Managing China’s rise is going to be a challenge for America and her allies for a generation. But if we stay calm in crises, and make ourselves stronger and more resilient militarily and economically, we should have the tools needed to sustain the peace, writes Michael O'Hanlon. This op-ed appeared in USA Today.
China is definitely on the rise. But don’t write off American dominance just yet.
Even if the trade wars between the United States and China that dominated the Trump era have receded slightly, many other issues have intensified.
Director of Research - Foreign Policy
Co-Director - Africa Security Initiative
The Sydney Stein, Jr. Chair
Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy
China tested a hypersonic and potentially globe-spanning weapon this summer. It conducted dozens of sorties by combat aircraft that touched on Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification zone and otherwise menaced the island of 23 million (plus much of the world’s semiconductor production capacity) that it claims as its own. The Pentagon’s artificial intelligence guru, Nicolas Chaillan, recently resigned with a warning that the United States is losing the AI race to China. Intelligence and military officials warn that China may be expanding its nuclear arsenal by up to several hundred warheads. And commanders of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii have estimated that China might well attempt to take Taiwan within a half-dozen years or so, given its military modernization trends.
We should not overreact to these troubling trends. They are serious. They are, however, far from truly foreboding.
China is flexing its muscles more than preparing for war; this is not the equivalent of Europe in the late 1930s, given how much China depends on a stable international order for its continued success. We do need to stay vigilant, remember the art of war even in this age of (relative) peace, and expand our economic as well as military toolkit for crisis management. We need not and must not panic, however, because doing so could turn manageable crises into truly scary ones.
China won’t take the risk
First, let’s remember America’s many strengths. Our military budget is about three times’ China’s, and our allies in Europe and East Asia together outspend China themselves (even if not all would fight in a war in the Pacific, admittedly).
The loose coalition of European nations and the U.S. also represents the consumer market of more than a billion comparatively wealthy individuals whom China needs in order to sustain its still-export-driven economy. That means we have many tools of economic, as well as military, warfare if needed.
Since 1945, seven Democratic and seven Republican U.S. presidents have collectively upheld a rules-based international order that has established a very strong norm against interstate aggression, making any Chinese attack on Taiwan hugely problematic for President Xi Jinping and his fellow leaders in Beijing.
The world’s response to an actual attack against Taiwan — and this is the scenario that is truly the most worrisome for its potential to shake world peace — would likely be rather unified and strong. China knows it. For this reason, I believe that U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and other parts of the government need to be careful and restrained with their rhetoric (as most but not all are). China may have growing capacity to attempt to seize Taiwan, but it knows that actually making the attempt would be a cosmic roll of the dice, to be attempted only under the most extreme of circumstances.
America’s options against China
Beyond these broad advantages are a number of specific factors working in our favor to direct China’s rise in a generally peaceful direction:
- Even if our AI efforts, at the Pentagon and elsewhere, could be better focused, we enjoy numerous advantages in high technology vis-à-vis China, including in stealth, submarine technology, and long-range strike platforms like aircraft carriers. Even if China’s military is bigger than ours in some ways — total troop count, total ship count — ours is much better (and battle-hardened). Also, just to take one frequently misused statistic, if China’s navy has more ships than ours, we have a fleet with larger vessels, meaning the U.S. Navy wields twice the total ship tonnage, based on calculations my colleagues and I have done.
- Every time China fortifies another artificial island, should it continue down that path, we can respond. We can add bases in the Indo-Pacific region ourselves, or tighten various security partnerships, as with India. We should do this with restraint, and proportionality, to be sure — but the bottom line is that the United States has lots of allies and China does not. We also have a globally capable military that can, for example, continue to uphold our access to the South China Sea even when Beijing wrongly and dangerously claims it as territorial waters.
- If China does attack Taiwan, with the goal of reunification, I believe it is far more likely to attempt a blockade (combined with cyberattacks) than an outright invasion. Moving big ships near the coasts of a vigilant adversary is very hard to do in the era of precision-strike weaponry and advanced mines. In a blockade scenario, we have other options besides fighting right next to Taiwan — we can, for example, use economic warfare backed up by our military to interfere with China’s access to oil and other commodities coming from the Persian Gulf and Africa.
Managing China’s rise
To be sure, the United States needs to stay vigilant — and to keep getting “stronger” ourselves, as Brookings Institution scholar Ryan Hass argues in a new book of that very title. Our military command and control must be more resilient in order to makes sure our “kill chain” is robust. Our armed forces need more long-range strike platforms, including more bombers and long-range unmanned systems operating off aircraft carriers and attack submarines, given China’s ability to threaten nearby U.S. bases.
Nations need to diversify and harden their economies, and the global supply chains that undergird them, so that China does not have the upper hand in any future economic warfare scenarios.
Managing China’s rise is going to be a challenge for America and her allies for a generation. But if we stay calm in crises, and make ourselves stronger and more resilient militarily and economically, we should have the tools needed to sustain the peace.