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Foreign Policy

Back to the Cold War? The US-China Military Competition

Mar 10 , 2014

Looking back over the history of the US-USSR Cold War competition, two aspects stand out: first, the USSR’s inability to catch up with the US in strategic weapons capability; second, both countries’ interventions and interferences in distant places as they sparred for influence.  The Russians lost both games, and in the end, lost the Soviet Union itself.

The Soviets really had little prospect of overcoming enormous US strategic and economic advantages that date from the end of World War II.  Yet throughout the Cold War many foreign policy analysts and journalists, not to mention US officials, constantly exaggerated both Soviet capabilities and intentions.  The greater numbers of Soviet nuclear weapons were incorrectly given more significance than was superior US capacity to deploy and target them.  Soviet intentions in the developing world were likewise miscast, as though the Russians possessed magic bullets or charm amulets that would automatically win over local populations or rebellious groups.  Afghanistan was the capstone of Soviet overreach, and while the same might be said of the United States in Vietnam, America survived its tragic intervention whereas the Russians did not.  Only when the Soviet empire crumbled did it become apparent how global overreach had weakened the USSR internally and undermined its capacity for international leadership. 

We may be seeing similar misinterpretations in US-China relations today.  China’s economic rise has given new life to those who, in Mao’s time, read every menacing statement from Beijing as a realistic threat to the interests of the US and its allies.  Now that China has a huge economy, a large military budget, and increasing military capabilities, some threat analysts see Beijing as being able to accomplish what Mao never could.  Some of them stress China’s year-on increases in military expenditures and force modernization, while others stress its willingness to use force and threat to achieve regional objectives, such as in the South China and East China Seas.  Both groups portray the United States as underestimating Chinese intentions and capabilities, with the inevitable consequence that China may soon replace the US as the leading Pacific power.

We should be wary of such alarmism.  It overstates both Chinese intentions and capabilities, fails to give credence to China’s absorption of the lessons of Soviet decline, neglects the vastly superior military and diplomatic capabilities of the US in Asia-Pacific, and gives virtually no attention to ways in which a collision of the two countries might be—and should be—avoided. 

Let’s be clear: US naval and air power across the Pacific greatly exceeds Chinese capabilities.  Relative military capabilities do matter, and here the advantage is overwhelmingly on the US side.  Whether with respect to the numbers and quality of nuclear and conventional weapons, speed of deployment of forces, access to bases, or contributions from allies and friendly nations, the United States is far ahead of China.  China is still a “partial power,” as David Shambaugh has put it. Yes, China is seeking to improve in all these areas of military capability, and its military is becoming more globally visible; but as China’s profile expands, so does that of the United States, as its numerous bases in Africa attest.  Some analysts seem to forget this last point, arguing as though China will keep spending and modernizing while the US stands still.  US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s recent announcement of slashes in manpower and consolidation of control over some weapons will have little impact on the US military presence in Asia-Pacific.  The US “rebalancing” (especially of naval forces) to Asia, Abe Shinzo’s intention to put Japan’s military on a “normal nation” path, and strengthening of US military ties with South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines have to give pause to anyone in Beijing who might think about aggressive behavior around China’s rim.

Chinese military leaders understand quite well the strategic disadvantages they face.  Their desire is not to repeat the Soviet mistake of trying to match US capabilities. Instead, they are building the kinds of forces that can deter the US in areas of “core interest,” for example in the Taiwan Strait area or the East China Sea.  So doing, they may raise for US commanders the uncomfortable choice of defending an ally at the risk of a major war in China’s backyard.  But Chinese commanders face risks too as they face superior firepower.  Most importantly, PRC party and state leaders, who must take the country’s economic and political stability into account, know full well that a direct confrontation with the United States would mean diverting if not destroying China’s priorities of rapid economic development and maintenance of one-party rule.  That concern speaks to the leadership’s fundamental insecurity, another factor that China threat theorists ignore.

One would think that if the China threat were as immediate as conservative US commentators maintain, the Pentagon would be sounding the alarm on China.  But a careful look at its most recent (2012) report indicates a rather calm assessment different from Cold War years. The report does not take China’s force modernization lightly; but, in keeping with my analysis, the report says that “China’s leaders are placing a priority on fostering a positive external environment to provide the PRC with the strategic space to focus on economic growth and development.”  While enumerating Chinese advances in weapons and missions, the report emphasizes the desire for expanded military ties.

Nevertheless, the military side of US-China relations is not worry-free.  Eminent PRC and US security experts recently characterized the relationship as one of “strategic distrust.” Mutual assurances, a multitude (around 90) of Track 1 dialogue groups, and a high level of economic interdependence have not been sufficient to offset suspicions.  Some of the language used by influential people in both countries resembles Cold War rhetoric.  Even those Chinese specialists who value the relationship with the United States and say conflict would be disastrous also believe the United States is the one country that stands in the way of China’s full rise to major-power status.  Meantime, US leaders regularly assure China that they wish it peace and prosperity, but feed Chinese anxieties by “rebalancing” forces in ways that raise the specter of “containment” and by conditioning acceptance of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on support of US policy preferences. Nationalism is fanning the fires in both countries: China is determined to assert itself as a “responsible great power” on territorial and strategic issues, while the US is equally determined to maintain its paramount position in the Pacific.  These are not the ingredients for confidence building.

And confidence building is what is badly needed now.

One piece of good news, revealed at a US Naval Institute conference earlier this year, is that US-China military engagement on security issues will increase 20 percent this year, and that China will attend the RIMPAC exercises for the first time in 2014.  This is occurring despite concern among the navy brass about a China-Japan war, which might trigger US involvement under its security treaty with Japan.  More such military-to-military ties, both bilateral and multilateral (with Japan and South Korea), are essential, in particular if they lead to a PRC-US code of conduct to guard against further incidents at sea that might result in an exchange of fire. 

At the height of the US-USSR Cold War, both countries took steps to ensure that the competition never again reached the stage of a nuclear showdown such as occurred over Cuba.  Today, US-China relations are far more developed at every level—Tracks I, II, and III—than was ever the case between Washington and Moscow.  Nor have US-China relations reached the stage of an expensive and dangerous arms race such as bankrupted the USSR and permanently unbalanced the US budget.  Both countries’ leaders need to stay focused on the importance of the relationship while opportunities still exist to sustain deep cooperation on common interests, such as restraining North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, keeping the South China and East China Seas disputes from turning violent, working together on peacekeeping missions and humanitarian assistance, and agreeing to meaningful targets on carbon emissions before climate change becomes irreversible.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Oregon.  He is also Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective and author most recently of Will This Be China’s Century? A Skeptic’s View (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013).

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