The House Armed Services Committee will meet today to discuss the military power of the People’s Republic of China. For the past decade, China has expanded and upgraded the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), gradually increasing its influence in the region.
The United States may be the dominant power in Asia and the Pacific, but its military entanglements in Afghanistan and Iraq have left few resources available to devote to responding to China and strengthening the U.S. role in the region. While China’s military power grows, the United States still has not developed a robust strategy for what will likely be the single most critical bilateral relationship of the next century.
At the same time, an influential constituency inside the Pentagon believes that outright military confrontation between the United States and China is inevitable. Certainly, the United States does not want to drive itself on a path to war with China. Yet the hawks have the ambiguity that surrounds China’s motives on their side.
According to analysts, there are three possible scenarios to explain China’s continued military expansion:
- China’s military modernization is part of its normal evolution as a major power.
- China’s military modernization is aimed directly at supporting its commitment to enforce its claim to sovereignty over Taiwan.
- China’s military modernization is an attempt to pose a direct military challenge to the United States’ preeminent power in Asia.
The most realistic picture is a combination of the three. Consequently, the United States continues with its current default of hedging its bets — accommodating in some regards, while threatening in others. This policy fails to communicate a strong or clear message to Beijing, heightens suspicion between the two countries, and threatens to prevent the establishment of a durable security system in East Asia.
Belief in the inevitability of military confrontation between the two powers derives from the third scenario above. Allowing such a belief to determine decision making at the highest levels of the Defense Department would be foolhardy. At this point in China’s development as a rising power, the United States has a window of opportunity to shape the course of China’s engagement with the world, to steer China toward becoming a positive international player for peace and stability.
Accurate intelligence will play a key role in American policy. The United States is not currently investing sufficient time and attention to understanding, monitoring, and engaging the PLA. The United States needs to press for high-level military-to-military engagement and joint exercises. It must also reinforce its commitment to being the preferred military ally in the region, a force for peace and stability — that will only tolerate just that from a rising China.
The relationship between China and the United States will be a core foreign policy issue in the coming years. Hopefully, in discussion today, the House Armed Services Committee will get a better understanding of China’s military power and intentions so that it can make informed decisions for the future of U.S.-China relations.