Traditional approach to the Rise of China

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China’s Intentions Are Ambiguous, But Its Capabilities Aren’t

Aviation Week & Space Technology. New York: Apr 23, 2007. Vol.166, Iss. 16;  pg. 74


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Copyright © 2007 The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., All rights reserved.

As the fully engaged, perhaps overextended U.S. military pursues wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with unexpected pitfalls and limited prospects, many strategists find themselves baffled by a larger, longer-running question: how to equip and prepare U.S. forces to deal with China, the 21st century version of Winston Churchill’s "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

In the past generation, the U.S. and its allies contained and ultimately defeated the Soviet Union, the subject of Churchill’s observation. However opaque its society, the Soviet Union was an adversary of little subtlety and no ambiguity. In the decades after World War II, no one on either side of the ideological divide between the two superpowers doubted that one would prevail and the other would fall. By contrast, subtlety and ambiguity will dominate during the coming generation.

Evidence of China’s rise as a military power abounds (see p. 22). The annual percentage increase in its military budget has been in double digits for a decade. The defense budget acknowledged by China–about $35 billion in 2006–remains a tenth of the U.S. figure but Pentagon experts who get paid to avoid underestimating a potential enemy believe the Chinese amount is understated by a factor of two to three.

China understands the leverage of technology and is developing its capabilities in C4ISR–command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. It understands, too, the importance of these capabilities in other nations’ forces, and it is developing means to disrupt or deny them. January’s anti-satellite test advanced this objective and further asserted China’s substantial presence in space.

China makes liberal use of Western technology, sometimes acquiring it by evading U.S. and allied export restrictions on military applications. Dual-use technology routinely finds its way into military systems, a source of tension in the best of times.

Two facts make this situation ambiguous. First, unlike the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, China is a political suitor, seeking acceptance among the world’s premier economies. And second, China’s most vital security interest is in preventing Taiwan from becoming truly independent, and in deterring or preventing other nations from supporting Taiwan militarily. Much of China’s military development during the past decade can be explained in these terms, and perhaps as an effort to become a regional power. China’s intentions beyond Taiwan are worrisome but unknown.

Furthermore, there is no ideological gulf of Cold-War proportions between China and the Western democracies. Indeed, today’s Chinese are members of the World Trade Organization, albeit with a shaky record of adhering to its principles. Between the substantially free markets of the U.S. and the export promotions of China, there is ample room for conflict and for doubt about China’s reliability as an economic partner.

China subsidizes the manufacture of products for export with a directness that would cause blushes among administrators of Airbus launch aid and the old U.S. export-tax dodges. Its treatment of intellectual property leaves copyrights and patents at the mercy of pirates and makes prospective foreign investors wary. Counterfeit goods are shoveled into the export market. For China, the foundation of exporting is a policy of undervaluing the yuan against the dollar, which makes U.S. goods more expensive in China and Chinese merchandise cheaper in the U.S. Currency manipulation has contributed massively to an enormous Chinese trade surplus with the U.S. during the past decade.

Still, these depredations are the actions of a would-be player in the world economy–an immature one, at that–not a burgeoning military power. Their persistence is evidence of weakness, not strength. But China’s trade surplus and its holdings of American debt create a grave risk of economic chaos in the U.S., whether from upheaval in China or a deliberate pulling of strings. And separate from economic policy, China’s growing military power makes it dangerous to the world around it, regardless of the country’s motives and priorities.

While it is true that the Chinese usually act in a deliberate fashion, sometimes signaling intent decades ahead of time, the Brookings Institution’s Richard C. Bush and Michael E. O’Hanlon see several factors that could make Washington’s attempt to manage its relationship with Beijing more problematic. In their new book, A War Like No Other: The Truth About China’s Challenge to America, they point out that previous crises over Taiwan have been resolved largely because of the U.S.’s undisputed military superiority. With a more militarily capable China, the writers maintain that war over Taiwan could result from misperception or miscalculation much more easily than is generally recognized. In addition, Bush and O’Hanlon argue that Beijing is becoming more adept at exercising "soft power" at the very time Washington seems to have lost its touch.

Economically, the U.S. and China are interdependent in ways that are light-years beyond anything the U.S. and Soviet bloc ever had. (Remember when an agreement allowing Pepsi-Cola to sell in Russia was considered a big deal.) At the rate it is growing, by the middle of this century, China’s economy will be on a par with that of the U.S.–nearly a third of the world’s economy. Already we see that U.S. economic clout will not suffice for Washington to win its way with China.

To say war with China is inevitable or economic interdependence makes war unthinkable are both simplistic. So the U.S. will have to play chess, not checkers, in its China policies. And the U.S. certainly will have to stick to the military-preparedness principle that has stood it in good stead since World War II: base plans on a potential adversary’s current and developing capabilities, and let motives and intentions take care of themselves.

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