The Chinese Military Threat Is Real

Instead of ignoring it, progressives should offer their own proposals to address it.

By Jacob Stokes

Tagged ChinadefenseForeign Policy

Observers who do not spend their days immersed in foreign policy may be experiencing whiplash. To many, it seems like the post-9/11 wars have hardly hit a pause, and already the specter of an aggressive China looms over national security discussions. Reluctance toward diving headlong into another expensive and tense geopolitical contest is understandable. Americans are weary after two decades of war. A full slate of domestic issues urgently demands attention. Transnational problems, most importantly climate change, require coordinated action.

On China specifically, some fear that responding to Beijing’s growing power will provoke a self-fulfilling rivalry. Others suspect the Pentagon and the national security establishment are simply looking for the next adversary or seeking a new Cold War. And besides, the United States spends more on its military than the next eight countries combined. Surely such fighting power can handle China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

If only that were the case. Progressives who value global stability and the furtherance of democracy should be concerned about China’s military buildup and the broader security threat from Beijing. Acknowledging that reality does not have to—and, in fact, cannot—mean neglecting the domestic sources of American strength or non-military foreign policy tools. Nor does it necessarily require support for ballooning defense spending. But it does demand grappling with the political-military and operational problems the PLA creates and advancing policies that take seriously the risk China poses in Asia and beyond.

Doing so means fully reorienting U.S. foreign policy strategy to reflect Asia’s importance for America and the world. It also means making smart investments in both cutting-edge capabilities and ways to deploy them; deepening joint planning with regional allies and partners to counter Beijing’s most likely geopolitical gambits; and engaging in principled consultations with China on strategic stability issues.

Peer Competitor

The security challenge from China has grown rapidly into an acute and powerful one, fueled by two decades of double-digit increases to military spending. Officially, China budgeted just over $175 billion for defense in 2019. But analysts agree that Beijing often under-reports the actual figures, in part by leaving out spending categories such as research and development and foreign weapons purchases. Depending on the methodology, China actually spends 25-40 percent more, equating to $200-250 billion. Even by official numbers, Chinese military spending doubled between 2009 and 2018. By comparison, the United States spent $716 billion on defense in 2019, including war spending.

Those numbers appear lopsided in America’s favor. But further inspection reveals China to be near parity with the United States military in Asia. Total U.S. defense spending must cover forces spread around the world, with a focus on not just Asia, but also Europe, the Middle East, and the homeland, and smaller contingents devoted to Africa and the Americas. Spreading out over such a vast area dilutes U.S. military strength in any single theater. Moreover, projecting forces from the United States and bases in Asia costs vastly more than China’s task of deploying the military from its backyard. Put simply, America plays an away game, China a home game.

Plowing enormous amounts of money into the PLA has enabled swift growth in size and sophistication. China now possesses the world’s largest navy, although U.S. ships are more advanced on average. One striking fact is that between 2014 and 2018, the Chinese Navy built more ships and submarines than the total number currently serving in the German, Indian, Spanish, Taiwan, or British navies. The PLA Navy is building China’s third aircraft carrier. And the PLA Air Force flies advanced “fifth-generation” stealth fighter jets in the J-20 that are comparable, if not quite equal, to high-end U.S. planes like the F-35s and F-22s. China’s rapid advances in military technology have been aided by a combination of cyber and industrial theft, acquiring dual-use technologies from around the world, buying and ripping off Russian weapons, and overhauling its industrial base.

Beijing’s military muscle does not derive solely from matching U.S. and allied forces one-to-one. China also pursues asymmetric capabilities designed to cheaply counteract U.S. military advantages and exploit weaknesses to win. Following displays of U.S. military-technological prowess during the first Gulf War and the wars in the Balkans, China set out to build weapons to target U.S. vulnerabilities. The PLA Rocket Force boasts the world’s largest missile arsenal, which it envisions using against U.S. bases and ships in a war. In a series of RAND Corporation war games, these weapons consistently contributed to American defeats. The PLA also created a Strategic Support Force that runs its cyber, space, and electronic weapons. One goal of those forces is to be able to turn off, confuse, or destroy the satellites, computer networks, and other connected systems that enable modern warfare. Beijing’s theory of victory relies on preventing the United States from intervening long enough to deliver a fait accompli that would be too costly to reverse, such as invading Taiwan.

China has also begun revamping the “software” of its military. Starting in 2015, General Secretary Xi Jinping initiated an ambitious reform program to accelerate the PLA’s transformation into a “world-class military” ready to “fight and win wars.” Those reforms were intended to convert the PLA from a hulking Stalinist bureaucracy into an agile and lethal fighting force. Elements of that program include enhancing the roles of the air force, navy, and nuclear and missile forces in line with a more outward-facing military; setting up regional combatant command structures; and shifting promotional incentives to push the services to coordinate. Xi’s ruthless anti-corruption campaign has targeted crooked PLA officers along with political opponents. Those seemingly dull bureaucratic changes promise to help the PLA achieve its goal of eclipsing the United States and allied militaries in Asia and projecting force outside China’s neighborhood.

Looking ahead more broadly, military technology is poised for a revolution, and China intends to be at the vanguard. In certain areas, the PLA is trying to leapfrog generations of technology, passing over legacy systems and skipping straight to those on par with or better than the U.S. military. As former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work has written, China “appears increasingly close to achieving technological parity with U.S. operational systems and has a plan to achieve technological superiority.” To speed that innovation along, the Chinese state has mandated greater integration and joint development of military and civilian technology sectors, which, combined with its Made in China 2025 industrial policy, could give Beijing an edge adapting emerging technologies for military purposes. These include artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons, quantum communications, autonomous unmanned systems, and enhanced biology.

To be sure, the PLA is hardly an unstoppable juggernaut. China’s military still falls short in several areas such as operating jointly, cultivating effective mid-level leadership, developing doctrine and training for modern weapons, and sustaining forces outside East Asia. Further, China hasn’t fought a war since it faced off unsuccessfully against Vietnam in 1979, leading PLA leadership to worry about “peace disease.” And the farther the PLA tries to fly, sail, and operate from its shores, the more vulnerable it becomes to U.S. forces because it has to rely on exactly the types of power projection capabilities, such as aircraft carriers, that make the U.S. military vulnerable near China’s shores.

Here’s the bottom line: In the period from the end of the Cold War until recently, U.S. military strategy sought what defense experts call “overmatch,” a degree of military power so dominant that adversaries would not even try to catch up to the United States. That era is over. Overmatch is now unattainable in East Asia. Instead, what Washington and its allies are looking for is an advantage sufficient to balance and deter Chinese adventurism—a task that grows harder each year. Maintaining American dominance in Asia is no longer feasible. The new, more modest aim should be preventing, in conjunction with other countries, the emergence of effective Chinese hegemony.

Reshaping Asia

Taking seriously the prospect of Chinese aggression does not require viewing Beijing as an avaricious power that is seeking global domination—the CCP is not the Nazis or the Soviets. China’s narrower goals, however, are still dangerous. Beijing defines its sovereign territory expansively to include Taiwan, disputed islands and rocks in the East and South China seas along with the waters themselves, and land on the border with India. Therefore, even “defensive” goals seek to redraw the map, using force if necessary, with major implications for the United States and its alliance commitments, especially with Japan and the Philippines. Xi told former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis that China would not compromise on “even one inch” of territory it claims.

Beijing’s implicit long-term goals are also fueling tensions. No one outside of Xi Jinping and his inner circle can know Beijing’s intentions with absolute certainty. Plus, ambitions can expand over time. But a straightforward reading of China’s aspirations based on scouring statements from leaders and official documents includes revising the political and security order in Asia to reduce the role of Washington and its regional alliances, thereby removing the major constraint on Chinese power. In essence, China seeks a tacit dominance in a hierarchical Asia with Beijing at the top. When Xi talks about building an “Asia for Asians” and a “community with a shared future for mankind” that is what he means.

If Xi succeeds, it would mean a region where power tramples rules, where rights are subordinate to Party dictates, and where markets are fixed for favored companies instead of being open and competitive. Beijing seeks to make the world safe for the protection and consolidation of its domestic autocracy. So, a region and world under China’s sway will likely resemble its domestic system. The brazen snuffing out of Hong Kong’s autonomy in violation of Beijing’s treaty obligations, systematic atrocities against the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, and universal crackdown on liberties throughout the country give us a preview.

Paradoxically, focusing on Asia’s future also matters because China’s military rise increasingly extends outside the region to impact places around the world. While Chinese military power still concentrates on its neighborhood, it is expanding to other regions. The PLA has started to mirror China’s economic interests in “going out,” including through Xi’s massive infrastructure and investment project, the Belt and Road Initiative. Whereas in an earlier era, trade followed the flag, for China, the flag follows trade. China’s 2019 Defense White Paper listed “safeguard China’s overseas interests” as one of nine core goals, reaffirming earlier official statements.

China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017 and seeks similar arrangements in places like Cambodia and Pakistan. The PLA has also used its contributions to anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden in the western Indian Ocean to practice sailing long distances away from China and sustaining its ships and sailors at sea. The PLA’s ability to operate a sophisticated “blue water” navy capable of far-flung operations improves continuously. The PLA Navy reaches not just the Indian Ocean, but also the Western Pacific beyond the First Island Chain that runs from Japan to the Philippines, and in the Arctic. Beijing does not have designs on U.S. territory, but the problems it poses will not stay confined to the seas off China’s coast. As a result, the geographic reach of China’s challenge to American interests and values is expanding rapidly just as a propensity for bullying comes to dominate Chinese foreign policy. A stronger PLA will give Beijing greater recourse to threaten or use military power in more places and to stronger effect, whether on political, trade, technology, or strategic issues.

China’s shifting time horizon for its geopolitical rise plays an important role, too, as Georgetown’s David Edelstein has argued. Beijing used to believe it could gain advantage through downplaying its strength and waiting to assert itself. Leaders refer to the early decades of the twenty-first century as a “period of strategic opportunity” where China can amass power without alarming America. Now, the PRC timeline for seeking “national rejuvenation” is increasingly discussed in the present, not future, tense. In Xi’s words, China “has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong,” so Beijing is moving to “center stage,” as it continues to accumulate power.

Xi’s timeline appears more urgent, as the centennial anniversaries of the founding of the Party in 2021 and the People’s Republic in 2049 approach. For example, he has said the Taiwan problem “should not be passed down generation after generation” and carried out a cutthroat campaign to isolate the island’s democratic government. An invasion that swallows up a democracy governing 23 million people remains a real possibility, forestalled only by U.S. security commitments. China continues to ratchet up pressure in the East and South China Seas, too. Some contend that Xi faces an internal backlash against his aggressive policies, but so far, dissenters have demonstrated little influence over policy. More broadly, as economic growth slows and communist ideology rings hollow, Chinese leaders substitute chauvinistic nationalism as a source of legitimacy by hyping their determination to avenge historical wrongs, both real and perceived, and claiming territory for China with little regard for the international law and norms set up to adjudicate such disputes.

Chinese leaders are not waiting to pursue their expansionist goals through traditional set-piece battles. Instead they are actively working to change facts on the ground to win without fighting. Strategists call these “gray zone” challenges, a reference to the space between peace and war. Tactics include using economic tools like trade boycotts or controlling tourist flows, disinformation campaigns, or employing non-military actors such as fishermen to advance political goals. Occasionally gray zone challenges include PLA forces doing things like pointing lasers into the eyes of pilots or making intentionally dangerous maneuvers such as unsafe aircraft intercepts or ship ramming. China initially chose these kinds of tactics because it was weak. But with a more powerful military now standing behind its unofficial warriors, those provocations have added potency.

An emboldened China is forcing its neighbors into difficult decisions about how to ensure their security. Whether countries improve their militaries and find new allies to balance China, or instead take steps to accommodate Beijing, will have major ramifications for peace and security in the coming decades. Regional states are already hedging their bets—a trend President Trump is hastening with his trademark disdain for allies and bullying approach toward burden sharing. But the space for hedging will narrow as the competition over geopolitics, trade, technology, values, and global governance between the United States and China intensifies.

The rapid growth of Chinese power, along with a general desire to reduce global commitments, has led some to argue that Washington should reduce its role in Asia as a way of accommodating Beijing. Extreme versions of this argument effectively call for splitting the Pacific in half, with everything west of Hawaii falling under China’s sway. Doing so, however, would essentially cede what is arguably the world’s most dynamic region to China and shirk America’s longstanding role in the region. As Michael Green showed in his book By More Than Providence, Washington’s roots as a Pacific power and the importance of Asia to U.S. grand strategy date back centuries and, in many respects, have been as critical to driving American trade and countering geopolitical threats as events in Europe.

Scholars debate whether this century will be an “Asian Century.” But few doubt that the region will be the center of world politics. About 60 percent of the world’s population lives in Asia, and that percentage is set to rise. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Asia’s share of global GDP in purchasing power terms was set to surpass the rest of the world in 2020 (and might still given the relatively deft response of many Asian countries to the virus). In market exchange terms, Asia already generates 38 percent of global output. Several of America’s regional allies and partners shine as beacons of democracy. Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Taiwan rank higher in Freedom House’s democracy index than the United States. South Korea is only a few spots behind and India is slouching toward sectarianism but functioning. Preserving those democracies will be a key determinant of freedom’s fate worldwide, as, unfortunately, democratic backsliding in Thailand and the Philippines have illustrated.

Over time, the U.S. goal should be a gradual evolution of the regional political and security order in Asia, not a collapse of the U.S.-led system, only to be replaced by a China-led order or nothing at all. The “long peace” in East Asia since the Vietnam War should not devolve into a tinderbox. Once the regional system starts to unravel, it could create a political momentum that would be difficult to arrest. An updated order would provide a counterweight to help smaller countries in the region resist coercion and undue Chinese influence. Explaining what the approach is not—regime change or Cold War-style containment—can help clarify its bounds.

Sustaining the Long Peace

A progressive response to China’s growing military power should combine actions across five areas. The first requires placing and keeping China and Asia at the center of U.S. grand strategy. The Obama Administration tried to make the region its top priority with the pivot (later, rebalance) policy. But necessity forced Obama to focus on extricating Washington from existing wars. The Trump Administration has purported to continue a version of the pivot with its Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept. But crises in other regions—including a confrontation with Iran, sparring with Russia in Europe, and a slow-motion implosion in Venezuela—will always tempt U.S. administrations to reorient.

As mentioned above, China’s global footprint is growing. Still, an effective China policy starts in Asia and emanates outward. One practical step to maintain focus would be to revise the existing post-9/11 war authorizations. They provide the legal basis for a sprawling, perpetual war on terror and overemphasis on the greater Middle East. Avoiding war with Iran is also critical. In these ways, calculated restraint and winding down U.S. forever wars can support a pragmatic policy of balancing China’s growing power.

Second, progressives need to make their own case in defense and military policy debates about the best way to deter and balance China, rather than solely calling for reassurance measures and dialogue (although both have their place, see below). Eschewing deterrence deliberations will leave them for conservatives to decide. Evaluating the sources of, and best responses to, security competition requires acknowledging its existence. Most of these issues do not align neatly with partisan lines. But to the extent calculations rely on different theories about the sources of conflict or the best way to protect allies, progressives espousing well-informed views will be critical.

Defense spending represents another point of contention. Addressing the security threat from China does not necessarily require massive additional military expenditures, but it is also inconsistent with cavalier cuts. The aim should be spending defense dollars the right way. It is possible—indeed, advisable—to argue for meaningful restraints on the growth of defense spending without dismissing the military dilemmas China presents. Preventing war is the best way to keep military spending in check. Such logic can be overdone, where every potential addition to military spending is justified by “peace through strength.” But progressives should not dismiss the need for a credible deterrent force. Equally important is what do with the money, including determining what capabilities to buy and how to use them. Acquisition decisions about the size and composition of the military have to grapple with tradeoffs between maintaining and operating existing forces, on one hand, and developing next-generation technologies on the other.

Further, “operational concepts” that prescribe how to employ the military if war breaks out must strike a balance between deterring China from starting a war and ensuring victory if a conflict happens, while not incentivizing the PLA to adopt a hair-trigger posture. Finding that balance will be hard. Some military strategists advocate bombing the Chinese mainland early in a conflict, which risks rapid escalation. Others call for a blockade strategy that would rely less on striking deep in Chinese territory. But this approach would have the downside of choking off a major portion of the global economy and leaving allies close to China at Beijing’s mercy. In weighing options, progressives will be confronted with an unfortunate but inescapable reality: Decisions won’t be clear-cut or morally unambiguous. Recall that President Eisenhower, who warned against the “military-industrial complex” and successfully slashed military spending, did so on the back of a program of threatening nuclear war in Europe.

The U.S. goal should be to deter China from taking aggressive actions, or, if Beijing does provoke, being able to respond quickly and effectively in ways designed to head off further escalation. Recent years have taught us that China seeks to manipulate risks and test the boundaries of what will prompt a response. Those efforts were not caused by miscalculation or freelancing by trigger-happy bureaucracies. So reflexive responses that always call for de-escalation will not alone suffice as China’s incremental gains add up over time.

Third, the United States should work with allies and partners to craft defense strategies designed for the specific problems they face. Some elements of this agenda should go without saying: not denigrating or threatening to end alliances as a haggling ploy, engaging in sustained diplomacy, working together on technology and trade issues, and expanding ties between our societies at all levels.

Beyond basics, Washington needs to develop approaches that take into account Beijing’s integration of both military and non-military tools of coercion as part of the aforementioned gray zone strategies. Washington needs to find a credible way to parry those campaigns, reassure allies and partners, and deter Beijing. Elements include targeted arms sales, jointly developed plans for responding to non-traditional Chinese provocations, and facilitating defense cooperation among regional countries (minus China). These challenges underscore the axiom that the United States needs an Asia strategy, not just a China strategy. Some progressives who advocate extreme versions of foreign policy restraint will be wary of deepening alliances. They worry about antagonizing China and exacerbating a security dilemma, risking U.S. entanglement, and enabling allies to freeride on U.S. military spending. But they will have to make the case for full withdrawal from Asian security treaties. Upholding hollow alliances increases the potential for crises and, potentially, war.

Fourth, the United States can better balance China’s military using domestic policies that help convert the sources of strength into meaningful power. The defensive pillar of that agenda would block the pathways through which China acquires military technology from the United States. This includes rooting out spy networks that pilfer U.S. technologies with military applications (an increasingly broad category) and improving screening of foreign investments into those sectors. Both actions would function as arms control, slow inadvertent U.S. contributions to PLA modernization, and force China to pour its own money into developing arms. Progressives will have an edge in crafting nuanced policies that enlist ethnic Chinese people as partners rather than profiling them as threats. Isolating those communities will do more harm than good, in addition to violating American values.

The affirmative pillar of this agenda should concentrate on programs to renew U.S. sources of strength, most of which dovetail with broader progressive priorities. This agenda is multifaceted: advancing a broad-based conversation about securing cyberspace and the emerging Internet of Things. Reforming education and training policies so the American science and technology base remains the world leader or catches up where lagging. For the Pentagon, recommitting to a reform agenda to improve the way America buys weapons, addressing personnel costs that consume an ever-growing percentage of military spending, and updating Defense Department business practices.

Progressives will sometimes have to reassess their instinctual opposition to supporting military-technological development. Changes in military technologies mean more innovations will come from the private sector and need to be integrated into defense applications. To be sure, those who warn that novel weapons can beget a desire to use them or make war seem “easy” or “clean” induce needed caution. But progressives should also stipulate that allowing China to gain a decisive military-technological edge will be detrimental to U.S. security and the cause of resisting authoritarianism globally. Moreover, regulatory regimes that govern the deployment and use of new weapons will prove more effective in controlling them than trying to hold back the tide of the technological innovation. The imperative will be to find a more nuanced approach that balances a desire to avoid mindless militarism with preventing China from gaining the military upper hand.

Fifth and finally, shoring up deterrence can and should be paired with tough-minded pursuit of talks with the Chinese on how to dispel misperceptions, manage crises, and prevent unwanted escalation. Increased tensions between Washington and Beijing are combining with strategic weapons new and old—such as anti-satellite weapons, hypersonic missiles, and modernizing nuclear arsenals—to create an increasingly unstable strategic environment. In certain respects, the world finds itself in a similar place to the early nuclear age, when the rules for how technologies affect military strategy were not yet understood. That is a recipe for instability and should be a top priority for U.S. and Chinese leaders, both at the military-to-military and political levels. Such talks would examine conventional confidence-building mechanisms, as well as plans related to nuclear, missile, and other “strategic” capabilities.

Generating meaningful results will be difficult. China remains reluctant to discuss these issues because it sees unpredictability and opacity as advantages. Beijing has a penchant for using risky actions as a leverage tactic. Often, China sees the talks themselves as a card to play or an opportunity to collect intelligence without providing any insight into its own capabilities. Therefore, while pragmatic stability talks can be valuable, they will require clear eyes.

The security challenge from China isn’t going away anytime soon. Progressives can chart a more effective path to peace and stability, and one that does not require sacrificing other societal goals. But only if they grapple head-on with the problems Beijing’s growing military power poses.

Read more about ChinadefenseForeign Policy

Jacob Stokes is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project. He previously served in the White House on the national security staff of Vice President Joe Biden, and as a professional staff member for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The views expressed here are strictly his own.

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