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China’s booming economy and increasing leverage over Western governments has enabled it to rapidly modernize its armed forces and expand its reach. China has long fielded a massive conventional military and a small but potent force of nuclear-armed ICBMs capable of hitting North America. In recent years, however, it has begun to produce respectable fighter jets domestically (while still relying on imports of technology from Russia for certain systems), has begun to modernize its navy to include the ability to operate far from Chinese ports (such as sending ships to fight piracy off Somalia), has designed effective cruise missiles and exported them around the world to such states as Iran, and has of late been perfecting missiles and sensor systems that could be used to suddenly strike at military assets in the Western Pacific.
American officials are particularly concerned about China’s development of a so-called carrier-killer, a missile capable of accurately seeking out and destroying an aircraft carrier at a range of, reportedly, over 900 miles. If China put such a weapon into service, the entire U.S. force projection strategy of using carrier-based aircraft to establish air superiority, bomb high-value enemy targets and, if necessary, support a ground invasion, would be obsolete. China would have near total freedom of action in the Western Pacific, and could threaten U.S. allies South Korea, Japan and Australia while America’s primary strike weapon stayed away from danger.
But China can be a threat to U.S. interests even without waging war on it. China has exported missiles and missile technology to Iran, which has in turn dispersed it to its terrorist allies in Hamas and Hezbollah, making life unpleasant for U.S.-ally Israel. It continues to offer diplomatic and political support to the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-il, a regime that has recently shown serious signs of destabilizing, putting the Korean peninsula on the brink of war. No U.S.-South Korean counter-offensive in response to a North Korean attack could afford to ignore the risk of provoking a Chinese reaction, and the North Koreans — knowing this — can afford to behave irresponsibly.
China’s growing power and muscular foreign policy are not necessarily cause for alarm. China has so far shown that it is a serious, pragmatic power, unlikely to act rashly. But there is the issue of whether or not President Hu is truly in firm control of the country. It has been speculated that rather than being a true leader, Hu is more a central figure linking together the various factions of the Chinese government — massive corporations, powerful government ministries, the military, etc. If so, this might explain why agreements entered into by Hu and China’s foreign affairs apparatus are implemented slowly, if at all.
It might also explain why Hu seemed taken aback recently when his own military tested a fifth-generation stealth warplane on the first day of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ trip to the country — the military might not have told him. If so, that is worrying, especially given that some members of the Chinese military are far more hawkish regarding China’s relationship with America than Hu has been.
Hu is said to be due for retirement next year, perhaps the next leader to emerge — widely expected to be of a younger generation — will be in firmer control of his country. Until then, America should continue to focus on economic recovery, on redeveloping its manufacturing sector and reining in the deficits that China continues to largely finance. While many Americans are understandably alarmed by China’s rapid rise, they should rest assured that China’s ascendancy in military might is only enough to bring it equal to America’s power in the Western Pacific, and that China’s own steps to get rich off America has left it as dependent on the American economy as America is on it. While a United States beholden to any nation is far from ideal, at least the country can move forward knowing that with China needing America as much as the U.S. needs China, the race for 21st century dominance is perhaps starting off on more equal footing.
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 . Follow him on Twitter: @mattgurney.
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