This is a guest note by Jordan D’Amato who has recently joined the New America Foundation’s American Strategy Program as a research assistant.
As grainy pictures of China’s new J-20 stealth fighter circulate the internet, many American defense analysts have been tempted to sound the alarms. After all, the past few weeks have been full of news which could be read as success in China’s push to achieve parity with American military hardware.
In late December, Admiral Robert F. Willard of U.S. Pacific Command claimed that China’s “carrier killer” ballistic missile had reached “initial operational capacity.” Recently, one of Japan’s leading newspapers reported that China’s nuclear submarines has been able to operate around Taiwan undetected. And, looming in the background is China’s first aircraft carrier, expected to be completed by 2014.
News from the American side has, likewise, reinforced the notion that the Sino-US military balance is shifting. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has announced that he intends to reduce the size of the Marines and Army. America’s fifth generation fighter planes have run into a seemingly endless series of budget expansions and schedule delays–forcing the Pentagon to purchase more F-18’s instead. The military, spread thin by years of war, needs time for its soldiers and equipment to recuperate.
In other words, if the news is to be believed, China is aggressively developing new military capabilities while America’s armed forces face serious budgetary constraints. While the underlying message is true, the hype surrounding it needs to be deconstructed.
America’s annual defense budget is still greater than the next top ten military spenders around the world combined. China’s defense budget, by contrast, falls somewhere between 1/7 and 1/5 of that of the United States, according to a 2009 Pentagon report. While more money does not necessarily indicate a better military, in this case the US can claim a decisive advantage–experience.
While China may be fielding the early stages of next generation military platforms, it has yet to demonstrate that it can integrate and deploy them successfully in military action. “We’re seeing [this type of integration] in individual elements of warfare, but not across the joint spectrum of warfighting” said Chief of Naval intelligence, Vice Admiral Jack Dorsett.
Instead of focusing on China’s tactical level breakthroughs, the United States should be working to articulate its own grand strategic position more clearly. A strategy which regards the Peoples Republic of China as a rising power with legitimate regional interests and anxieties will better interpret China’s actions for what they are. Acknowledging the constraints which China faces–from issues like pollution to demographic change to the enormously complex task of interacting with an international system as its primary challenger–will likewise reduce the chance for American overreaction. Buying into hype only intensifies spiraling mistrust. Fear may sell news. But it also puts pressure on policymakers to act, even if action is ill-advised.
Clearly defined grand strategic objectives would help guide long-term US military procurement. Strategic goals would provide a structure through which scarce resources could be distributed amongst competing objectives. Finally, an American grand strategy would give much needed context to Chinese military developments.
Viewed on their own, a stealth jet and an anti-ship ballistic missile should be a cause of alarm. But when the USS George Washington likes to drop by your backyard, it makes sense to have something guarding your door.
— Jordan D’Amato