Thursday, December 30, 2010

Stronger--But Not Stronger Than Everyone

China's defense minister has raised some alarms with these comments:

"In the coming five years, our military will push forward preparations for military conflict in every strategic direction," said Liang Guanglie in an interview published by several state-backed newspapers in China. "We may be living in peaceful times, but we can never forget war, never send the horses south or put the bayonets and guns away," Mr Liang added.

China repeatedly says it is planning a "peaceful rise" but the recent pace and scale of its military modernisation has alarmed many of its neighbours in the Asia-Pacific, including Japan which described China's military build-up as a "global concern" this month.

China is getting stronger. There is no doubt that they are translating their growing economic power into military power. The problem from China's point of view is that they have potential enemies all around their borders. Heck, from a purely practical point of view, China has to prepare for conflicts in every strategic direction. But doing so with an attitude won't make you friends. And the rise of China's capabilities combined with a more forceful approach to getting what they want makes neighbors nervous.

By preparing to face all those potential enemies, China dilutes their power by stretching to cover many theaters.

Of course, China also gains the central position. If they can defend in many areas with minimal forces while they rapidly concentrate power in one area, they can pick apart a widely dispersed array of foes around their border with successive offensives. Naval power isn't interchangeable with ground power, so this type of redeployment can't work in all cases, but redeploying what they can could allow China to defeat threats in succession if everyone not in China's primary theater doesn't jump in to intervene and just hopes to be the last victim.

That's where we come in. As long as our deployable power remains decisive within the Asian balance of power, we can hold widely separated countries together in an alliance if China's peaceful rise turns out less peaceful than claimed. Further, the potential that we could throw some of our power into any of the quiet sectors would deny China the ability to really thin the quiet sectors too much out of fear that our forces could generate local superiority by one neighbor who might jump into the fight.

It's been a long time since China has been the Middle Kingdom, so they may be getting a bit cocky, forgetting that they are in the middle with countries that just don't trust them all around.

Or maybe China's rise will be peaceful. Maybe China won't be hasty and burn out in a bright flame trying to get what they want right now, consequences be damned. Maybe they'll be happy with the major accomplishment of rising so far so quickly the last several decades, and take their place as a status quo power.

China has benefited from the current international system, after all. That would be the smart way to play it. I wish I could say I was confident that China will play it the smart way.