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The Balance of Military Power Between America and China

The defining character of the Sino-U.S. relationship has, for decades now, been based on a gradual transition of power. Beijing recognized this early on, but a lot of powerful people in Washington didn’t realize what was happening until relatively recently-a bit late in the process. They had believed that the bilateral relationship was primarily about commerce. Now that it is apparent what the relationship really is about – the slow devolution of power away from Washington and toward Beijing – it is having a profound impact on how the two nations interact and compete. As China continues to grow stronger, it will become increasingly less inclined to compromise on issues it views as important to Chinese national interests. In response, Washington may find it increasingly challenging not to overreact.

As American foreign policy was adrift over the first two decades of this century, the CCP realized that it had a strategic opportunity to fill in the gaps the U.S. left behind by virtue of its isolationism and proceeded to build its own set of alliances to make up for lost time. China’s leadership seeks to secure the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) objectives without jeopardizing regional stability or the Party’s monopoly grip on power – both of which remain critical to the country’s economic development. China’s leaders have deployed a multitude of tactics – short of armed conflict – to pursue China’s strategic objectives through activities deliberately designed not to provoke armed conflict with the U.S., its allies, or other actors in the Indo-Pacific region.

Such tactics are particularly evident in China’s actions in the South China Sea, where Beijing went as far as it could possibly go with its military buildup of the Spratly and Paracel Islands without prompting a counter-military move by the U.S. Beijing probably felt that Washington’s Pivot to Asia during the Obama administration justified its move, but no impartial observer would equate the two actions. China is clearly willing to employ coercive measures to advance its interests and mitigate opposition from other countries. The question is, just how far is it willing to be pushed before military engagement becomes the result.

Having spent the past two decades observing U.S. actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, China has been able to observe American military fighting capabilities. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has transformed itself from an antiquated fighting force to a highly capable, modern military. Its modernization has largely optimized the PLA’s air and naval forces, conventionally armed ballistic missiles, and counter space and cyber capabilities. Given its global military responsibilities, the U.S. is less able to optimize its own armed forces solely as they apply to Asian scenarios.

Since Nixon’s famous visit to Beijing in 1972 American had been engaged in collaboration with China, never imagining that the developing country Nixon first visited would turn into such a worthy adversary in such a short period of time. For anyone who understands China – its motivations, objectives, and capabilities – there could be no doubt that it would eventually reassume its place as a leading nation on the global stage. The America-China divide, and their mutual battle for global supremacy, will remain the central theme for the world’s nations from multiple perspectives – including, of course, the military arena – for the foreseeable future.

America’s principal military objectives are to maintain security, avoid conflict, reduce risk, and manage existing and emerging security challenges so as to minimize outcomes that undermine U.S. interests or limit its potential future opportunities. The U.S. government perceives that China has a similar interest in avoiding conflict, reducing risk, and managing tension, but it expresses these goals in somewhat different terms. The Chinese government believes that the proper framework for managing such bilateral issues is to build a new type of relationship to address the issues as much as the outcomes themselves. And it wants to be treated as an equal partner.

The U.S. fully understands that China firmly opposes U.S. military operations outside its territorial waters and Chinese assertions that such acts are constituent elements of a strategy to contain China, but it also strongly believes that this Chinese perception is disproven by four decades of policy and practice. The U.S. sees its postwar security commitments as having created a security environment in which unprecedented economic prosperity has occurred in Asia, as well as in China. The American government believes that China is pursuing changes to the status quo in incremental ways that could preclude direct military responses. The U.S. worries that such moves serve to undermine its credibility in the region, particularly among its allies and partners.

China has a well-documented history of espionage and intellectual property theft in the military sphere, which continues unabated. It uses a variety of methods to acquire foreign military and dual-use technologies, including targeted foreign direct investment, cyber theft, exploitation of private Chinese nationals’ access to proprietary technologies, deployment of its intelligence services, computer intrusions, and other illicit approaches. China has obtained the foreign technology it needed to achieve its breakthroughs in military technology through a combination of imports, the establishment of foreign research and development centers, joint ventures, research and academic partnerships, talent recruitment, and various forms of espionage.

Some of U.S. companies that do business in China indirectly benefit the Chinese military. Although Google has a well-documented distaste for working in lockstep with the U.S. military, some of its collaboration with Chinese companies in the civilian sector in China ends up transferring technology to the Chinese military. Plenty of other U.S. companies in the high-tech arena are guilty of the same thing, enabling China to acquire sensitive, dual-use, or military-grade technology or equipment from the U.S., including aviation and antisubmarine warfare technologies.

The U.S. military is focused on a future war-scape that presumes that American forces are no longer focused on Afghanistan, the Middle East, or terrorism, but rather on being able to utilize its most sophisticated weaponry to overpower China (or Russia) in a conflict that lasted days or weeks, rather than months or years. In these wars, the mastery of technology, not counterinsurgency or nation-building, would likely prove to be decisive. The very nature of warfare is in the process of being reinvented before our eyes.

China sees space warfare as its best chance to directly compete with the U.S. militarily, since it has nowhere near the assets and firepower capability that the U.S. military has. Rather than trying to match the U.S. Navy and Air Force, China believes it could gain an advantage through the production of specialized missiles, spacecraft, and platforms to be based on the moon. Many Chinese military analysts see space warfare as inevitable and argue that since it will become the center of gravity in future wars it must be seized and controlled so as to achieve space supremacy.

Since the People’s Republic of China was born in 1949, there have been many opportunities for both countries to escalate tension and trigger a military conflict. Neither Beijing nor Washington believed that line should be crossed. Despite the heightened tension resulting from their trade war, there remains every reason to presume that neither desires to cross that line in the future.

Although the degree of tension has never been as high as it is now, there remains every reason to believe that the two countries are not inching toward war. It is ultimately the degree of economic pain both countries can endure, and the length of time it can be endured, that will determine the economic outcome of this trade war. There is also every reason to believe that it will not result in military conflict, but rather, mutual respect. Although the desire to continue a bilateral trading relationship that is mutually beneficial in the long-term is strong, what is unknown is how long it will take to arrive at an equilibrium, and at what cost for both countries.

What can be said with some degree of certainty is that with the gloves now off, in every respect, America and China are about to enter a competitive relationship the likes of which the world has never seen in scope and scale. Military spending will be the centerpiece of that competition. As advanced as the incredible weaponry that has been developed already is, a decade or two from now, the world will have entered the era of futuristic wars that will be fought by generals from behind keyboards, using robots, drones, and autonomous vehicles. China and America will both be at the forefront of that era.

This article was originally posted in the South China Morning Post.