Trying to decipher China's long-term goals, a U.S. Joint Forces Command report ominously recalls Deng Xiaoping's advice that China "disguise its ambition and hide its claws." The report labels the U.S.-China relationship "one of the great strategic question marks of the next 25 years."
As we know from history, question marks often lead to misunderstandings. The challenge for Washington is to find a way to make sure that any misunderstandings between these two economic giants and would-be rivals don't lead to conflict. Robert Kagan, pointing to China in his new book "The Return of History and the End of Dreams," concludes, "Perhaps no nation has ever moved further faster from weakness to strength." The Pentagon's 2009 report on China's military power uses numbers to tell the story. For example, China's military budget was nearly 10 times larger in 2005 than it was in 1989, and roughly doubled between 2005 and 2009, with a 14.9-percent increase last year. Beijing is quick to remind us that it spends just a fraction of what the United States does on its military, which is true. The 2010 Pentagon budget is some $680 billion; China's defense budget is in the $150 billion range. Of course, as the world's first responder and last line of defense, the United States plays a much different global role than China. Moreover, China's growth in military spending is unmatched anywhere. Although the Pentagon report details China's advances in space capabilities, information warfare and strategic nuclear forces, since the United States and China are Pacific powers, let's focus on their naval and maritime capabilities: • China's arsenal includes land-attack cruise missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, Russian fighter-bombers, indigenous surface-to-air missiles, sophisticated carrier-killing ballistic missiles and attack submarines. • Beijing is "considering building multiple aircraft carriers and associated ships by 2020," according to the Pentagon. It has also initiated a training program for pilots to operate carrier-based fixed-wing aircraft. • Most of these systems are what the Pentagon calls "anti-access and area-denial weapons." They give Beijing "the ability to hold large surface ships, including aircraft carriers, at risk ... deny use of shore-based airfields, secure bastions and regional logistics hubs ... and hold aircraft at risk over or near Chinese territory or forces." In short, China is deploying an array of assets aimed at dissuading the United States from intervening in what China considers its sphere of influence – and should conflict arise, preventing the United States from projecting its assets into the battle space before Beijing achieves its objectives. As the Pentagon put it in 2000, in the event of conflict, Beijing's goal would be "to achieve a military solution before outside powers could intervene militarily." "Deterring the U.S. is now a key objective for China," observes Eric Wertheim, editor of "The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World." Wertheim says China's current buildup was spurred by Washington's unchallenged deployment of carrier battle groups off the coast of Taiwan during a 1996 crisis. "China felt powerless in response," he explains. Hence, China has turned to anti-access capabilities. On a 2009 visit to the United States, Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the People's Liberation Army Central Military Commission, promised that China is "committed to peaceful development, and we will not and could not challenge or threaten any other country ... certainly not the United States." But rhetoric doesn't always match reality. China and Russia teamed up for large-scale war games in 2005, 2007 and 2009, under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a counterweight to the U.S.-led NATO alliance. China has secured a number of coastal footholds from the South China Sea to Burma to Sri Lanka to Pakistan, where China is investing in a deep-sea port near the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Much of this is linked to China's energy needs. Finally, as the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (ESRC) recently noted, as a result of naval modernization, "China increasingly will be able to project power in East Asia and therefore interfere with U.S. freedom of access to the region." That's no small matter, given that the United States has dominated the Pacific since the end of World War II.Spheres of Cooperation or Conflict? China's brisk buildup and sometimes-opaque motivations are raising concerns among China's neighbors and even "beginning to fuel a maritime arms race in the region," according to the ESRC. For instance, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is proposing what the Australian press labels "a multibillion-dollar buildup ... to ensure that Australia can defend its northern and sea approaches." The Australian Department of Defense recently concluded, "The pace, scope and structure of China's military modernization have the potential to give its neighbors cause for concern." Alarmed by double-digit growth in year-to-year defense spending, Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama says Beijing needs "to enhance its transparency more than ever." Kagan notes that China's actions have spurred Japan and India to strengthen their ties, with the two now "engaging in military cooperation, especially in the Indian Ocean." oint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen has pointedly observed that Beijing's new capabilities "seem very focused on the United States Navy and our bases that are in that part of the world." Even so, President Barack Obama envisions "spheres of cooperation" rather than spheres of influence in the Asia-Pacific region. He insists that "the United States does not seek to contain China." But China sees things differently.Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, for instance, has concluded that the United States is maneuvering "to preserve its status as the world's sole superpower and will not allow any country the chance to pose a challenge to it." A study published by China's Academy of Military Science criticizes Washington's "overbearing strategy of encirclement and suffocation." That may not be Washington's intent. But from Beijing's vantage point, the United States is arrayed along China's periphery, with a long-term presence in Japan and South Korea, strong ties with Thailand and the Philippines, a blossoming partnership with India and a growing role in Central Asia.Positive Developments. On the positive side, the United States and China are working to develop what a 2009 joint communiqué calls "sustained and reliable military-military relations." Toward that end: • The two have set up a hotline known as the Defense Telephone Link (DTL) between the U.S. Department of Defense and China's Ministry of National Defense. • Beijing and Washington have launched a number of high-level military exchanges, including meetings between Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chinese commanders, as well as Chinese military visits to the Pentagon, U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. Pacific Command and the Naval Academy – all in 2009. The Pentagon reports that in the past decade, China has settled 11 territorial disputes with six of its neighbors. One still-outstanding dispute involves Taiwan. Although Beijing and Taipei are pursuing a free-trade agreement, Xu ominously noted during his U.S. visit that "China has yet to realize complete unification." Still, U.S. military analysts are less worried about China launching a war than about a miscalculation on either side that could trigger a test of wills. Wertheim, for example, worries that "a misunderstanding could lead to a serious crisis." This seems increasingly likely, given Washington's and Beijing's divergent views on the definition of international waters and airspace. As the ESRC warns, "China's expanded claim over freedom of navigation in what it considers to be its exclusive economic zone could lead to further incidents involving the U.S. military." It pays to recall that in 2001, a Chinese warplane quite literally intercepted a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane flying in international airspace above the South China Sea. The mid-air mugging crippled the U.S. plane and forced it to make an emergency landing on Hainan island, where the crew was held for almost two weeks until Washington issued an artfully worded non-apology. In 2009, there were six incidents involving U.S. and Chinese vessels. According to the Chinese Defense Ministry, these incidents were caused by "constant U.S. military air and sea surveillance ...in China's exclusive economic zone (EEZ)." An EEZ extends some 200 miles off a country's coastline and allows for exploration rights. But EEZs are not equivalent to sovereign territory, which explains why the U.S. military sometimes operates much closer to China's shores. In doing so, the United States contends it is enforcing an internationally recognized 12-mile coastal zone. In other words, while Washington views such action as a way to keep the sea lanes open, Beijing views it as trespassing. Keeping the Peace. As China grows its military and extends its reach, Washington and Beijing need to ensure that such disagreements don't lead to crises – and if they do, that crises don't lead to conflict. To realize that goal, U.S. policy should be guided by three principles.First, peace through strength – what Reagan prescribed at the end of the Cold War and Churchill at the beginning – works. The good news is that the United States is investing some $15 billion to transform Guam into an island arsenal, complete with Marines and special-ops units, berths for aircraft carriers and attack subs, and swarms of long-range bombers. The better news is that China has "a deep respect for U.S. military power," as the Joint Forces Command concludes. We cannot overstate how important this is in keeping the peace. An important part of U.S. strength is the alliance system it has built over the decades. Some of America's strongest friendships are found in the vast Asia-Pacific region: Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Australia. Moreover, in something of a geostrategic double-play, the United States is now closely collaborating with India and with Pakistan on a range of security issues. These friendships and partnerships increase Washington's options in times of crisis.Second, keeping your "frenemies" close can keep the peace. Given that China resides in a netherworld between friend and foe, the Cold War model can only guide us so far. China is at once an asymmetric challenger, strategic competitor and economic partner. Such ambiguity was never the case with the U.S.-Soviet relationship.Even as it engages in a military buildup directed at the United States, China owns some $800 billion in U.S. debt, which means China is America's banker. Plus, in the past decade, annual U.S.-China trade has grown from $95 billion to $409 billion. These intricate trade and financial links both complicate the situation and mitigate the likelihood of conflict. It seems the two nations share far too many interests to become enemies. Third, saving face may save lives. As we learned during the Hainan incident, face-saving diplomacy is important to Beijing – and to U.S. interests. It's not hard to imagine future misunderstandings when the most prudent course will require Washington to resist the temptation to fix the blame or humiliate Beijing. Alan W. Dowd is a contributing editor for The American Legion Magazine.