US vs China: A new Cold War?
By Jing-dong Yuan

MONTEREY, California - On September 20, the George W Bush administration released the National Security Strategy of the United States. A comprehensive document laying out America's foreign and security policy in the wake of last September's terrorist attacks, it vows to prevent the emergence of any future competitors, commits the US to use its military, political, and economic resources to encourage open societies and democracy, and reorients US military strategy toward preemptive actions. Analysts have likened this document to NSC-68, the blueprint by the Harry Truman administration declaring the onset of the Cold War. Nice comparison. But the circumstances are so different.

In the now famous "X" article published in Foreign Affairs in 1947, George Kennan, one of the postwar architects of US foreign policy, proposed that Washington adopt a strategy of containment against the perceived Soviet expansion beyond Eastern Europe. With the declaration of the Truman Doctrine and the introduction of the Marshall Plan, the US embarked on a global crusade against the Soviet Union on the ideological, political, and economic fronts. The Cold War ensued.

The United States was facing a formidable foe at the time. The Soviet Union controlled most of Eastern and Central Europe, had deployed predominant conventional forces against war-ravaged Western Europe, and was competing for influence vis-a-vis the US in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, Indochina, and the Caribbean. With the Soviet Union achieving parity and even numerical superiority in strategic nuclear weapons in the 1970s, the challenge to US security and global interests were unprecedented and the stakes huge.

But the United States is facing no such foes today. The Cold War has been over for 13 years. Given its weak economy, low military morale, and endemic ethnic problems, Russia no longer poses - nor is it willing to pose - a serious challenge to US interests. Instead, the Vladimir Putin government is seeking a new type of strategic relationship with the United States. This has been clearly demonstrated by Russia's mild reactions toward the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, its acquiescence in US military presence in Central Asia in the anti-terrorism campaign, and the signing the Moscow Treaty.

Who, then, is the potential challenger? The attention turns to China. Indeed, while the document emphasizes that the United States "welcomes the emergence of a strong, peaceful, and prosperous China", it also admonishes Beijing not to pursue "advanced military capabilities that can threaten its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region". As if to warn Beijing against even contemplating launching any credible threat to the US, the document states: "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States."

This seems to be in line with the conclusion of a July Department of Defense (DOD) report assessing China's military capabilities. The DOD report highlights a number of key findings. First, actual annual Chinese defense spending is estimated at US$65 billion, much higher than Beijing's official figure of $20 billion. Compared with Taiwan's defense budget, which has been declining over the past few years, China's defense expenditure has seen double-digit increases over a decade. In a drawn-out arms race across the Taiwan Strait, Beijing could conceivably outspend Taipei.

Second, the report identifies a doctrinal shift in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) toward preemption and surprise. Compensating for equipment and technical deficiencies, the PLA is paying greater attention to asymmetrical warfare to explore enemy weakness. It now emphasizes the importance of information and electronic warfare. It also is interested in the development of ASAT (anti-satellite) capability.

Third, Chinese ballistic missiles remain a credible and most threatening instrument of deterrent and coercion against Taiwan. They also serve to dissuade the United States from intervention in a Taiwan crisis and raise the cost of such intervention.

However, such assessments miss several important points. First, Beijing does not have the intention, let alone capabilities, to challenge US interests. While rhetorically extolling the virtue of multipolarity and a fair and equitable international political and economic order, China knows well - and is resigned to the reality - that the United States' prominent position will continue for at least several more decades.

At the same time, China has benefited from, and continues to thrive on, the existing international political and economic arrangements. China is a nuclear power and one of the five veto-holding United Nations Security Council permanent members. These titles bestow power and prestige. China's economic development is contingent upon access to markets, capital, and technology transfers. Indeed, China is the largest recipient country of international financial assistance and of foreign direct investment.

Second, China's military capabilities, while growing and improving, are a generation - if not more - behind those of the powerful US military in terms of equipment, power projection, and C4I (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence). One can use purchasing-power parity to tabulate a higher defense expenditure figure for the PLA, but the hard reality is that the Chinese military remains hamstrung by the inability of the domestic defense industry to provide advanced weapons systems, lack of sufficient training, and almost no combat experience under modern, high-tech environment. China's acquisitions of Russian weaponry are of great concern; at the same time, they also demonstrate China's own weakness.

Third, Beijing will likely remain inward-looking for the foreseeable future as the country undergoes significant changes with the leadership transition, major socioeconomic adjustments imposed upon by its accession to the World Trade Organization, and growing challenges of good governance, accountability, and institution building. With the exception of Taiwan, China's energies will be largely consumed in addressing these domestic issues.

If anything, the White House document may be seen by Beijing as a further indication of US suspicion of and hostility toward China. What China worries about is how a militarily strong, diplomatically arrogant, and politically and ideologically threatening United States can pose a serious threat to its vital interests. These would include US military strategy, its Taiwan policy, and its overall approach toward China.

On March 9, the Los Angeles Times reported the leaked US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that contains contingency plans to use nuclear weapons against China and six other countries. For Beijing, the revelation of the targeting list raises a serious issue about US trustworthiness: China and the United States signed a de-targeting agreement in 1997. Even before the Los Angeles Times leak, Chinese strategic analysts had already been aware of what they considered to be fundamental shifts in the post-Cold War US strategic posture.

The so-called new strategic triad of offensive systems (nuclear and non-nuclear), active and passive defenses, and the defense-industrial infrastructure and shift from deterrence to preemption represent the core of the US military strategy. This new strategic posture would thus enable the United States to reserve massive retaliatory capabilities (even after the significant reduction of its strategic nuclear force) against the other major nuclear powers, to confront and neutralize threats from the so-called "rogue" states through its missile defense systems, and to deal with any potential opponents effectively by applying precision-guided munitions. The ultimate aim, according to Chinese analysts, is to maintain US military dominance and seek absolute security.

However, what has fundamentally changed is the premise upon which nuclear weapons are to be used. The threshold for nuclear use has been lowered and, in contravention to its 1978 pledge and its negative security assurance (NSA) commitment not to use nuclear weapons against NPT NNWS (Non-Proliferation Treaty, Non-Nuclear Weapon Storage) signatory states, the new posture suggests the use of nuclear weapons against hardened, difficult-to-penetrate targets, as retaliation against WMD (weapons of mass destruction) use, and as responses in certain circumstances. Indeed, what worries China the most is nuclear use "in the event of surprising military developments", including a war between China and Taiwan. This only convinces Beijing the high likelihood of US military intervention in the event that the mainland must use force to resolve the Taiwan issue.

US policy toward Taiwan is a serious concern for China. From Washington's standpoint, how to enable Taiwan to defend itself against growing Chinese military coercion remains a critical component of overall US strategy in East Asia. That strategy envisages strong alliance relationships, forward US military presence, and forestalling the rise of any major power that may challenge vital US interests. Within this broader context, the ability and resolve to help Taiwan defend itself not only fulfills key US obligations and commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act but also demonstrates the resolve and credibility of its commitments to allies and friends.

Indeed, President Bush has moved away from a Taiwan policy anchored in "strategic ambiguity". Administration officials have emphasized US obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act, a strong preference for peaceful resolution of the issue, and explicit opposition to coercion and the use of force. In April 2001, the Bush administration approved the largest arms sales to Taiwan in more than a decade. Taiwanese Defense Minister Tang Yaoming was granted permission to travel to the United States last March and met with high-ranking US officials. The US and Taiwan are also engaged in substantive discussions on boosting bilateral defense cooperation. All of these developments add substance to Bush's controversial statement that the United States would do "whatever it takes" to help Taiwan defend itself.

Finally, the overall US China policy remains ambivalent. On the one hand, the Bush administration has dropped the "strategic competitor" rhetoric and adopted a policy of engaging China where it must but confronting the latter where it must. On the other hand, the United States has been less sensitive to core Chinese interests such as Taiwan and unnecessarily provokes Beijing. While seeking and praising China's cooperation in anti-terrorism, Washington's post-September 11 policy toward South and Central Asia also worries Beijing. China is particularly concerned that prolonged US military operations may set precedents for future interference in domestic affairs and the further erosion of the UN's authority. Expanded and permanent US military presence closer to China's doorstep could be seen by Beijing as an apparent if not real encirclement.

The US National Security Strategy sets the broad outline for America's role and objectives in the world. The global geo-strategic environment has changed and the United States must adapt to lead, not to imagine and create enemies. The US could use its enormous resources to bring stability; but it could also abuse them to alienate and anger others. The least that the Bush administration could and must do is to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy of treating and turning China into a post-Cold War Soviet Union. That would be the worst outcome for the United States and the world as well.

(Dr Jing-dong Yuan is a senior research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, where he also teaches Chinese politics and Northeast Asia security and arms-control issues.)

Sep 28, 2002

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