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China Should Not Overreact To New U.S. Military Strategy

Jul 15 , 2015

When asked about the Pentagon’s newly released and updated National Military Strategy of the United States at a July 3 news conference, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying said that her government was “dissatisfied with and opposed to some contents of the U.S. report which groundlessly exaggerates the China threat,” specifically its depiction of recent Chinese island reconstruction efforts in the South China Sea. Hua urged that Washington recognize its interest in insuring that, “The U.S. side should throw away the Cold War mentality, take an unbiased perspective of China’s strategic intention, [and] work together with China to advance the building of the new model of major-country relationship [reflecting] the spirit of non-confrontation, non-conflicts, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”

The latest National Military Strategy (NMS) was a comprehensively revised and updated version of the 2011 NMS, which offered a more moderate assessment of China. That document sought “a positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship with China” in which Beijing assumes “a responsible leadership role.” In contrast, the 2015 text explicitly complains that, “China’s actions are adding tension to the Asia-Pacific region.” In particular, Beijing’s “claims to nearly the entire South China Sea are inconsistent with international law” and its recent “aggressive land reclamation efforts” aim to “position [Chinese] military forces astride vital international sea lanes.”

Following the report’s release on June 30, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense told the Global Times that the Pentagon was making “groundless accusations” about China’s maritime construction activities and that the Ministry opposed U.S. efforts to “hype” the “China threat” thesis. Instead, the Ministry argued that, “The U.S. should stop making irresponsible comments and put more efforts into facilitating the peaceful development of China-U.S. military relations and maintaining regional peace and stability.”

But Chinese readers should not overreact to the text. The new NMS does not describe any new U.S. military missions, capabilities, or defense initiatives. U.S. policy makers are not forecasting an inevitable a war with China. They see areas where the two countries’ national security interests overlap sufficiently for bilateral collaboration, such as regarding nuclear proliferation, Korea and Iran, and counterterrorism. The latest NMS joins other documents in affirming that the United States will “support China’s rise and encourage it to become a partner for greater international security.”


The 2015 NMS does not depict a renewed Cold War or permanent state of tension between the United States and China or any other country. Indeed, it argues that China and the other “revisionist” powers such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea are “not believed to be seeking direct military conflict with the United States or our allies.”

Given this mixed U.S. relationship with these states, the United States “remain[s] committed to engagement … to communicate our values, promote transparency, and reduce the potential for miscalculation.” To this end, the U.S. Defense Department will “continue to invest in a substantial military-to-military relationship with China” while encouraging Beijing to resolve its territorial dispute peacefully in line with international law.

The 2015 report does reaffirm the rebalancing the Asia strategy that remains unpopular in Beijing. The presumption is that, “The presence of U.S. military forces in key locations around the world underpins the international order and provides opportunities to engage with other countries while positioning forces to respond to crises.” Accordingly, the Pentagon “will press forward with the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, placing our most advanced capabilities and greater capacity in that vital theater.”

In operational terms, this orientation means that the U.S. military will “strengthen our alliances with Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand” [and] “deepen our security relationship with India and build upon our partnerships with New Zealand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Bangladesh.” In addition to “maintaining regional peace” through deterrence and assurance, these activities will aim to build joint capacities “for missile defense, cyber security, maritime security, and disaster relief.”

The 2011 NMS explains that Asia is the geographic region whose relative global importance for the United States is increasing the most. That text affirms that the “the nation’s strategic priorities and interests will increasingly emanate from the Asia-Pacific region” due to its having two rising powers (China and India), several especially dangerous states (North Korea and Iran), and some of the world’s most dynamic national economies region whose growing wealth is allowing their governments to strengthen their military capabilities. The Asia-Pacific region is also prone to instability due to disruptive demographic trends, the diffusion of military-relevant technologies, and the complexity and fluidity of regional alignments.

Even in 2011, China’s rising economic and military strength generated unease among Washington planners. For example, the NMS declares that the United States will closely follow how the PLA’s modernization could disrupt the military balance across the Taiwan Strait and China’s “assertiveness in space, cyberspace, in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea.” Alluding to China’s growing missile arsenal, cyber, and counter-space capabilities, the 2011 NMS expressed alarm about the global increase in “anti-access and area-denial capabilities and strategies to constrain U.S. and international freedom of action.”

Yet, Chinese readers of these texts need to bear certain facts in mind. These national security documents have multiple audiences within the United States (government agencies, the Congress, and analysts) as well as abroad (foreign allies, partners, and adversaries). They serve both formal and informal functions. Within the United States, they offer official policy and program guidance as well as unofficial tools for bureaucratic infighting by providing documents from which actors can cite supporting statements in their speeches and other statements in budget battles with other agencies. Overseas, they communicate implicit messages to foreign audiences.

As with most national security documents, the NMS reports are often vague and sometimes internally contradictory because a committee wrote them and the texts reflect the lowest common denominator of what the participants and their constituents would agree to. The vague and common-denominator wording of these texts provide bureaucratic actors considerable leeway in how they pursue their goals and no strict rule for judging whether one office or agency’s interpretation is superior to another. Even the term “strategy” is a bit of a misnomer because they typically list a number of priorities and programs but refrain from establishing a clear hierarchy among them. These same observations apply to China’s recent White Papers.

For better or worse, Chinese and American analysts will gain a better understanding of our future relationship by reading the articles in China-U.S. Focus than the various strategy documents issued by our governments.

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