The New Cold War

Why Chinese leaders believe they can stand up to America anywhere, anytime.

The People’s Republic of China has denounced the meeting of Tibet’s Dalai Lama with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Feb.18. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu said the meetings:

“have severely violated the basic norms governing international relations….The Chinese Government and people stand steadfast in their resolve to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Any attempt from any person to interfere in China's internal affairs under the Dalai issue is doomed to failure.”

For Beijing the issue is not just about the oppression in Tibet, but the Dalai Lama’s larger message that it is the responsibility of the outside world to bring Communist China into the mainstream of global democracy,

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai called in U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman for what were called “solemn representations.” This was the second time in recent weeks that the ambassador has been summoned. The previous time was after the Obama administration announced on January 29 that it would fulfill the commitment made by the Bush administration to sell $6.4 billion worth of defensive arms to Taiwan. Beijing has massed offensive weapons opposite the democratic island. The PRC considers Taiwan to be a renegade province despite its de facto independence for over sixty years.

The U.S. did not summon the Chinese ambassador in Washington for a formal protest after Beijing blocked an American initiative to strengthen sanctions against Iran for its nuclear weapons program. As Global Times, an official publication of the ruling Communist Party, stated in a Feb 10 editorial, “China has economic stakes in Iran, and China is determined to protect its interest through diplomacy.”

U.S.-PRC relations have soured steadily since the confrontation between the two powers at the UN Climate conference in Copenhagen in December. At that meeting, President Obama came face to face with Chinese intransigence and saw his year long attempt to cooperate with China come to nothing.

While the White House and State Department were rethinking engagement with China, the Defense Department was finishing its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the blueprint for how the U.S. military will meet threats to national security. The February 8 issue of the weekly Defense News had a disturbing sidebar by John T. Bennett to its lead story about the QDR. Bennett reported,

As the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review moved from a December draft to the February final version, Pentagon officials deleted several passages and softened others about China’s military buildup.

Gone is one passage, present in the Dec. 3 draft, declaring that “prudence requires” the United States prepare for “disruptive competition and conflict” with China.

Altered are passages about Russian arms sales to Beijing and China’s 2007 destruction of a low-orbit satellite.

Why the changes? One Pentagon official said department and Obama administration officials worried that harsh words might upset Chinese officials at a time when the United States and China are so economically intertwined.

Trade policy is not, however, in the DoD’s province. It is more likely that the QDR reflects Secretary Robert Gate’s often articulated view that future wars will be like the current small, irregular combat in Afghanistan rather than large-scale conventional warfare against a rival nation-state.

In his joint announcement of the QDR and the 2011 budget on Feb. 2, Gates summarized his vision as, “Rebalanc[ing] our programs in order to institutionalize and enhance our ability to fight the wars we are in today, while at the same time providing a hedge against current and future risks and contingencies.” The “hedge” is not of sufficient concern to justify continuing programs like the F-22 air superiority fighter, or a capability to mount large-scale Marine amphibious assaults, or an expanded national missile defense system. Shipbuilding plans will also see the Navy continue to shrink, with an emphasis on smaller warships.

The QDR states, “successfully balancing requires that the Department make hard choices on the level of resources required as well as accepting and managing risk in a way that favors success in today’s wars.” Obviously, winning in Iraq and Afghanistan are the current top priorities, but Gates has also emphasized his desire to “institutionalize” DoD planning, meaning his vision of avoiding confrontations with a rising “peer competitor” like China or even a major regional power like Iran.

The QDR did not completely ignore China, though the country was mentioned only a handful of times in 105 pages. Its most complete statement is on page 60.

China’s military has begun to develop new roles, missions, and capabilities in support of its growing regional and global interests, which could enable it to play a more substantial and constructive role in international affairs. The United States welcomes a strong, prosperous, and successful China that plays a greater global role. The United States welcomes the positive benefits that can accrue from greater cooperation. However, lack of transparency and the nature of China’s military development and decision-making processes raise legitimate questions about its future conduct and intentions within Asia and beyond. Our relationship with China must therefore be multidimensional and undergirded by a process of enhancing confidence and reducing mistrust in a manner that reinforces mutual interests.

A bit tougher review of China’s military buildup is on p. 31, before the ludicrous statement about welcoming the “constructive role” of a “strong, prosperous and successful China.”

As part of its long-term, comprehensive military modernization, China is developing and fielding large numbers of advanced medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles, new attack submarines equipped with advanced weapons, increasingly capable long-range air defense systems, electronic warfare and computer network attack capabilities, advanced fighter aircraft, and counter-space systems. China has shared only limited information about the pace, scope, and ultimate aims of its military modernization programs, raising a number of legitimate questions regarding its long term intentions.

The notion that American military leaders and defense analysts don’t know what Beijing is trying to do and need to find out more before determining if there is a danger is disingenuous. Every advanced weapon is being designed to attack and defeat U.S. forces. In Chinese documents, the new anti-ship ballistic missile being developed is shown in artwork as attacking U.S. aircraft carriers.

None of the issues currently roiling U.S.-PRC relations are new. What has changed over the last decade is the wealth and industrial power Chinese leaders now have at their command. Economic growth is being turned into diplomatic influence and military strength. President Hu Jintao built his career as a hard-liner and has centered his leadership position on a close alliance with the People’s Liberation Army. Looking at the turmoil in America, Chinese leaders believe that the balance of power is shifting and they can now stand up to America on issues across the board. Such a change, whether real or imagined, makes for a much more dangerous world whether the Pentagon wants to admit it or not.