Triggered by the geopolitical shifts that accompanied the end of the cold war, fueled by the nation’s rapid economic growth, and driven by a mix of insecurity and ambition, today’s buildup has been under way for the better part of two decades. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chinese strategists began to shift their attention from preparing for a massive, all-out “People’s War” against a nuclear-armed northern invader toward what they labeled “local war under high-tech conditions.” Such a war would be fought for limited aims, using only conventional weapons, in the sea and airspace off China’s eastern coasts. It was from this direction that the greatest threats to the nation’s security were expected to come, whether from Taiwanese “separatists,” Japanese “militarists,” American “hegemonists” or, in the most nightmarish scenarios, all three at once.
Over the course of the past twenty years, this shift in priorities has been reflected in a substantial, sustained military buildup, especially in China’s aerospace and naval capabilities. With the nation’s economy expanding at near double-digit rates, Beijing was able to increase defense budgets even faster without imposing noticeable burdens on society. According to the Defense Department’s latest figures, between 1996 and 2008 China’s officially disclosed (and likely understated) defense budget grew by an average of 12.9 percent per year, while GDP grew at around 9.6 percent.
Western observers have tended for some time to downplay the significance of these figures. The post-cold-war People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was, after all, backward, poorly equipped and badly in need of modernization. Despite the vast sums being spent on imported and domestically produced weapons, it was widely assumed that the overall quality of China’s armed forces, and the specific capabilities of most of its major military systems, would continue to lag far behind their American counterparts. Throughout the 1990s, most experts also believed that Beijing was focused exclusively on acquiring the means to coerce or attack Taiwan. As the wider scope and potential significance of its military buildup have become more evident, yet another reassuring rationale has emerged. China is a rising nation and, as such, it is just doing what comes naturally: acquiring the capabilities it needs to project its power, extend its influence and defend its increasingly far-flung interests.
The distribution of long-range nuclear capabilities was also profoundly unbalanced. Even after the superpower arms reductions of the early 1990s the United States retained thousands of nuclear bombs and missile warheads capable of striking China. At that time, the PRC had no more than twenty nuclear-tipped missiles with sufficient range to reach the continental United States, of which only four may actually have been deployed and ready for use at any given moment.
Because of the severe limits on its ability to project power, virtually the only place that China could have engaged U.S. forces was in its immediate coastal waters, most likely in a conflict over the fate of Taiwan. The outcome of such a struggle would have been a foregone conclusion, with America and its allies quickly clearing the sea and skies of enemy forces. If Beijing refused to end hostilities after having suffered these initial losses, the United States could have imposed a crippling economic embargo backed up by an airtight naval blockade up and down China’s coasts. At the slightest hint that Beijing was preparing for nuclear escalation, Washington could have unleashed a preemptive strike aimed at destroying all of China’s limited long-range nuclear force and at least a portion of its shorter-range systems. In sum, at every level of potential conflict, from limited engagements at sea to transcontinental nuclear war, the Americans held the upper hand.Despite impressive Chinese advances, in maritime East Asia the United States retains military superiority and effective deterrence and war-fighting capacities. But just as the United States cannot base policy on an exaggerated assessment of the China threat, it cannot allow strategic complacency to undermine U.S. security. Washington must maintain those capabilities that underpin U.S. strategic partnerships with the maritime states in China’s neighborhood and a favorable regional balance of power. Respect for Beijing’s strategic potential requires that U.S. defense policy continues to stress advancement of those capabilities that support American power projection in the western Pacific Ocean, even as the United States prepares for a protracted era of counterinsurgency warfare. Short-term contingencies cannot preclude attention to long-term great-power competition. If the United States maintains its focus on the multiple sources of maritime supremacy, including carrier-based power projection, subsurface platforms and information technologies, it can continue to engage the rise of China without undermining U.S. security.