Red Might Rising

China boldly asserts itself in the waters that America has dominated for almost three generations.

As if the remaining Iraqi commitments and ongoing heavy combat in Afghanistan aren’t enough, the U.S. military is finding itself increasingly aware that, while the United States has waged a costly war against Islamism across the globe, China has been rising. The Chinese have quietly but steadfastly developed their military forces and are asserting themselves in the Pacific Rim waters that America dominated for almost three generations. Even as America has canceled or curtailed costly military programs to free up funds for the ongoing wars in the Muslim world, China has been pushing ahead with its own military modernization. While it still lags behind the United States in certain technological areas, China has rapidly closed the gap and fields a largely modern military that is still catching up.

The rise of a competitor power is not inherently a bad thing for America, and might even have provided opportunities for the two powers to cooperate to bring stability to chaotic parts of the globe. Even if the two powers were to become vaguely antagonistic, the return to a world divided between two opposing, but stable, forces might itself have served a good purpose by restoring balance to an unstable geopolitical environment. But there are serious questions as to whether or not China is interested in a friendly, or even cordial, relationship with the United States. There are plainly some who view America not as a potential ally or merely an economic competitor, but as an enemy, plain and simple.

The toughest talk emanating out of Beijing comes not from the ruling Party itself, but from the armed forces. A whole new generation of military officers have spent their entire careers being taught that the United States is the primary enemy, the most likely force China would face in a conventional war. As reported in The New York Times, Huang Jing, an expert on the Chinese military, described the country’s military philosophy in regards to America in simple, stark terms: “All militaries need a straw man, a perceived enemy, for solidarity … Chinese military men, from the soldiers and platoon captains all the way up to the army commanders, were always taught that America would be their enemy.”

Professor Jing is mostly right. It was not always this way. Indeed, it was not all that long ago that China looked upon America as a natural ally. After the Sino-Soviet split, a particularly nasty spat between the communist states, the Chinese found comfort and security in an unofficial partnership with America. China was not then a military power capable of waging a war against either of the superpowers, but forced to choose between an ideologically hostile but distant United States or an ideologically compatible but threatening neighbor in the Soviet Union, China wisely chose America as the best bet in the event of a nuclear war. It has only been since the Soviet Union collapsed into a feeble, demoralized Russia that the United States has come to serve a purpose again as a useful “other” for the Chinese military to concern itself with.

There is no imminent risk of war; China has not spent decades and untold billions just to throw it all away in a short, violent techno-war with America that it would still lose (and even if it were to fight to draw, the American superiority in nuclear weapons would still loom over Beijing’s mind — unlike America, Beijing has no anti-ballistic missile defenses). But the challenge China’s rising power and increasing belligerence pose for the United States is very real. America’s military faces at least a decade, probably more, of constrained budgets, but no real hope of vastly diminished responsibilities.

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 [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @mattgurney.