China's Challenge


Jul 29, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on July 29, 2007.

U.S., European strategy must adjust to confront military power in Asia

Ever since China test-fired ballistic missiles into the ocean near Taiwan in 1995 and 1996, many analysts and commentators have sounded the alarm about the threat of China's military power. This has been a false alarm until now, but within a decade China could supplant America as the dominant military power in East Asia.

In 1995, China's military was almost exclusively equipped with weapons systems that were based on 1950s-era Soviet designs—the same type of obsolete weapons that the U.S. military systematically destroyed in the 1991 Gulf War with Iraq.

In addition, Chinese soldiers were poorly trained in using their weapons in the mid-1990s, their ability to maintain and support their weapons was highly suspect, and military leadership and morale were substandard. Many Chinese military officers were more interested in earning money from military-run businesses than in preparing to fight a war.

Much has changed in the past 12 years. After years of backwardness and inefficiency, China's defense industries are now producing weapons systems that are approaching the capability of those that constitute the bulk of the U.S. military's inventory. These include modern fighter jets, ships, surface-to-air missiles, and tanks roughly comparable to the F-15s and F-16s in the U.S. Air Force, the Aegis destroyers and Los Angeles-class attack submarines in the U.S. Navy, and the Patriot missiles and M1 tanks in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.

China is also pursuing a number of “asymmetric” capabilities that present particular challenges for the United States. Foremost of these is the conventional ballistic missiles first demonstrated in 1995 and 1996. The number, range and accuracy of such missiles in China's inventory have increased dramatically since that time while U.S. ballistic missile defense capabilities remain uncertain.

China's ballistic missiles could be used to attack runways and aircraft on the ground at U.S. and allied air bases in the Western Pacific, neutralizing U.S. land-based air power before it could get into the air. China is even trying to develop a way to hit a moving ship at sea with a ballistic missile, an unprecedented capability that would threaten the one U.S. advantage that until now China has had no answer for—the U.S. Navy's aircraft carriers.

Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of China's growing military prowess was its January test of an anti-satellite weapon, in which China destroyed one of its own satellites in low Earth orbit.

Today, China has acquired the technical capability to produce modern weapons systems and has an economy that continues to grow at a rate of 10 percent or more a year. The Chinese defense budget has been growing even faster, giving the nation the economic and financial capacity to produce weapons in mass quantities. As a result, China will have the resources to largely replace much of its inventory of outdated weapons systems with their modern equivalents by 2015.

Moreover, the ability of the Chinese military to use weapons is also improving. The Chinese armed forces are now focused on increasing the quality, intensity and realism of their training, and in improving their ability to logistically sustain and support its military forces. Similarly, a military once organized on the Soviet model—with career officers commanding conscripted enlisted personnel who served terms of two or three years—is gradually being replaced by an organization modeled on the U.S. pattern military with a corps of enlisted non-commissioned officers serving long-term careers in uniform.

Commissioned officers are increasingly being recruited from the ranks of civilian university graduates, and the Chinese military's involvement in commerce has been significantly reduced.

The U.S. military is, of course, not standing still, either. New generations of aircraft, ships and missiles are being developed and deployed. The United States, however, faces a number of challenges that China does not.

America has global commitments and must maintain the capability to win wars not just nearby, but anywhere in the world. This requires an array of expensive ways to project power, including aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, strategic transport aircraft, aerial refueling aircraft, fighter aircraft and long-range bombers. Billions of dollars are required simply to sustain and renew these forces.

The United States must also prepare to fight a wider range of potential adversaries than China. Many of the new weapons systems and capabilities that the United States is acquiring were selected in the 1990s and initially optimized for operations against the type of adversaries America faced during that decade—countries such as Iraq and Serbia that fielded largely low-tech capabilities leavened with a smattering of imported high-tech weapons. Many of these systems have since been modified to contend with more modern threats.

Such possible adversaries had no hope of actually defeating the United States in a war; the primary U.S. concern in a conflict with them was how to minimize U.S. and civilian casualties. As a result, many of the new weapons systems the United States is acquiring are not necessarily the best ones for confronting a country such as China that will present a virtually across-the-board high-tech challenge.

But perhaps the greatest challenge for the United States in maintaining its military superiority over China in East Asia is that presented by geography. Although America bases roughly 100,000 military personnel in East Asia and the Western Pacific, they represent just a fraction of overall U.S. military manpower of about 1.4 million. In the event of a military conflict with China—which says it has an active duty military of 2.3 million men and women—the United States would have to deploy additional ships, planes and troops across thousands of miles. Such a deployment could take weeks.

Currently, the United States has about 200 fighter aircraft, nine surface warships, two attack submarines and one aircraft carrier based in Japan, South Korea or Guam. China, by contrast, has roughly 3,000 fighter aircraft, 70 surface warships and 60 attack submarines in East Asia. Although today perhaps only one in 10 of the Chinese aircraft and ships is a modern one comparable in capability to those operated by the United States, even that fraction conveys a numerical advantage for China.

Moreover, China will have the economic resources to have replaced perhaps half of its ships and aircraft with modern versions within the next 10 years. That means China could have more than 1,000 modern fighter aircraft, a few dozen modern surface warships and a few dozen modern attack submarines. Although America will have at least twice as many of each of these types of systems, most of these will be based in the United States or elsewhere in the world. Within East Asia, China could well be perceived as the predominant military power.

This situation has several implications.

First, if the United States wishes to be assured of prevailing in a conflict with China waged over Taiwan, America should continue acquiring and begin deploying a new generation of weapon systems in the region that are significantly superior to their Chinese counterparts, or it must increase the overall U.S. presence in the region. The ideal strategy is probably to do both.

Second, given how far East Asia is from the United States and likely ongoing U.S. military commitments elsewhere in the world, it is simply unrealistic to expect to be able to maintain military predominance in the region based entirely on American capabilities. The United States will need help from allies.

Unlike in Europe, however, with one or two exceptions, U.S. allies in Asia are relatively few and relatively small. Individual allies such as Taiwan, of course, should take responsibility for doing everything possible to maintain their capabilities to defend themselves. In terms of playing a wider regional security role, only Japan has both the capability and the possible inclination to serve as a counterbalance against China.

If the United States wishes to maintain an advantageous balance of power in East Asia, it should support and encourage Japan's moves to become a “normal” power that has military capabilities commensurate with its economic might. China and South Korea would vociferously object to such a policy, so pursuing it would require political courage and diplomatic skill.

Finally, the United States should prepare to adjust to an East Asia in which America is no longer the single most important influence on regional security matters. No matter how successful its efforts to counterbalance the rise of China's military power, the United States cannot prevent that rise. That means America must accept the reality that, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, it will no longer be the sole major military power in the region.

While the United States will be viewed by most countries in East Asia as less threatening than China, those countries will want to maintain good relations with both major powers and resist any attempt to force them to align with the United States at the expense of China. Even the United States will be compelled to take Beijing's reaction into account before making any decision that affects regional security issues.

China and the United States are not foreordained to clash with each other. With skill and luck, America can adjust to the rise of Chinese military power and avoid conflict until China has made the inevitable but perilous transition to become a peaceful democracy. China's military power is coming on fast, though, and the United States needs to begin taking steps now to prepare for China's emergence as a major regional power.

Cliff is a political scientist who studies China at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization.

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