China’s Emerging Power: Cooperation, Competition, or Conflict?
June 12, 2017
The U.S. faces at least four critical challenges in shaping its strategy and military force posture for the next decades of the 21st century:
- Coping with the emergence of at China as a peer power in Asia and the Pacific, and in dealing with an increasingly multipolar world.
- Dealing with the reemergence of Russia as a competing great power.
- Defeating violent Islamic extremism, and working the moderate Islamic regimes to defeat terrorism and insurgency and bring stability to threatened countries.
- Finding the right balance between each of the previous challenges while maintaining the capability to deal with lessor problems and threats.
China is the most critical of all these four challenges. Finding a way to cooperate, while limiting competition to peaceful means and avoiding the escalation of any incident or clash, now presents the greatest risk of a serious conflict and of some new form of arms race and competition in the Pacific that could take on the character of a new “Cold War.”
In an ideal world, the answer would be to focus almost exclusively on the cooperation. In the real world, some level of competition between two very different great powers is inevitable, and the risk of some form of low level clash or “incident” is high. This makes it critical for both sides to understand each other’s goals, strategy, and military forces as well as possible, and to maintain the kind of strategic and military-to-military dialogue and exchanges that will build up understanding and the willingness to compromise, limit the impact of any given area of competition, and avoid escalation when incidents do occur.
Building such understanding at a broad level that considers all of the key variables and trends is anything but easy. It is far too easy to focus on a given area of today’s competition, to highlight differences, and ignore the complex mix of longer-term trends that impact on China, the U.S. and other powers. The end result is to highlight risks in narrow short-term areas, and to fail to see the broader risks of escalation and steadily increasing long-term competition and rivalry.
There are many good detailed studies of the emergence of China’s military forces and its impact on U.S. policy that address these issues. They include a number of Chinese defense white papers -- the summary of the 2015 paper is excerpted in brief.
At an official level, they also include the U.S. Department of Defense Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2016%20China%20Military%20Power%20Report.pdf; a wide range of work by Congressional Committees, reporting and analysis by the Congressional Research Service, and as well as the White Papers of Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
At another level, they include the work of many think tanks and research centers in the United States, China, and other countries. The CSIS has addressed these issues in depth in many of the activities of its China program and other parts of CSIS. The Burke Chair at CSIS has written several detailed net assessments of U.S. and Chinese competition:
- Chinese Strategy and Military Modernization in 2017, and is available on the CSIS web site at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/170112_Chinese_Strategy_and_Military_Modernization.pdf?Ikd72h18mXYw.mcTydjM5ljuu7cjk2AL.
- The Military Balance in the Koreas and Northeast Asia , and is available on the CSIS web site at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/170131_Northeast_Asia_Korea_Book.pdf?IH5xTmaHrldeYRY7U6oqllps9XkTiCH9.
There is, however, a need for summary overviews of China’s emergence, of its impact on the different military balances in the region, and of the direction China is now taking. Such an overview must examine hard trends and numbers, and put them in the context of official U.S. assessments and those of other regional powers like Japan and Korea.
Such analysis was developed as a part of U.S. Asia’s continuing effort to increase the understanding of members of Congress and their staffs in its China 101 program. It is entitled China’s Emerging Power: Cooperation, Competition, or Conflict, and is available on the CSIS web site at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/170613_China_Military_101_opt.pdf?mVkzOPDCukq8lfYxIMgDXFEW6eUBY_yH, and the U.S. Asia web site at www.usasiainstitute.org.
The various sections of the analysis include charts, tables, and maps addressing:
- Setting the Stage: The Chinese Perspective, U.S. Forces in Asia, and China’s Growing Strategic Role and Dependence Outside East Asia,
- Views of China’s Role in the Regional Military Balance,
- Military Spending: The “Universal Metric” of China’s Emerging Power,
- Conventional Forces and Build-Up,
- Nuclear Forces and the Future of “Parity”
- Space, Anti-Space, and Cyber
- Northeast Asia and the Koreas
- Dashed Lines, Outer Island Chains and Possible Direct Confrontation
- The South China Sea
- Chinese-U.S. Mil-to-Mil Engagements and Exercises
This analysis is not intended to be a policy document, or to comprehensively assess all of the many trends in China’s emerging military forces in depth. It focuses on seeking to summarize the aspects of China’s forces that impact most directly on its relations with the U.S. and its allies. It also focuses on the use of summary maps, graphics, and assessments using as much official data as possible to provide as much information as possible in compact form.
This focus does create an unintended bias. Most of these graphic and quantitative data come from outside China. China’s white papers do provide great insight into many aspect of China’s development, but rarely include detailed military charts, maps, and trend analyses – areas where the U.S., Japanese, and South Korean governments do provide such material.
The reader should also be aware that in spite of its length and complexity, this analysis is only an introduction to the issues involved. Any study that focuses on metrics inevitably has critical gaps that can only be dealt with through provide far more extensive narrative analysis. Cyber warfare is a key case in point but so are the nuances in Chinese strategy set forth in China’s White Papers and strategic and military studies – which can only be touched upon in this analysis.
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