The Economist (April 7, 2012) features a leader on "China’s military rise -The dragon’s new teeth - A rare look inside the world’s biggest military expansion". Click here
Together with the Economist article, a careful reading of the following studies seems to suggest that war clouds may well be gathering in the Asia Pacific. America has declared a "pivot" to Asia in a new "Pacific Century" with matching military deployment and alliances in what used to be an "American Lake". Meanwhile, China is expanding her military capabilities in the region amidst rising tensions with her Asian neighbours in the South China Sea:
(a) America's Pacific Century, Hilary Clinton in Foreign Policy, November 2011 Click here
(b) Asian Alliances in the 21st Century, Dan Blumenthal et al, 2011, Project 2049 Institute, Arlington VA Click here
(c) Military and Security Developments Involving the PRC 2011, Annual Report to Congress Click here
(d) Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, Near Seas “Anti-Navy” Capabilities, not Nascent Blue Water Fleet, Constitute China’s Core Challenge to U.S. and Regional Militaries", China SignPost™, No. 55 (6 March 2012). Click here
(e) "Monsoon - The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power", Random House, New York, 2010 by Robert Kaplan, Senior Fellow at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington and a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board.
To gain a sense of perspective, however, the following observations may be instructive:
(a) As pointed out in the concluding paragraphs of the Economist leader, notwithstanding rapid modernization, China''s military capabilities are still many (perhaps 30 - 50) years behind the U.S.. China is only starting to build her first, out-dated, aircraft carrier compared with the U.S 's 11 ultra-modern aircraft carrier battle groups. China is therefore in no position to challenge the military supremacy of the U.S. for many years to come. But there is no doubt that China's A2/AD (anti-access/area-denial) capabilities are increasing in the Taiwan Strait where her leading core interest lies.
(b) The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) based in London has issued its Military Balance 2012 Report. This contains authoritative data and analysis of the world's military balance, including the Middle East, cyber warfare, the impact of Western fiscal austerity and the shift of military spending growth from the West to Asia, including China. One notable finding is that China's military capability can be exaggerated as the capability is more "nascent" than actual, although the gap is beginning to narrow resulting in a "gradual change in the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait. The following is taken verbatum from the IISS Press Statement Click here
"China, the region’s top spender, has – according to our estimates – increased its share of regional expenditure to more than 30%. Beijing’s official expenditure in 2011 was more than two-and-a half times the 2001 level. There has been much attention on China’s aircraft carrier and J-20 combat aircraft. But China’s technological advances are more modest than some alarmist hypotheses of its military development have suggested. They represent nascent rather than actual capability. China, for example, does not yet have the capability to operate fixed-wing aircraft from a carrier. However, China’s development of anti-satellite capacities, anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and cyber-warfare capabilities preoccupies foreign defence planners as much as its drive to boost major platform capability. Its growing suite of modern platforms reinforces the gradual change in the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait. That said, the strategic priorities of the People’s Liberation Army are gradually widening from the defence of China’s borders to force projection within East Asia and further afield, in order to secure sea lanes of communication." The Report contains an informative chart illustrating Comparative Defence Statistics. Click here
(c) China has huge domestic problems, including resource and ecological constraints, inequalities, corruption, regional imbalance, asset bubbles, rising middle class aspirations, declining export competitiveness, and an aging population profile in the midst of a leadership transition. Moreover, even if China's economy is to exceed that of the U.S. by 2027 as slated, China is set to remain at best a middle-income country like Turkey in per-capita terms well beyond mid-century. Therefore, China simply cannot afford to cherish hegemonic ambitions by entering into a military competition with the U.S. at the expense of her own economic trajectory, for which a peaceful international environment is crucial.
(d) However, that does not mean that China would accept violation of her vital "core interests", especially territorial integrity in the light of China's humiliating history of foreign occupation. In particular, the One China Policy is sacrosanct to the Chinese national psyche. It is only natural, therefore, that a stronger China is building up her military defence comprehensively. That's also why Beijing chose to re-double her military deterence against Taiwan in response to the separatist tendencies of former Presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian. However, in the light of recent developments, Beijing seems to have come to the conclusion that eventual peaceful unification (without a pre-determined target date) remains the best option. Unless irretrievably provoked, therefore, China is unilkely to want to trigger a cross-Strait military conflict.
(e) Similarly, the South China Sea represents a core interest to China as the bulk of China's energy and trade, her lifeblood, flows through these sea lanes. Naturally, China would not concede their access to U.S. dominance.
(f) Taiwan as well as China's Asian neighbours, including Japan and South Korea, all thrive by deepening trade ties with China. For them, China has now become their largest trading partner and an engine of their economic growth. However, at the same time, all quietly want a free ride on the security umbrella of the U.S. to hedge against China's overarching influence. Simon Tay's "Asia Alone - The Dangerous Post-Crisis Divide from America" (John Wiley & Sons (Asia) Pte. Ltd, 2010) offers a timely explanation. Nevertheless, these Asian states have grown more independent and self-assertive. Balancing their economic interests, they are unlikely to be willing to act as U.S. client states in a rigid alliance in the form of an anti-China bloc.
(g) Military projection does not always work, as in the case of the War on Terror. What is more, it feeds into a classic security dilemma where both sides would try to out-manoevre each other, leading to increased chances of miscalculation and misadventure. This is a recipe for uncontrollable open conflict risking rapid precipitation into a global Armageddon.
(h) The world has now passed its uni-polar phase. In a multi-polar world, when military dominance is becoming less viable or productive, the United States has to live and work with other rising powers, including China, Russia, India, Turkey, and a changing Middle East including Iran, whose national interests may or may not be coterminous. In the light of reducing military resources and the emergence of new non-state and asymmetric threats with complex cultural and religious undercurrents, the U.S. has to rely more on a global network of both like-minded allies and other non-allied stakeholders. In particular, there is a case for striking a better balance between America's hard power of coercion with the soft power of inspiration.
(Background references - Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, 21 November, 2008, National Intelligence Council, Washington DC Click here and Joint Operating Environment 2010 , U.S. Joint Forces Command, VA, USA. Click here)