The “rise” of China is based on rapid and sustained Chinese economic growth, but it includes an upgrade of China’s military power made possible by increased wealth and more advanced technology. China is not a military superpower like the United States, but after decades of increasing its military budget and deploying modern weapons systems, China can now challenge the accustomed status quo of America dictating the strategic agenda in the Asia Pacific region. China’s military rise shakes up this status quo in at least five ways.
First, China is pursuing a more assertive foreign policy. After his predecessors tried to avoid looking threatening, President Xi Jinping has apparently decided China is now strong enough to insist on winning its strategic disputes with its neighbors, even at the risk of generating alarm in the region about China’s intentions. Under Xi’s leadership, we have seen military pressure aimed at intimidating Japan into recognizing China’s claim to ownership of the Japanese-occupied Senkaku Islands, confirmation that Beijing is serious about enforcing its unreasonable and extralegal claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, and a Chinese attempt to coerce South Korea into taking down equipment designed to protect against North Korean missiles because Beijing objects to the U.S.-South Korea missile defense cooperation.
Second, the possibility of a military conflict with China is more dangerous to the United States than before. In the 1990s, U.S. forces involved in hypothetical hostilities against Chinese forces in the western Pacific could expect to neutralize Chinese ships and aircraft before they got close enough to target U.S. units. Now, however, a large U.S. naval task force sailing into the region would be subject to strikes from Chinese missiles and torpedoes. This gives China unprecedented deterrence power against certain actions Washington might contemplate. The shift from minimal expected risk of serious human and material losses to substantial risk in the event fighting breaks out makes American peacetime planning more complicated and policymaking more cautious. There is a greater likelihood that U.S. planners will acquiesce to rather than confront sinister Chinese actions.
Third, sustaining U.S. military predominance in the large and distant Asia Pacific region is an increasingly difficult economic burden for Americans. Although difficult to measure precisely, the annual amounts China spends on its military forces have increased at least fivefold from 2000 to 2017. China’s estimated expenditure of about $220 billion this year is dwarfed by America’s $600 billion, but equivalent personnel costs are much lower for the Chinese and their fighting power is concentrated close to their home territory, whereas the U.S. defense budget must support U.S. military activities throughout the world. China’s military budget is three times Russia’s and four times Japan’s. This robust and rising Chinese investment requires the United States to similarly increase its own effort or lose ground. Yet the American military is already under strain trying to maintain its assigned responsibilities, considering the spate of recent U.S. Navy accidents in the Pacific, which suggest that even the current seemingly large U.S. defense budget is inadequate. At the same time, America faces a bloated and unchecked national debt combined with demands for increased spending on critical domestic needs.
Fourth, maintaining the confidence of regional allies and friends in U.S. reliability, leadership and staying power is becoming harder. The United States has been the ultimate enforcer of a liberal regional order. This has meant states could depend on America defending them against an illiberal bully. But with a militarily stronger China acting more assertively to impose its will on its neighbors, and the United States more cautious about taking risky actions that could antagonize China, some regional states may conclude the fading superpower no longer has their back and they should align with the country that is already their largest trading partner. If enough states made this shift, China would become de facto regional leader and the liberal order would end.
Finally, a militarily stronger China worsens preexisting tensions between China and some of its neighbors. China has had military conflicts with Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam during the past century. Several other regional states have historically-based fears that China will attempt to dominate them. Perceived military advantage naturally emboldens China to settle old scores. There is little question Beijing would prefer the Sun Zi method of “winning without fighting,” but relative military strength gives China the confidence that under Chinese pressure, opponents will see no viable recourse except backing down. In some cases the Chinese may find adversaries prefer to fight.
Is it worth the rising costs and risks to maintain the postwar U.S. role of strongest strategic actor in the Asia Pacific region? How do we expect China would react to a well-chosen American demonstration of determination to defend the liberal order against Chinese assault, despite the inherent risk? These are the hard questions U.S. policymakers face.