Scope of the Threat
Since the 1990s, China has dramatically improved its military capabilities on land and sea, in the air, and in space. Recently, China has begun to project its military power beyond the Pacific Ocean by deploying a flotilla of small warships in December 2008 to the Gulf of Aden to aid in international efforts to fight Somali piracy. Historically, the United States is most concerned about the possibility of a conflict between China and Taiwan, though tensions between the two have lessened since 2008. But looking decades ahead, U.S. military planners clearly see the potential for China to develop as a "peer competitor." The U.S. Defense Department's 2008 report on China's military power says "much uncertainty surrounds China's future course, in particular in the area of its expanding military power and how that power might be used."
But experts say China is still decades away from challenging U.S. military's preeminence. Its ground forces field 1980s vintage armor and suffer from significant shortcomings in command and control, air defense, logistics, and communications. Its air force, too, lags behind those of Western powers, though China flies about one hundred top-end Russian Su-27 warplanes and has contracted to purchase newer Su-33s, which are capable of carrier-based operations. China plans to build aircraft carriers domestically, but currently has none under construction.
"China's military modernization makes perfect sense to me as a natural evolution commensurate with China's rise as a great power." -- James Mulvenon, Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis
None of this, however, adds up to an arms race. James Mulvenon, director of the Washington-based Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, says China's military modernization "makes perfect sense to me as a natural evolution commensurate with China's rise as a great power." The concerns expressed by Western military experts focus on longer-term motives. Kerry Dumbaugh, a specialist in Asian affairs at the U.S. Congressional Research Service, sums up these security concerns (PDF) in a 2008 report, citing China's lack of transparency in military funding and operations; recurring instances of espionage directed at obtaining U.S. military secrets; evidence of China's improving military and technological prowess; and Beijing's military and technological assistance to states like Zimbabwe, Myanmar, and others viewed as repressive or international pariahs. Many of these issues may become less contentious through a better military-to-military relationship and improved trust between the two powers, say experts. For instance, the increasing economic interdependence of the United States and China should provide a solid basis for avoiding conflict. But accidents between the two militaries, such as the midair collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter in 2001, or the accidental missile strike on China's embassy in Belgrade in 1999, could still spark a conflict neither side desires.
China's Modernization Agenda
China says it pursues a national defense policy solely aimed at protecting its territory and people, and in keeping with its concept of "peaceful development." The government's latest white paper on national defense says it will "by and large reach the goal of modernization of national defense and armed forces by the mid-21st century." The paper stresses China's hopes to create a more technologically advanced, capable military that will allow it to conduct and sustain operations at a greater distance from its border and says the country will make much progress toward that goal by 2020.
As part of this modernization agenda, China is acquiring advanced weapons systems from foreign suppliers as well as trying to develop its own. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in a statement to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in January 2009, said the areas of greatest concern are cyber- and anti-satellite warfare, anti-air and anti-ship weaponry, submarines, and ballistic missiles. "Modernization in these areas could threaten America's primary means of projecting power and helping allies in the Pacific: our bases, air and sea assets, and the networks that support them," he said.
China caused an international uproar in January 2007 when it launched a ballistic missile and destroyed one of its own satellites. The anti-satellite test displayed the growing prowess of China's space program and raised questions about China's intentions and civil-military relations within the country. In February 2008, U.S. destruction of a crippled U.S. spy satellite demonstrated that space may emerge as the new contested domain between the great powers. Yet the United States' relative space advantage will probably shrink as China strengthens its space capabilities over the next ten to twenty years, writes Bruce W. MacDonald in a September 2008 Council Special Report. The United States should champion an approach to space that emphasizes deterrence, he suggests, as well as consider new diplomatic initiatives aimed at preventing space from becoming a potential conflict zone.
The United States has also accused China of hacking into government computer networks at the U.S. Departments of State, Commerce, and Defense. Chinese electronic espionage has been alleged against British companies, as well as government agencies in France, Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan. In its November 2008 report to Congress, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted that cyberspace is a critical vulnerability of the U.S. government and economy. The report warns: "China is aggressively pursuing cyber warfare capabilities that may provide it with an asymmetric advantage against the United States. In a conflict situation, this advantage would reduce current U.S. conventional military dominance."
China has been modernizing its nuclear weapons systems and continues to emphasize its "no first use" policy on nuclear weapons. However, nonproliferation expert Henry Sokolski, in May 2008 testimony (PDF) before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said if China were to increase its nuclear weapons deployment, it could prompt its immediate neighbors--South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan--to initiate nuclear weapons programs. Mulvenon says it is a concern for Washington that China has now finally deployed the DF-31--a solid-fueled, nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile to replace its aging liquid-fueled missiles. The DF-31 provides China with credible and secure second-strike capability, the ability to respond to a nuclear attack with powerful nuclear retaliation.
Beyond specific areas of concern, analysts express worry about discrepancies in China's defense budgets. China says its defense expenditure for 2007 was around $52 billion and its 2008 defense budget is $61 billion. However, the Pentagon says these figures are grossly underreported. In its annual report to Congress, it estimated China's total military-related spending for 2007 to be between $97 billion and $139 billion. China argues that its military budget was only 1.38 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007, while U.S. defense expenditure was 4.5 percent of GDP. Experts also point to the absolute size of the United States' defense budgets to show the asymmetric comparison. The 2008 U.S. defense budget was $ 481.4 billion plus $141.7 billion for the "Global War on Terror."
U.S. Policy Response
While economic and trade relations between the United States and China have been growing, military to military relations remain relatively underdeveloped. Military conflict between the two is highly unlikely, but "not impossible" according to CFR Senior Fellow Adam Segal. Misperception or misunderstanding over an incident in the Taiwan Strait or the sudden collapse of North Korea might be the spark of a conflict neither side wants, he says.
The April 2001 "spy plane" debacle is an example of such a misunderstanding. Experts are worried there could be more incidents as the Chinese Navy and Air Force counduct exercises and patrols farther away from China and come into more frequent contact with the United States, Taiwan, and Japan.
But some experts see little prospect of a closer military relationship between the two countries in the near future. Admiral Timothy J. Keating, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told CFR.org it would be a "giant leap of faith" to believe the United States and China could develop a close military partnership any time soon. To improve the relationship, Keating says, will require "more transparency, a better understanding of intention on our part of the Chinese, and to get there we would need more active cooperation with the Chinese."
The United States has followed a two-pronged strategy in the military-to-military relationship, says Mulvenon. It engages with the Chinese military through senior-level exchanges, and it has sought to modernize and reform its own forces. A 2007 CFR Independent Task Force report (PDF), which was cochaired by Dennis Blair, the Obama administration's director of national intelligence, recommended a sustained high-level military-strategic dialogue to complement the "Senior Dialogue" started by the deputy secretary of state in 2005 and the "Strategic Economic Dialogue" launched by the treasury secretary in 2006. It also recommends that Washington strengthen its security partnerships with China's neighbors. As this Backgrounder notes, the United States has been forging closer relations with countries in the region, including India, another regional power. It concluded a groundbreaking nuclear deal with New Delhi in 2008, lifting a three-decade U.S. moratorium on nuclear trade with India. The United States has also been upgrading forward deployed naval and air forces in Guam.
How U.S. defense planners will respond to China's military buildup going forward is also dependent on the ongoing debate over the biggest threats to U.S. national security in the twenty-first century. Writing in the latest Foreign Affairs, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates says the country now faces both conventional adversaries and irregular conflicts from insurgents and non-state actors, and it should "seek a better balance in the portfolio of capabilities it has--the types of units fielded, the weapons bought, the training done." However, in a situation of finite Department of Defense resources, some analysts argue that "striking the correct planning balance" (PDF) between operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war on terror, and China's military modernization will be a key defense planning challenge.