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Counterinsurgency operations against Islamic militants and the support of far-flung allies will remain a core responsibility for the American Armed Forces even as their budgets are slashed. China need not wage war upon America to exact a military toll: American warships and Air Force squadrons that are badly needed elsewhere will have to spend time reassuring skittish allies and patrolling areas that China seeks to assert control over. Even if a shot is never fired, China’s newly muscular stance will strain America’s resources when resources are already stretched to the maximum.
As the military forces of the two nations continue to bump and glare, particularly at sea, where China is increasingly apt to challenge America’s right to sail in waters it deems to be within its sphere of interest, politicians in both capitals are working to keep relations cordial. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has uttered soothing words of late, speaking of the need to find cooperative resolutions to Asian territorial disputes, all while maintaining that America will not relinquish the right to sail through waters near Chinese territory or permit Chinese pressure to disrupt the sale of advanced weaponry and munitions to Taiwan.
Gates is pushing for a swift return to direct military-to-military dialogue and exchanges between the two forces as well, to help build bridges and foster understanding. Such will likely pay dividends, but will serve more to avoid on-the-spot mistakes than to prevent competitive policies decided upon at the strategic level. No amount of mutual understanding amongst the officer corps can undo mistrust and ill will at the very top of the chain of command.
China’s rise to the heights of global power is all but certain. Despite its current economic and political challenges, it is also virtually guaranteed that China will have to share the pinnacle of military might. It must decide for itself whether it seeks a relationship built on cooperation or goodwill, or confrontation and mistrust. America must do its part, by continuing to reach out to Beijing as Secretary Gates is doing, and by maintaining its own strength at levels sufficient to impress upon China that America is a serious nation committed to the security of its allies. In order to do so, America must resist the temptation to gut its military on the mantle of social progress — a stern lesson for the current occupant of the White House.
Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @mattgurney.
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