Time to Admit China Is a Military Competitor

2013-05-27 — The early-May release by the Defense Department of its annual report to Congress on China’s military developments is a prime opportunity to reevaluate how the United States frames the future of its security relationship with Beijing. For too long, politicians and pundits of both parties have refused to clearly state the obvious: The U.S. and China are engaged in a long-term peacetime competition with economic, diplomatic and, yes, military components. The sooner Washington begins speaking honestly about our relationship with China, the sooner we’ll have policies that adequately address the challenges facing our two countries.

As China’s economic development continues and its regional aspirations expand, its military modernization has continued apace. This reality, and the necessity of the United States’ remaining a force in Asia-Pacific for the sake of regional stability, makes many in Washington uncomfortable. Indeed, the pressure to refrain from speaking openly about the issue has led some U.S. officials to begin referring to China as a national “Voldermort.”

It’s immensely counterproductive to avoid speaking openly and truthfully about the Sino-American rivalry and its future trajectory. By failing to acknowledge China’s military ambitions and their potential consequences for U.S. interests in the region, American policymakers are choosing timidity when resolute leadership is required.

The reality is this: Over the past decade, China has been developing military capabilities designed to deny the United States access to the waters and airspace of the western Pacific. Through the acquisition of anti-ship ballistic missiles designed to target American aircraft carriers, advanced aircraft capable of hitting U.S. and allied bases around the region, and large numbers of modern submarines, Beijing has clearly signaled its intention to subvert the balance of power that has anchored peace in Asia for six decades, and to do so in ways inimical to American interests.

This is not simply the case of a rising power seeking a military befitting its economic might; rather, China has specifically geared its military development to areas of perceived American weakness with the objective of restricting U.S. action in East Asia.

Speaking clearly about Beijing’s actions and intentions is not a fatalistic acceptance that Sino-American conflict is inevitable, or even likely. Instead, by realistically appraising Chinese intentions, the United States will be better prepared to assess our interests in Asia and act accordingly.

With 80 percent of global trade traveling by sea, a substantial amount of that through the waters of East Asia, allowing the United States to be pushed out of the region is simply unacceptable. American military power, particularly our navy, has ensured the peaceful, liberal order that currently predominates in East Asia. As our fleet has slowly atrophied from the nearly 600 ships of the Reagan era to 283 today, the ability of the United States to uphold its obligations and interests around the world has become sorely tested. Even as the Chinese are developing sophisticated systems to target our perceived vulnerabilities, the U.S. is expected to experience major shortfalls in areas from attack submarines and surface combatants to Air Force long-range bombers. Understanding, and speaking clearly about, our interests in Asia and the challenges we face is critical to fixing the military gaps we have incurred over the last decade.

The Pentagon’s latest report on Chinese military modernization is an excellent opportunity for leaders in both parties to begin the process of speaking honestly about the China challenge. Our future relations with China are not preordained. Sound policy based on American strength and rooted in longstanding American interests is achievable only through recognition that China is a long-term competitor of the United States across a range of areas, including the military. The sooner we are comfortable admitting this fact, the better our chances of marshalling the resources to maintain a free and prosperous Asia.

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