Guest post by Michael S. Chase

Michael S. Chase is a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and an Associate Research Professor at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The views expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, or the U.S. Department of Defense.

Once dismissed as a “junkyard army,” the Chinese military is now impressing outside observers—and alarming China’s neighbors—with its growing air, naval, missile, space, and information warfare capabilities. In recent years, China has deployed increasingly potent capabilities, including modern surface ships, advanced submarines, fourth-generation fighter aircraft, and conventional cruise and ballistic missiles, including an anti-ship ballistic missile designed to target U.S. aircraft carriers. China is also enhancing its command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems and its space and cyber warfare capabilities.

The internet leak of photos and videos unveiling China’s new J-20 stealth fighter and the test flight of the aircraft during Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ recent visit to China seemed intended to underscore the growing capability of China’s military. China’s eagerness to showcase the faster than expected development of the J-20—and its determination to send a message to the United States—also ensured that concerns about the implications of a more powerful Chinese military would loom large when President Hu Jintao arrived in Washington for a state visit this week.

China’s growing military capabilities, along with incidents such as Beijing’s anti-satellite test in January 2007 and its harassment of a U.S. surveillance ship in March 2009, are raising questions about whether an increasingly powerful China represents a threat to the U.S. and its allies. Fueling China’s accelerating military modernization—and the concerns of analysts who see China as an emerging competitor—is the rapid growth of their defense budget. Beijing’s increases in defense spending have enabled the People’s Liberation Army to develop more credible options for using force against Taiwan and countering U.S. military intervention.

Beyond Taiwan, PLA modernization is increasingly tied to China’s growing role on the world stage. As China’s economic and security interests become more global, the PLA’s roles and missions are evolving to contend with an increasingly diverse set of challenges. To fulfill these expanded missions, China’s leadership has tasked their military with enhancing its capabilities to participate in military operations other than war, such as the counter-piracy patrols that China’s navy has been conducting in the Gulf of Aden. Such activities are seen as important to protecting China’s growing global interests, but senior officers stress that their military’s core mission remains deterring and winning wars.

China continues to lag behind the United States military in many respects, but its new capabilities already present serious challenges to the security balance in the Asia-Pacific region. Beijing’s advances in cyber-warfare, anti-satellite weapons, submarines, and ballistic missiles could threaten America’s regional bases, the aircraft carriers that have become symbols of U.S. presence and power projection, and the space assets and computer networks that support them.

The U.S. should counter these developments with a strategy to deter China from using force over Taiwan or in another regional dispute. Creating new operational concepts, developing cutting-edge information and electronic warfare capabilities, and strengthening the U.S. military’s existing edge in the undersea environment would ensure the credibility of such a deterrence strategy. The U.S. should also practice operating without the full range of cyber and space assets to show China that attacks against American computer networks and satellites would not cripple the U.S. military.

At the same time, attempts to strengthen deterrence must be calibrated to avoid inadvertently fueling China’s worst fears about U.S. strategic intentions. Because of China’s concern that the United States is determined to prevent its emergence as a great power through encirclement and containment, Washington should carefully weigh taking actions that could further exacerbate Chinese fears. To help prevent misunderstanding or miscalculation, the United States should continue to pursue dialogue with China on issues such as security on the Korean peninsula, space and cyber warfare, and strategic stability in the U.S.-China relationship. The United States should also seek to strengthen military cooperation with China in areas such as anti-piracy and humanitarian assistance operations. This week’s state visit presents an opportunity for Presidents Obama and Hu to lead the United States and China toward a more cooperative relationship, but mutual strategic suspicion and a complex mix of convergent and divergent interests suggest that neither side should expect the path forward to be an easy one.

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