As expected, much of the discussions at the April 2012 U.S. Army War College’s 23rd annual Strategy Conference focused on China. That country was clearly seen as having the most capacity to influence U.S. foreign policy and world affairs, both directly and indirectly, by continuing to lend the United States the billions of dollars the United States needs to pay for its wars and other foreign policies. Yet, the U.S. military exhibited a much richer understanding of China’s military goals and capabilities than is commonly understood. Above all, there is clearly no desire to engage in a Cold War, let alone a real one, against the People’s Liberation Army.
An effective U.S. grand strategy today requires coping with the rising power of China. Across any number of indicators China’s economic success has been staggering. Since Deng Xiao Ping’s economic reforms in the late 1970’s, China has averaged more than nine percent annual GDP growth. In 1978, China accounted for less than one percent of world GDP. Today, it accounts for more than four percent of the world economy. China has attracted hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign investment and its population has not yet peaked. The PLA has increased its capabilities dramatically in many areas, acquiring more powerful warships, warplanes, and unconventional space and cyber capabilities. These new capabilities generally aim to disrupt U.S. military operations in times of conflict.
The consensus view at the Conference was that neither the current nor any previous U.S. Administration since the 1970s had been seeking to contain China. It was widely believed that such an attempt would invariably fail given the two countries’ interdependent economies, the large numbers of Chinese students and other important people who live and work in the United States, and the lack of international support for such a policy. One analyst said that their bilateral relationship was best characterized as one of “Mutual Assured Depression” should a conflict occur between them.
Analysts stressed that China was not another version of the USSR since the United States needed Beijing’s help to deal with global problems such as the world economy and climate change. China is a much closer trading partner with the United States than the USSR ever was, reducing the likelihood of conflict since, with the exception of 1914, countries that are close trading partners rarely go to war with one another. Furthermore, the causes of conflict between the United States and China are limited and U.S. differences with China are smaller than those that existed between Washington and Moscow, and can therefore be solved by nonmilitary means. For example, despite Chinese uneasy at the U.S naval domination, both China and the United States favor ensuring freedom of navigation on the high seas.
U.S. strategists felt comfortable that, despite the Chinese military buildup that had started with the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, which coincided with China’s transition to a global oil importer, the Pentagon is so far ahead of the PLA that the United States should have no problem maintaining military superiority for the next few decades. However, U.S. officials are concerned about the lack of transparency in the Chinese military developments and the implications of the growth of China’s power for the regional and overall balance of power and the effectiveness of institutions.
Power transitions are primed for problems. Historians and other scholars have noted how, at the level of the international system, the rise and fall of great powers typically entails major tensions and often major wars. Ascending powers seek to alter international institutions and the rules to their advantage as well as pursue territorial and other concrete goals. These rising states generally convert some of their growing wealth into power projection and other military capabilities—which they can in turn employ to pursue their foreign commercial goals. Declining great powers will resist these predations on their overseas economic interests and the existing world order of institutions and norms from which they benefit. Unresolved border disputes, competition for scarce resources, and status and prestige considerations can precipitate an armed conflict.
The fundamental question is whether this Chinese-driven power transition will engender major wars, as has often occurred in the past, or whether the transition can be managed in a way that avoids unnecessary loss of life, time, and resources. When confronted by rising powers, the established state can respond in many ways, from graceful retrenchment as occurred during the transition from British to U.S. leadership, to preemptive war, as several powers responded to the growing power of Germany. As China’s economic and military power increases relative to the other great powers, PRC leaders are likely to demand more influence over the world’s key international institutions and norms. How the United States responds will help determine the level of conflict in their relationship.
Fortunately, the speakers at the Conference downplayed the near-term prospects for a U.S.-China military clash of arms since both countries’ political leaders will likely focus on resolving their internal challenges for the next few years. China has made great progress as it “re-rises” to assume its traditionally dominant position in Asian affairs, but it suffers from major problems such as corruption, environmental pollution, internal migration, and transitioning its economy from an export-driven to a consumption-based economy. Meanwhile, the United States needs to overcome its political deadlock and resolve its budget deficit, restore its decaying infrastructure, and “rightsize” its global military posture.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.