The Evolving Contest Between the US and China

The essence of great-power military competition involving two potential adversaries is to prepare for a military contingency while doing everything to avoid such a contingency.

That may sound somewhat illogical, but no one has ever said that the balance of power-related maneuvers are either straightforward or simplistic. What it means is that diplomacy will be given a high priority while preparing for a potential military conflict. That mind-boggling reality is driving the People's Republic of China and the United States military competition. They are preparing for war, while their diplomats are working diligently to avoid it.

China knows that the only way it can emerge as a superpower of the future is by closing the gap between its own military capabilities and those of the United States' military. That will take time, since military preparedness is dependent on the rising capabilities of a number of civilian institutions to effectively, constantly, and in a timely way feed the needs of the military to remain at the cutting edge of technology and new doctrines. In the meantime, China will constantly look for ways of asserting itself in East Asia in order to test the flexibility of the United States to accept its rising military significance.

The United States knows that the real (and for now, the only) military challenge to its global hegemony is China. Thus, the focus of its own military preparedness will be in constant response to how China is preparing itself to nullify America's military advantage in East Asia and elsewhere in the world.

That is why whenever United States sells a huge package of arms to Taiwan, the PRC suspends military contacts and becomes assertive in a number of ways to annoy the United States. Leaders in Washington, knowing China's maneuvers, are constantly trying to assure Beijing that they do not regard it an adversary. That is one reason why Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sought and obtained an invitation to visit China. Any amount of face time with China's political and military brass is bound to have a positive effect without necessarily changing America's staunch commitment to arm Taiwan.

As Gates was getting ready to visit China, Beijing purposely leaked the picture of its stealth fighter, thereby shocking the U.S. intelligence community. As much as it resembles both the Russian and American (F-22 Raptor) stealth aircraft, there is no way of knowing how advanced this stealth aircraft really is. In the meantime, the American experts are guessing that China's stealth technology is likely to be a military threat to United States in the next 10 years of so. What is significant about that assessment is that it is purely a guess.

Another issue of America's concern is China's rising capabilities to develop anti-ship missiles whose purpose to attack US aircraft carriers in the wake of a conflict involving Taiwan. The rationale is that if China could disable them, it would take a major share of America's military dominance from the fight. Washington's growing concern about China's escalating range of anti-ship capabilities (estimated to be around 2,000 km) are underscored by observations by Admiral Robert F. Willard, commander of the US Pacific Fleet. On this issue as well, the United States is using its best guesses in order to develop countermeasures.

Needless to say that the Pentagon is continuing its incessant search of new war-fighting doctrines and bringing necessary adjustments in the existing ones in order to respond to China's rising power. What is also important to note is that every time the PRC allows a "leak" regarding its new military capabilities, it is also assessing Washington's response, especially in the wake of the Obama administration's palpable increased interest in East Asia.

China does not appear willing to oblige Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent statements urging the PRC to stop issuing unilateral statements about the growing list of its core interests and start a process of multilateral negotiations, or satisfy Secretary of Defense Gates' frequent criticism regarding the continuing lack of transparency in China's defense budget and about its real intentions in East Asia and elsewhere by being explicit and candid about them. Those changes have to result of a consensus emerging from China's internal political debates.

In the meantime, China continues to view the East Asia Summit (EAS) as a process of seeking to nullify its own vision of its dominant role in East Asia by demands that it start to lessen its dominance by immersing itself into a process of integration in EAS. Among East Asian countries, China's willingness to integrate itself in EAS is regarded as a litmus test of China's intentions of supporting the status quo in East Asia.

China, on its part, prefers a hierarchy, which recognizes its growing dominance and an attendant significance in East Asia. What the United States and China's East Asian neighbors may not fully fathom is that Beijing has quietly dropped Deng Xiaoping's much-heralded dictum of biding one's time and hiding one's capabilities in favor of President Hu Jintao's preference to "actively accomplish something." Actively accomplishing something means that China is likely to be assertive in underscoring its significance in the strategic affairs of East Asia.

As much as the PRC is emulating the American military technology and even some of its war-fighting doctrines, a better grand strategy might be to study the political modalities of American dominance in East Asia and Europe. That dominance made sure that the interests of various regional actors–and most importantly their sovereignties – are constantly safeguarded and promoted. That also turned out to be the best way of prolonging America's strategic dominance of those regions. As long as China does not incorporate that aspect of American political strategic maneuvers in its grand strategy, its military preparedness is likely to mount anxieties in East Asia, a trait that will not benefit China.