May 3, 2012
China has been all over the international news headlines recently, both because of its military talks with the U.S. beginning this week and the recent escape of one of its well-known dissidents from house arrest.
The fact that the dissident, Chen Guangcheng, then sought protection in the U.S. embassy, did not ease tensions going into Wednesday's meetings. China's increased military spending (although there is some debate over the size of its defense budget, which some sources claim has seen double-digit growth for the past 20 years) has put the U.S. on edge, while the U.S. presence in Asia has fed into Chinese fears of encirclement.
The Chen issue notwithstanding, the Chinese-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue is going forward.
Despite the inherent and undeniable importance of human rights issues, this is for the best. China's growth not just in terms of its internal development, but its increasing investment in projects in its own region and the rest of the developing world make it impossible to think of trying to isolate or ignore the country.
More hawkish foreign policy thinkers allude frequently to a "Chinese threat," and the need for the U.S. to respond to it.
Security concerns regarding China certainly have some merit, but deserve closer examination to determine the best way to address them. For one thing, much has been made of China's recent development of a stealth fighter, and the possible launch of its first aircraft carrier later this year. However, aircraft expert Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group, a consulting firm specializing in both civilian and military aircraft, has said that the Chinese stealth fighter maintains features that would make it obvious on radar, and that China may still be decades away from a true stealth plane. The aircraft carrier is a remodeled version of a ship China bought from the Ukraine in 1998.
So those more conventional weapons don't actually appear to be able to present a major threat to the U.S. In fact, it is unlikely that China poses any real threat to American national security at all. What it could threaten is American interests in Asia, and it is more likely to do this through asymmetric warfare.
Specifically, China has been developing some of its anti-access and area denial capabilities. These sorts of strategies do not aim to best the U.S. in a direct confrontation, but rather to prevent the U.S. from entering into certain engagements entirely. These include the development of missiles and drones that could target aircraft launching from aircraft carriers, for example, rather than attempting to match the U.S. Navy itself. This could effectively limit the power of U.S. carriers without the difficulty (or danger of escalation) that attempting to sink them would cost.
These, coupled with improved cyber and space capabilities, provide China with a way to combat American influence in its region without having to try to beat U.S. conventional forces or spending, both of which remain without parallel.
U.S. strategists are used to thinking of asymmetric warfare in terms of insurgents with improvised explosives; that is, when they think of asymmetric warfare at all. China's military could well be leading a trend toward new asymmetric warfare capabilities on the state level, ones that enable countries without the U.S.'s massive defense budget and capabilities to nonetheless hold their own in conflicts that do not take place in the American homeland. In seeking to address military threats presented by China, the U.S. should take care not to fight past wars, but to think about the future of warfare.
Beyond that, there is the fact that China is becoming a major power, not just militarily, but also economically and politically, especially in the developing world. To an extent, the modernization of their military and their quest for greater regional influence are natural. As such, it should not always be perceived as a threat to U.S. interests, although it does merit careful observation.
And of course, the U.S. should also seek engagement and cooperation as much as possible. Despite security concerns and lingering distrust between the two powers, they have common interests, both in terms of economic cooperation and in seeking stability in the developing world. On moral grounds, the U.S. has an interest in continuing to push for greater respect for human rights in China, just as it has an interest in constantly seeking to improve its own human rights record. Beyond military strategy, open communication has the greatest potential to promote peace between the two countries. The challenges to communication are myriad, but so too would be the rewards.