Intelligence Brief: U.S.-China Relations

Posted in United States | 26-Jul-05 | Author: Michael Weinstein

On July 19, the Pentagon released its annual report to the U.S. Congress on "The Military Power of the People's Republic of China," which it was required to do according to the provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000.

The report, which covers "the tenets and probable development of Chinese grand strategy, security strategy, and military strategy," was supposed to have been completed in March, but had been delayed because of conflicts within the Bush administration between the Defense Department and State Department over its tone and judgments.

Under the direction of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the State Department has sought to move Washington's foreign policy away from the unilateralism favored by neo-conservatives to a traditional balance-of-power diplomacy that includes greater engagement with Beijing on issues of trade, North Korea's nuclear weapons program and security in East Asia. In contrast, under Donald Rumsfeld the Defense Department has remained wedded to the view the Beijing is Washington's "strategic rival."

The document that emerged from the conflict is a compromise between contending positions that both "welcomes the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China" and warns that China's People's Liberation Army (P.L.A.) could, in the long term, "pose a credible threat to other modern militaries" operating in East Asia.

As a compromise, the report, which works from and basically accepts Beijing's December 2004 Defense White Paper, does not so much constitute an objective analysis of Beijing's intentions as it serves as a register of the unresolved conflict within the Bush administration over its China policy. It is arguable that in this case the compromise position, with its ambivalence, is realistic in terms of U.S. interests -- as China's economic and military power grows, Beijing will increasingly become both an indispensable partner of Washington and a serious rival to U.S. power in East Asia. The tension created by convergent and divergent interests in Washington's relations with Beijing would likely preclude a coherent U.S. policy toward China, even if State and Defense shared the same perspective. Chinese power is both a blessing and a curse for Washington.

Not only is the report a political compromise, but it is also a political document that sends a public message about Washington's intentions to powers involved in East Asia, including China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, the European Union and Russia. It is as an indicator of evolving U.S. policy toward China that the report gains significance for geostrategic analysis.

Framing China's Future

Although the report echoes Beijing's public claim that the grand strategy of the Chinese regime is to turn the country into a comprehensive great power with an advanced economy and a state-of-the-art military, and that it intends to accomplish its plan by making military modernization a component of overall economic development, Washington breaks with Beijing on the latter's ultimate intentions. [See: "China's Geostrategy: Playing a Waiting Game"]

According to Beijing, its program of creating a technologically advanced military is geared solely to defense and -- except in the case of Taiwan declaring independence, which would likely trigger an armed response -- does not pose a threat to the integrity of any state in East Asia. In contrast, the Pentagon report places China at a "strategic crossroads," where it can "choose a pathway of peaceful integration and benign competition," or can "choose, or find itself upon, a pathway along which China would emerge to exert dominant influence in an expanding sphere," or could "emerge less confident and focused inward on challenges to national unity and the Chinese Communist Party's clam to legitimacy."

For Washington, the first scenario is the most desirable one and would include a gradual liberalization of China's economy and democratization of its political system. That best-case outcome is, however, the least likely to materialize among the alternative futures, leaving the report to concentrate on the other two.

Washington's greatest fear is that continued growth of China's economy and military resources could "tempt" Beijing "to attempt to dictate the terms of foreign security and economic interactions with its trading partners and neighbors." Were China to go in that direction, the U.S. might be forced to choose between confrontation or acquiescence in the diminution of its power in East Asia.

The third scenario -- implosion, which could be triggered by an economic downturn or civil unrest -- is only slightly less threatening to Washington than greater Chinese assertiveness because of the adverse economic effects it would have throughout East Asia and its consequences for domestic stability in China that might include a nationalist backlash. [See: "Domestic Threats to China's Rise"]

Although Washington has limited, if any, control over China's future, the report reveals an effort by the Bush administration to contain Chinese military power. Most importantly, the report warns Brussels that lifting the European Union's arms embargo on China would impact adversely on the "safety of U.S. personnel" and would "accelerate a shift in the regional balance of power affecting the security of many countries." The report also notes that the balance of power between Beijing and Taipei is shifting decisively in favor of the former, and urges Taipei to conclude arms deals with Washington to strengthen Taiwan's defenses. [See: "Lifting the European Union's Arms Embargo: Geopolitical Wins and Losses"]

The Bottom Line

The report is clear that, until the end of the present decade, Beijing will not be able to defeat militarily even "a moderate-size adversary" and will not be able to project its sea power beyond coastal defense. Greater threats to Washington's power in East Asia are more likely to emerge in the medium and long terms.

Look for Washington to try to slow Beijing's progress toward military modernization by putting pressure on potential arms suppliers and to use other East Asian powers especially Japan -- to balance Beijing.

Washington can do no more than try to buy time and hope for a change in China's political system that would eventuate in a regime more favorable to U.S. interests. The most probable outcome down the road is that Washington will be forced eventually to choose between confrontation and retreat.

The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of [email protected]. All comments should be directed to [email protected].