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The Pentagon's Latest China Report

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on May 24th, 2006

China’s Military Buildup Suggests She Seeks to Change the Status Quo:

China’s government has become wealthy through world trade. She has nearly a trillion dollars in foreign exchange reserves and 11% of her GNP is accounted for by exports to the United States alone.

But China’s military and strategic purpose is not to join the world that has made her rich as it is today, but rather to remake that world. That is the almost inescapable conclusion for anyone reading the just-released Pentagon report on Chinese military power.

China’s goal would seem to be to make herself the greatest military power in Asia, able to intimidate or defeat any of her neighbors in actually conflict, and to deter the United States or anyone else from intervening.

These conclusions are profoundly worrying to anyone who knows the history of war in Asia over the past century. They are also profoundly at odds with the conventional wisdom of several decades following U.S. establishment of relations with Beijing in 1979, which maintained that China had neither the desire nor the ability to become an important military force. Many outside of China will dismiss the report, or argue that China is simply responding to actions by the United States or other countries.

Reality, however, is rendering more and more untenable both the long-standing position of complacency and the desire to see China’s actions as responsive, rather than self-directed.

China thinks of herself as number one. Her official historiography—at odds with what actually happened—describes a "Chinese world order" in which states from Mongolia and Japan to Southeast Asia were subordinates—"tributaries"—of the universal emperor of China.

Although in theory Beijing accepts the Westphalian concept of a horizontal community of equal, sovereign nations, in fact the old hierarchical sense has proven very difficult to shake.

China’s neighbors are already feeling the pressure to fall into place in this pyramid of which Beijing is capstone and the pressure will only increase.

The United States Will Prove Incapable of Maintaining Balance:

No Pentagon report would endorse the conclusion, but it is difficult to see the United States or the United States and her alliances in the region as currently constituted as determined and united enough reliably to deter China’s growing military might, or to adopt a coordinated diplomatic strategy to avoid danger.

Iraq has already made clear to the world how difficult a time Washington has with military operations—even in a country where the American role was to overthrow a despised autocrat and introduce democracy.

Iraq has also made clear the reluctance of many states that would expect the United States to assist them should they be in peril to help the United States with broader tasks.

In Asia, American credibility is particularly low. The Korean War was made possible by ambiguous American signals that led to deterrence failure. We abandoned South Vietnam in 1975 even though we had promised over and over that we would resist an actual invasion from the North. In 1979 we attempted to force Taiwan to join China by cutting all diplomatic relations—and doing so without consulting any of our allies. With South Korea we now have disagreements over how to deal with the threat from the North that, in theory, Seoul and Washington would resist together.

Furthermore, the United States now has major economic interests in China that clearly affect how our leaders—and in particular our former presidents, ex secretaries of state, etc. think. They are enriched by million dollar plus fees for speaking engagements in China.

Even though China minus the foreign investment and trade still looks an awful lot like the Soviet Union, few people have the fortitude to ask the difficult questions.

Possible Failure of Deterrence:

The decision by a country seeking to change the status quo by means of military force is often made easier when her potential adversaries are at sixes and sevens.

States such as Australia certainly do not want to live in a China-dominated Asia. She is not herself strong enough to deter China (unless she acquires nuclear weapons, which she could easily do) and must therefore depend on the United States doing the deterring. But even holding America’s coat is a stance she and other states find difficult, lest their economic relations with China be harmed.

The United States remains indispensable right now to stability and peace in Asia. But few Asian states are really willing to come out and say that, not to mention work closely with Washington. Nor is Washington’s resolve certain.

Under such circumstances, alliances tend to become weak or to dissolve.

This suggests that if current trends continue, China will find the general military balance in Asia seeming to shift in her favor—and be tempted to push harder, with threats and even military action, to effect the changes she seeks in Asia.

In other words, fear of the consequences of initiating conflict may fall to the point where they are no longer sufficient to restrain Chinese action. Deterrence could fail.

But Coalitions Can Form Quickly:

What state, however, has ever succeeded in a war in quest of hegemony? Athens failed when she effectively forced Sparta to fight in the fifth century B.C.E. France failed in all her attempts, under the Bourbons and then under Napoleon. Britain succeeded briefly after the Seven Years’ War, but only outside Europe. Germany failed twice in the last century; Japan once. Why?

Because once a state’s quest for hegemony becomes unmistakable, other states will band together to frustrate her.

Take Taiwan, for example, everybody’s favorite flashpoint. The island is Asia’s Belgium: that is to say, a small country whose strategic position is pivotal. (In Taiwan’s case, she sits athwart the critical sea lines of communication from the Straits of Malacca to Russia, Japan, Korea, China, and so forth; in Belgium’s case she possesses, in the Scheldt and ports on the Channel coast the indispensable logistical base for attack on England).

Other states cannot allow such a small but strategically pivotal state to join with a potential rival. Belgium cannot be part of France and she cannot be part of Germany. Taiwan cannot militarily be part of China (as she was with such important effect of Japan from 1895-1945) without threatening vital interests of all the other Asian states—whatever they may say.

Herein lies the problem. Belgium was at least formally recognized and her neutrality guaranteed by a number of other countries, including the United States. Yet even so Berlin miscalculated, imagining that her troops could pass through Belgium on their way to Paris without triggering larger conflict., President Woodrow Wilson so feared war with Germany that he declined to act in Belgium’s defense as we had promised to under the Hague Conventions. But Britain did act, contrary to German expectations—and to at least some of the signals London had sent as the summer crisis worsened in 1914.

Taiwan is not even recognized as a country by most states and she has no formal allies. So it is even easier to assume that, say, an attack on her would have no consequences. Yet the interests of her neighbors are as deeply involved in her security as were those of the European states in the formally-recognized security of Belgium in 1914,

Like Germany at the beginning of the last century, China is developing a formidable military force that makes no sense at all unless one assumes that a "grab for power" of some sort is its rationale. Of course Chinese military thought teaches that one wins by intimidation, but in practice conflict usually turns out to be, as Clausewitz puts it, the hard coin in which disputes are settled.

Here China faces insurmountable strategic difficulties, worse even than those that did Germany in twice.

China is surrounded by potential flashpoints: in Muslim central Asia and East Turkestan (Xinjiang—currently part of China), in Mongolia, in connection with both Koreas (which agree that China is occupying some Korean territory in Manchuria), in connection with Japan and Taiwan, in the South China Sea, and even far to the West—where China is attempting to pin India down by close alliances with Burma and Pakistan—with Russia, and so on.

The problem is that if China were to become involved in conflict in any of these areas, most or all of the other areas would join in resistance. The result would be a disaster for all concerned.

If, as seems increasingly likely, the United States fails to convince states in the region that she would go into a nuclear war to defend them, then we can expect further spread of nuclear weapons—to South Korea (where the United States has already intervened once to stop a program), to Japan, to Australia, possibly to Taiwan and elsewhere. Ironically, such nuclear deterrence would probably stabilize the situation and make China less rather than more likely to launch a war. The increasingly robust Indian nuclear capability must be a headache for any military planner. And who can say at what country North Korea really intends its nuclear weapons to be aimed?

American Interests:

The developments just described: a break down of deterrence, an attempt to win hegemony by war, the emergence of a counter-hegemonic coalition, and incalculable bloodshed and destruction—are clearly NOT in America’s interest.

Yet at present we do not seem to be genuinely focused on them as a possibility. We are preoccupied with Iraq and other "smaller" issues.

Even if we were to focus, however, it would not be possible for us to restore balance and deterrence in Asia alone.

We would need firm agreements with allies. We would need to align our economic policies with our security interests.

These tasks are difficult enough under any circumstances, but they are particularly difficult when the would-be allies are all economic and political competitors for the favor of the country that must be deterred.

The Japanese-American alliance is, however, is strongly supported in both countries. And should she feel the need, Japan could create a military far superior to China’s in a matter of a few years.

The American interest is to cease herself to be the sole guarantor of peace in the region—pledging to fight to defend a Japan that, owing to her American-drafted constitution, can have no offensive military, or sort of pledging to defend a Taiwan with whom she has no workable military relationship, or still basing troops in a Korea where they are increasingly unwelcome (unless, of course, they are needed to stop North Korea). That situation, a relic of the immediate post World War II era, makes no sense today.

Instead, she should foster military strength among other Asian states that share our democratic values, with the goal of creating a balancing coalition against China in Asia itself. At the same time we should stress our diplomatic ties with them at least as much as we do those with China—which is not currently the case.

Possible Outcomes:

The Pentagon report makes clear how much China could now interfere with any American attempt to intervene in an Asian conflict. This fact will make Washington reluctant to contemplate such intervention, which in turn will make her even less trusted in Asia than she is at present.

Nevertheless, should China actually attempt to convert her increasingly formidable military capability into the sort of political hegemony to which she seems to aspire, she is likely to trigger a catastrophic avalanche.

The policies of the United States and other countries at present are making such an attempt more, not less, likely, by demonstrating clear reluctance even to name obvious problems that China creates. The unwillingness to label the renminbi a manipulated currency, which it most certainly is, should be instructive.

So too is the extraordinary belief, that seems to animate much of Washington’s China policy, that if treated right, Beijing will help us to solve the nuclear problems in Iran and North Korea.

This is the sort of murky international environment in which trouble can arise.

China is of course changing, and it is likely that internal problems will become more severe in the years ahead. These could lead to the emergence of a regime that is more realistic about foreign policy. But of course nationalism and war have regularly been seen also as ways to keep political power.

China must also be aware that war would close the American markets to her exports, which would lead to grave economic problems internally.

But the current Chinese leadership lacks the wisdom of even a thug like Deng Xiaoping, who understood that under no circumstances should China become alienated from the United States. Having seen their country transformed since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, and weathered the crisis of 1989, the current Chinese leadership is perhaps overconfident, lacking in the prudence born of setbacks and failures. Increasingly they act as if their country was already the great power she aspires to be, rather than a still-poor and chaotic third world state.

Whatever happens inside China, the hopeful sign is that the Pentagon report is rather straightforward and direct. Concern about China is increasing at least as rapidly as her military power. Which suggests that her unwise choice of pursuing the goal of hegemony with the steadiness and expenditures that the report documents may ironically call into being the required countervailing alliances and deterrence before Beijing is ready to move.

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