China’s recent test of a new stealth jet fighter raised fears in the West that China will soon challenge U.S. military supremacy in Asia. As China’s military modernization steadily advances, there are questions in Washington about Beijing’s ability to project power abroad and deter U.S. intervention in the Pacific—and whether that poses a threat to American interests.   

Michael Swaine analyzes China’s military buildup and its strategic implications. Swaine says that there is serious danger that China and the United States are moving toward strategic rivalry. Both sides need to fully restore and maintain high-level military talks, insulate military ties from the ups and downs of bilateral relations, cooperate on disaster relief missions, and start a new strategic dialogue that goes beyond what’s been done so far.



How rapidly is China modernizing its military?

The modernization of China’s military started in the 1990s as defense spending began to grow. Military spending rates went up by over 10 percent each year on average since then and the investment has proven largely successful so far.

China’s military modernization initially started to deter Taiwan from moving toward independence and complicate the ability of the United States to come to the island’s assistance. In the last decade, however, China is looking beyond Taiwan and acquiring an arsenal that can go past the strait.

In many areas, China didn’t have the technical expertise to produce more advanced systems, so a great deal of the new systems was acquired from Russia. China, however, has steadily developed the ability to produce its own weaponry.

Today, China’s growing capabilities to use its military arsenal beyond its borders—including notable improvements in its navy, air force, missile defense, cyberwarfare, and space program—are causing concern in the West.

China’s naval force is markedly improved. It now has close to 50 modern, diesel submarines—both Russian and Chinese designs—and is developing a new class of nuclear submarines. Previously, China didn’t deploy its nuclear submarines because of design flaws and safety concerns. China’s shipbuilding expertise has noticeably improved and it now has better frigates and destroyers and is looking to manufacture two or three midsize aircraft carriers. The country is operating from new bases and more regularly patrolling the waters off China’s coast. 

By purchasing fourth-generation fighters from the Russians and as it starts building more advanced fighters, China has also enhanced its aircraft. The country, however, is still having trouble with engine designs and therefore still depends on expertise and equipment from the Russians.

On missile defense, China has new ballistic missiles—short, intermediate, and long-range—which are both conventional and nuclear. There are well over 1,000 short-range missiles deployed across from Taiwan. And the military is developing medium-range missiles with high levels of accuracy that are capable of reaching many areas in Asia, including Japan and many U.S. airbases. China has also been working on ballistic missiles that can target carriers. This has generated a great deal of news coverage, but some question the operational capability at this stage—the anti-ship missiles haven’t been tested in a realistic setting in the ocean.

There have also been significant advances in cyberwarfare. Many analysts assume that China has hacked into secure U.S. government systems, but the evidence that these actions have been government-directed is incredibly hard to confirm.

From a technical view, one of the most impressive areas is China’s major strides in developing a sophisticated space program. While not explicitly military-based, as it doesn’t have space-based weapons, the technology is relevant and China can use ground-based weapons to attack satellites.

When all of these things are put together, China has made significant gains that allow Beijing to project military power abroad, although the assumption remains that China is still primarily concerned about the defense of its periphery. 


Has China become more assertive in defending its interests abroad?

On balance, China has become more diplomatically assertive and politically active in voicing long-standing concerns over issues along the country’s periphery, including the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Yellow Sea. China has also taken coercive actions to intimidate other claimants in the South China Sea.

Many of these actions, however, have been in response to the activities of other countries. In Beijing’s view, the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, and other nations have made new moves to gain the advantage over disputed areas and prized energy resources. China has also responded to Washington’s decision to increase U.S. surveillance along China’s coast and deploy more troops in the region—in light of North Korea’s provocative behavior. So from a Chinese perspective, Beijing is reacting to others.

That’s not the case in every instance, however, and China’s actions have alarmed its neighbors. Beijing pushed South Korea and Japan into closer cooperation with the United States by avoiding a strong condemnation of North Korea’s recent outbursts.

To a certain extent, China’s diplomatic pushiness has backfired. Beijing hasn’t been as vocal recently in response to the pushback in the region. Still, China has more capability to operate offshore, so it’s likely to be more assertive in defending its interests without wanting to provoke military confrontation. Beijing also feels strong and confident given its success in weathering the global financial crisis, while there is persisting internal distress in the U.S. economy. China sees a relatively weakened United States facing a number of difficulties and this fuels the desire within the country to do more to defend and advance its own interests.

How does the country’s growing military power relate to China’s political rise?

China is trying to modernize a military that for decades was obsolete. The Soviet-style force was primarily designed to defend against invasion by relying on massive amounts of ground troops. The government recognized the need to operate offshore and to conduct operations in a more modern and sophisticated manner.

In order to become a stronger power, China needed a more advanced military. To a great extent there was a natural disposition to modernize the military as the economy developed, which was coupled with a specific need to defend against possible threats. And the desire to defend its shores only grew as a great deal of its economic development occurred along the east coast.

China also lives in an unsettled neighborhood and shares land borders with fourteen states. Its turbulent history with its neighbors includes territorial disputes and conflict in the modern era. So, China wants the ability to defend against further threats to its economic and territorial concerns.

The case can also be made that China needs to be able to project its military power abroad to support its political, economic, and diplomatic objectives. This doesn’t necessarily mean to invade or coerce other countries as it can also include nontraditional military activities, including disaster relief. China feels that this is what a large power does to both support the international system and defend and advance its interests beyond its shores.


Is China developing new port facilities along the Indian Ocean—the so-called string of pearls—to strengthen its military presence in South Asia and contain India?

The string of pearls argument is fraudulent—it’s simply false. This concept was developed in the West to explain China’s acquisition of strategic bases and construction of port facilities in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, but when it was examined by the U.S. government and other scholars, the theory was found baseless.

While Beijing has assisted governments and countries in developing ports with the help of Chinese companies, the assistance has primarily been designed to improve the abilities of these ports to operate as commercial entities and establish facilities where resources—primarily energy supplies—can be shipped inland. There is little—if any—evidence that the Chinese military is involved. It’s a compelling idea that makes sense from afar, but a close look at the details reveals the flaws.


What are China’s core interests?

China’s core interests are the issues that Beijing essentially considers nonnegotiable and is likely willing to use military force to protect against any change to the status quo. It’s an important classification and sends a strong signal that China will defend these major concerns.  

China mostly applies the term to long-held territorial and sovereignty claims, but also uses the term for general concepts, including national security, integrity of the state, and socioeconomic development. The country’s core national interests unquestionably include Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang.

As Beijing sought to limit U.S. interference in territorial disputes in the South China Sea and as tensions rose with its neighbors during 2010, news surfaced that China was for the first time labeling the South China Sea a core interest on par with Taiwan and Tibet. This, however, is a misreading of the facts. Despite news reports to the contrary, China did not explicitly identify the South China Sea as a core interest.


How are China’s Asian neighbors responding to Beijing’s improving military capabilities?

Most of China’s neighbors were not terribly concerned with the rising power’s military modernization for many years. They saw China acquiring technology and equipment primarily designed to help defend its coast and territory and believed that the modernization had only a limited impact on their own interests. So China’s military development didn’t trigger an arms race in Asia, as weapons acquisitions were largely motivated by economic reasons and local-defense assessments.  

This is starting to change, however. In some countries—notably Japan and Southeast Asian nations—there has been growing concern about the ability to counter China’s improving capacity to regularly deploy forces in the region. There are fears that China will be more willing to directly confront other countries over territorial and resource issues in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

The Japanese are more focused on China and this is reflected in Tokyo’s latest defense documents. Japan is also shifting the deployment of its military southward, away from Russia, to address the concerns coming from North Korea and China. And there is a greater awareness in Southeast Asian countries to the changing security environment. This is, to some degree, stimulating them to acquire greater offshore capabilities.

In South Asia, India has focused on China’s military threat ever since the border war in 1962. While India certainly paid attention to China’s military advances, it has been largely focused on stabilizing the border and dealing with Pakistan. But as China has been more assertive, this is altering perceptions.   

With the new assessment of the Chinese threat, Asian countries are looking to the United States for maintaining some level of deterrence or counterbalancing capability.

Does America remain Asia’s dominant military power?

There’s no question that the United States remains the predominant military power in maritime Asia. It is the only power capable of deploying large numbers of expeditionary forces—both air and naval—in the area stretching from Hawaii to the Persian Gulf. The United States can operate with great strength in Asia, based primarily on its forward-deployed bases in the Western Pacific and the capacity to send out carrier battle groups and expeditionary forces.

But the situation is changing in the Western Pacific as Beijing is gradually challenging America’s ability to operate with impunity along China’s periphery. This is evolving as China acquires ballistic missiles, submarines, and air defense systems, and as it gains capacity to deploy aircraft offshore. All of this tests America’s superiority to operate around and near Taiwan.

The change is raising concerns among defense planners in the United States and China’s neighbors. There is a real concern that it will alter the reality in the Western Pacific and along China’s periphery and brings into question how long the United States can remain the clearly predominant military power in the Western Pacific. For most U.S. policy makers, such predominance is essential to the defense of U.S. and allied security interests in that region. The implication for the balance of power is the key question over the next several decades.


Is there an emerging military rivalry between China and the United States?

The United States and China risk moving into a period where both powers consider the other a rival and a threat. If hostility mounts, Washington and Beijing could begin seeing things purely in zero-sum terms in Asia and look for ways to counter the other’s military. We’re not there yet, but the fear is real.

The media in both the United States and China is hyping the danger posed by the other. This undermines efforts to calm tensions and heightens concerns that leaders will recalculate their policies.   

A major source of overall strategic distrust is that the two militaries are growing increasingly suspicious of one another and are arguably more rigid and resolute in defending their respective objectives. Military relations are in many ways driving the competitive and adversarial dimensions of the bilateral relationship.

With that said, there is clearly a desire on both sides to reengage and strengthen military-to-military links, as seen by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ recent trip to China. There needs to be a sustained commitment by the civilian leaders to deepen military contacts, greater efforts to improve crisis management between the two powers, and a more genuine strategic dialogue that addresses the long-term political and military interests of China and the United States.

Unless this happens, progress on strategic issues is by no means assured.

There is a serious danger that the U.S. image of a more assertive and aggressive China and the Chinese notion that the United States is on the decline will feed a sense of strategic rivalry—and this could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. To assume that there will be a growing military rivalry that will eventually evolve into a Cold War-type situation is the biggest risk for the United States and China.

How is the United States responding? Is the United States taking steps to contain China?

Washington is not looking at China’s military modernization with indifference. While the total number of U.S. forces deployed in the Pacific has gone down, the United States is responding in a variety of ways.

Washington is increasing its capacity to operate in Asia by deploying more forces to Guam, advancing a better understanding with the Japanese on the use of force during crises, increasing surveillance and patrolling along China’s coast to improve its information on Chinese operations, continuing to sell arms to Taiwan to deter Beijing from using coercive means, and undoubtedly engaging in classified efforts to counter the missile threat.  

The United States is not standing still—it is working to maintain military dominance and reassure China’s neighbors that American military power isn’t going anywhere.

As China builds up its military, how can Beijing and Washington work to build greater trust?

It’s clearly essential to improve military relations and there are several steps that both sides can take. First, there needs to be a serious effort to engage in a truly strategic dialogue that goes beyond what has been done on the official level up to now. This discussion can’t occur on an official level, but should take place on the so-called track-two or semi-official level with military and civilian figures outside government, although they should maintain strong contacts with the leaders.

The track-two discussions need to be more open-ended and creative than previous talks. The dialogue should look at the medium- and long-term implications of the current military trajectories and the specific issues—territorial, economic, political—that could drive the countries apart. It needs to address the contingencies that could worsen the strategic interactions.

Second, there needs to be a much stronger resumption of military-to-military ties and there are signs that this is already underway. This dialogue needs to be insulated from the ups and downs of the overall relationship. Historically, the first thing to be sacrificed when the two countries encounter problems is the military talks, but this diplomatic expression of disapproval doesn’t serve the interests of either side. It only feeds mistrust and curtails the understanding between militaries. Military contact needs to be sustained even during the worst times.

Third, there needs to be a serious assessment of the military dynamic on Taiwan. Despite the fact that improvements in the political and economic situations in Taiwan have eased cross-strait tensions, Taiwan continues to be the most serious potential source of military conflict. Without better understanding, incidents could provoke confrontation and both sides need to signal their desire to avoid this outcome.

China’s military continues to deploy forces along the coast and the United States continues to sell arms to Taiwan to better face the threat. China will be less inclined to tolerate U.S. military assistance to Taiwan as time goes by and, while there are a great deal of political obstacles to closer engagement on Taiwan, it’s necessary. The United States needs to reconsider its current path and broach a conversation with China on mutual constraint.

And finally, both militaries should look for opportunities to work together on operations outside of war. Whether it’s disaster and humanitarian relief, counterterrorism, or other nontraditional threats, a habit of interaction in areas that are not so sensitive could rebound to the benefit of broader military relations. A good example is China’s participation in the international antipiracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.

Cooperation on nontraditional threats should not only be encouraged on a bilateral basis, but also to boost multilateral ties. China has been lukewarm on participating in multilateral engagements, but this could change as it gains more self-confidence—the United States should push for this.