries have a strong stake in peace and stability in East Asia and an interest in building a cooperative bilateral relationship.   However, the growth of China’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region.

States such as China … will continue to pursue asymmetric means to counter our power projection capabilities, while the proliferation of sophisticated weapons and technology will extend to non-state actors as well.  Accordingly, the U.S. military will invest as required to ensure its ability to operate effectively in anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) environments.

Although not explicitly called a threat, it’s clear that China is a focus of U.S. security policy. The fact that the United States has recently strengthened ties with Australia (deploying a contingent of 2,500 Marines to Darwin), India, New Zealand, and the Philippines only reinforces the notion that America is engaged in a strategy of encirclement and containment of China. It’s hard to ignore geography, especially with U.S. forces already deployed in South Korea and Japan.

Also to consider is the Department of Defense (DoD) Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2011, which is an assessment of China’s military capabilities. The report "welcomes a strong, prosperous, and successful China that reinforces international rules and norms and enhances security and peace both regionally and globally." But in the next breaths frets:

"China’s modernized military could be put to use in ways that increase China’s ability to gain diplomatic advantage or resolve disputes in its favor."

"Beijing is developing capabilities intended to deter, delay, or deny possible U.S. support for the island in the event of conflict [with Taiwan]. The balance of cross-Strait military forces and capabilities continues to shift in the mainland’s favor."

"[T]here remains uncertainty about how China will use its growing capabilities."

Fast forward to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s visit to Singapore at the beginning of June where he announced that by 2020 sixty percent of the U.S. naval fleet would be assigned to the Pacific (the current distribution is 50-50 between the Pacific and Atlantic) as part of a new strategy to increase the U.S. military presence in Asia. The "you cannot be serious" part of all of this is that Panetta also claimed that "this is not about containment of China."

Imagine if China deployed troops in South America and strengthened military ties with Canada and Mexico. And then said – with a straight face – "But this is not about containment of America." We would believe the Chinese, right? Not. So why do we expect the Chinese to believe us?

Yet this somehow passes for "serious" foreign policy.

Of course, it would be naïve to assume that China is completely benign. But it would also be imprudent – and reckless – to assume that China is completely malevolent. So China bears watching. But the Chinese dragon is not necessarily the next big threat a la the former Soviet bear. DoD estimated Chinese military spending at over $160 billion in 2010. By comparison, the U.S. defense budget in fiscal 2010 was $683 billion – more than four times what the Chinese spent. Moreover, the Chinese have a lot of catching up to do. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), if current trends continued it would take 15-20 years for the Chinese to be on par with the U.S.

So, yes, it’s possible that China could eventually become a military threat. But that doesn’t mean that it’s likely. Nor should we act as though it’s a foregone conclusion. And – even though we’re good at it – it doesn’t mean we should engage in policies and take actions that would precipitate China’s movement towards exactly what we don’t want to happen (kind of what we’re doing with Iran).

Indeed, we need to remember that China is the world’s second-largest economy (right after the United States). China is also the United States’ second-largest trading partner ($503 billion in total imports and exports in 2011). Given the current state of the U.S. economy and the world economy (especially Europe), the last thing we should do is create a phantom military menace that turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy with global economic repercussions.

If we were really worried about the Chinese "threat" and serious about doing something about it, what we would do is stop spending money like a drunken sailor. The proposed 2013 federal budget is a whopping $3.9 trillion and increases the current deficit of over $15 trillion by almost another $1 trillion (the Congressional Budget Office warns that total U.S. debt will exceed economic output in 10-15 years and be about 200% of gross domestic product in 25 years). The largest foreign holder of U.S. debt is China, which owns nearly 10 percent of U.S. debt – and is the third largest holder of U.S. debt after the Social Security Trust Fund’s holdings and the Federal Reserve’s holdings in U.S. Treasury investments. But we cannot be serious.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.