Is the United States on the way to making China a foe? Or will China's growing economic, political, and especially military power, fueled by broader ambitions, make a collision with the United States and other nations inevitable? And what role if any can or should the U.S. Navy play in shaping a favorable outcome?
The official Washington perception of China is becoming increasingly pessimistic. Once tempers cooled following the April 2001 mini-crisis over the knockdown of a U.S. Navy Orion reconnaissance aircraft in international waters near China's Hainan Island, the Bush administration favored balanced policies towards Beijing. It supported China's entry into the World Trade Organization and had been open-minded in expanding business and trade. It talked about keeping China as a friend.
But, this year, a series of events paint a changing landscape. The administration leaned heavily on Israel not to sell China its version of the AWACS airborne warning system and pressured the European Union to keep the arms embargo on Beijing. The Treasury Department used more than friendly persuasion in convincing Beijing to float the yuan. Congressional protests overrode China's attempted acquisition of Unocal oil. And Taiwan remains a constant source of mutual antagonism.
In the Pentagon, China is viewed with concern. The congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review asks how DoD could influence potential competitors to remain friendly or at least peaceful. The March 2005 National Defense Strategy of the United States, signed by Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, mirrors this aim: "We will work to dissuade potential adversaries from adopting threatening capabilities. . . ." For competitor and adversary, read China. The obverse is that if such influence fails, China must be deterred and contained by military force.
A recently released DoD report to Congress on "The Military Power of the People's Republic of China" goes further. China is cited as a regional power with "global aspirations." While welcoming a peaceful and prosperous China, the document considers China at "a strategic crossroads." With "basic choices" to be made as Chinese "power and influence grow, particularly . . . military power," China's future military capabilities "could pose a credible threat to other modern militaries operating in the region."
Clearly, "other militaries" include us. Until recently, the Pentagon had also discouraged high-level military to military contacts. One small example is the absence of senior American brass at official receptions at China's embassy in Washington.
As the DoD report to Congress correctly observes, the world has insufficient knowledge of China's motivations and where she is headed. China indeed could become a strategic, as opposed to economic, competitor. China's leaders continue to closely guard information about China's armed forces. Unofficially, senior members of the People's Liberation Army claim that one reason why the PLA is tight lipped over its plans is that it understands how weak it is compared to the military might of the United States, a claim routinely dismissed here.
Despite supporting the Six Power talks on the Korean Peninsula, China is not happy with what is emanating from the United States. Its leadership strenuously denies that China is moving to establish any form of regional hegemony beyond the need for sufficient military power to annex Taiwan by force if independence from the mainland is declared. But China is modernizing its military forces and will continue to do so. It also is expanding its international influence beyond trade and business from Asia to Africa.
Better and more objective insight into China's overall interests and strategies is critically needed. And the United States must never succumb Io turning the prospect of China as an adversary into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What does this mean for the Navy?
First, there needs to be far more transparency in these relationships to build mutual trust, confidence, and understanding. On the military level, greater navy-to-navy cooperation, based on the experience of the Cold War and U.S-Soviet maritime interactions beginning with the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement, is a smart way to start. This could be augmented by greater exchange programs for both officers and enlisted in operational billets and at military educational institutions.
Second, exercises at sea can be expanded, perhaps in concert with the Russian navy.
Third, more expertise must be developed in studying and understanding the region, something the Navy has done since Commodore Peary opened Japan a century and a half ago.
One day, China may become an adversary. But making China an enemy without cause would be a colossal blunder and a huger stupidity. The U.S. Navy has a vital role to play here, less as a weapon of war and more as an instrument for peace.
Harlan Ullman, a former Swift boat and destroyer skipper, is a columnist for Proceedings and the Washington Times. His newest book is Owls and EaglesEnding the Flights of Fancy of Hawks, Doves and Neo-Cons. The Naval Institute published his previous book, Finishing Business: Ten Steps to Defeat Global Terror, in October.