The DOD released a long overdue report raising concerns over China's rapid military expansion. Since that release I have read a dozen intelligence reports, news stories and blogs, all waving red flags (excuse the pun) warning about a possible challenge to U.S. interests, especially in the Southwest Pacific and Southeast Asia (everything is a matter of point-of-view).
Here is an example of the first line in one such report: “As the United States winds down its military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, a new threat looms on the horizon: China.”
A new threat? Hardly. As some of my friends know, I have been harping about this very threat for over 10 years. I even wrote a white paper, “The Spreading Yellow Menace”, in 1999 (long before my blogging days) warning about this very thing.
While Iran and it’s nuclear ambitions pose the greatest short term threat, China is, and has been for decades, the greatest long term threat to the United States (and to it’s neighbors; India, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines).
The Chinese Communist Government has perused a patient and steady policy over this entire period which now places it in an ever increasingly better position to challenge our position, not only in Asia but globally. They have been doing this on several fronts (militarily, politically and economically). Their apparent aim is to get themselves into a position to influence events through economic and military ability (threat) rather than make direct, open challenges.
O.K., having said all that, let’s look at what the Pentagon has to say about China:
“Over the past decade, China’s military has benefited from robust investment in modern hardware and technology. Many modern systems have reached maturity and others will become operational in the next few years,” the Pentagon said in an annual report to Congress on the Chinese military, noting that “there remains uncertainty about how China will use its growing capabilities.”
The growth of Chinese power outlined in the report is the latest expression of the concerns voiced in Congress and by China’s neighbors, who have been pushing Washington to be more assertive in providing a counterbalance. This comes at a time when the nation’s budget problems are threatening dramatic cutbacks in defense spending.
Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) caused a stir in June when he said the situation is now fast approaching a “Munich moment,” where Washington must decide how to maintain a strategic balance. The term refers to the 1938 crisis over Czechoslovakia when the British and French had the opportunity to stop Nazi expansion but failed to do so.
“If you look at the last 10 years, the strategic winner has been China,” the former Navy secretary said in a recent interview. “Their position in the world is greatly enhanced.”
The Pentagon report noted that China has been rapidly expanding its naval forces, further rattling neighbors already concerned about Beijing’s aggressive actions over disputed territory in the South China Sea and afraid that Washington has lost interest in the region.
The Chinese navy shook the region earlier this month with sea trials of the nation’s first aircraft carrier, a former Soviet vessel refurbished with advanced radar and weapons control systems and the ability to carry 30 high-performance fighter-bombers. Official media described the sea trials as a step in China’s plans to bolster its ability to protect its territory and maritime supply routes, while Beijing’s neighbors and analysts saw them as the latest threat to regional rivals. I find this particularly frustrating. This ship has been under refurbishment for years, I blogged about it twice last year, so why wait until it goes into sea trails to get upset about it?
At the same time, the Chinese conducted further testing of their new J-20 stealth fighter, first unveiled during a visit in January by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The Chinese have sought to reassure their neighbors – and the United States – that the buildup is defensive in nature. “I can tell you that China does not have the capability to challenge the United States,” People’s Liberation Army Chief Gen. Chen Bingde told reporters during a visit to the Pentagon in May. –And when he said that, I pointed out that, while this was a true statement, it was only a matter of time until China had built up enough military strength and capability to make that challenge!
But doubts remain. China is investing in capabilities that appear designed to counter the U.S. military’s freedom of movement in the western Pacific, said Mark Gunzinger, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments who has been studying China’s military. “They’re not an open book, which is a cause of great concern,” he said.
The lack of transparency in China’s military buildup is the biggest destabilizing factor noted in the Pentagon report, Michael Schiffer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, who oversaw production of the report, told reporters. “That’s where you have the potential to run into situations where there can be misunderstandings.”
Schiffer noted that military-to-military contacts, which resumed this year with Chen’s visit and a return visit to China in July by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were important to promote a stable relationship.
Another concern is that nations in the region see the United States as having retreated from its commitment to regional security. “Are we giving people the impression of being wishy-washy and waffling and not standing by our commitments?” asked China analyst Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation. U.S. allies “want more than just verbal assurances that we remain a Pacific nation,” Gunzinger said.
The last issue is also a crucial concern for Webb, who returned last Wednesday from a two-week visit to confer with leaders in Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam – all countries which have been concerned about the rise of Chinese power in the region.
Webb sponsored a resolution adopted by the Senate in June that deplored Chinese actions in the South China Sea and called for a peaceful resolution to the disputes. Since then, he has pushed for greater clarity in U.S. policy toward the region.
The Pentagon hasn’t been idle in the face of China’s growing military power. Military planners are working on a strategy to counter Beijing’s moves, off a plan first proposed by Gunzinger and others at CSBA last year.
The strategy involves modernizing and beefing up air and naval forces in the region to counter Chinese power and protect U.S. access to vital sea lanes. But right now Pentagon planners are concentrating on reducing defense spending by up to $850 billion over 10 years to ease the national debt, rather than building up to confront a new threat. And China holds a powerful card in that game – its central bank is the largest single holder of U.S. government debt.
“If the U.S. could reduce its military spending a bit and spend more on improving the livelihood of the American people and also do more good things for the people of the world, wouldn’t that be a better scenario?” Chen asked at a July 11 news conference in Beijing during Mullen’s visit. (Yes, and that would fit very nicely into China’s plans…)
China’s defense spending, meanwhile, is increasing by 12.7 percent this year. “That continues more than two decades of sustained budgetary growth,” Schiffer said. Some in Congress believe the risks of deep cuts are too high given China’s rapid growth, and the issue is likely to figure prominently in the debate over defense spending.
“China clearly believes that it can capitalize on the global financial crisis, using the United States’ economic uncertainty as a window of opportunity to strengthen China’s economic, diplomatic, and security interests,” said Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a leading opponent of deep defense spending cuts. “Security in the Pacific could be further jeopardized if our regional allies also come to believe that the United States will sacrifice the presence and capability of the U.S. military in an attempt to control spending. This is an unacceptable outcome in such a vital region of the globe.”
Webb is among those in Congress who want to protect the Navy’s expansion from budget cuts, suggesting instead that land forces be trimmed because they are no longer needed in Afghanistan and Iraq. “This is the most vital region in the world to the future of the United States.”
At times when the immediate budget concerns are pressing hard, the temptation is for our law makers to put off “long term, less immediate” problems (like delaying construction and deployment of our latest aircraft carrier, the JFK, by 2 years, saving $2 billion in the short term but costing an additional $1.5 billion by delaying). This would be a big mistake. It is what China would like to see us do (for our own economy good, of course) –and there is a reason why they would like to see it. Of course that is understandable, we all like it when a plan comes together….
Live Long and Prosper….