Let’s not panic over China’s military might … just yet

Let’s not panic over China’s military might … just yet
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The latest Pentagon report to the Congress is a sobering, yet balanced, document. It outlines in great detail, and in some 130 pages, just how far China has come in the past decade and how it continues to develop an increasingly modern — indeed, high-tech — and capable military.

But China is not yet a global peer competitor of the United States, nor even a near-peer competitor. Its strength is as a regional power, with an increasing capability that is directed toward three interlocking objectives.


First, it seeks to buttress what is already an overwhelming military advantage over Taiwan. In so doing, it hopes to convince what it terms its “breakaway province” that it can avoid a costly conflict if it allows itself to be peacefully absorbed into the mainland. Should Taiwan remain determined to go its own way, Beijing would have the wherewithal to take the island before American reinforcements might arrive.


Second, it is driving toward hegemony in the Western Pacific. It is doing so both by means of its military buildup in the South China Sea and its ability to control an otherwise unpredictable and dangerous North Korea. In addition, and more subtly, it seeks to intimidate Japan, made nervous by President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act MORE’s erratic behavior, into adopting a neutral regional stance by abrogating its alliance with the United States.

Finally, it aims to protect its trading routes with its own forces, and no longer rely on the U.S. Navy to guarantee “freedom of the seas.” Beijing’s desire to protect its maritime trading routes could well become even more pronounced if its One Belt One Road initiative continues to falter.

Not surprisingly, the United States stands in the way of all three of China’s objectives. Therefore, Beijing’s overarching goal is to deny America its current access to, and dominance of, the Western Pacific. But it has some ways to go before it can do so.

There have been reports that China is training to hit American targets. But it should be clear what those targets are, and what is the probability that China could actually succeed. The Pentagon does note that China is training its long-range bomber forces to hit American targets — not the continental United States, or even Hawaii, but targets in the Western Pacific such as Guam. It is unclear, however, whether Chinese aircraft actually, or its missiles, could penetrate American defenses on Guam or elsewhere. These defenses can target not only incoming aircraft and missiles but also consist of less visible means for nullifying an attack.

Moreover, it is far from certain that China would risk nuclear retaliation for an attack on American territory.

It is noteworthy that China is deploying its first-ever aircraft carrier; in extremis, America could deploy as many as a half-dozen carriers to the Western Pacific. Having well over seven decades of experience with these capital ships, Americans have perfected offensive carrier strike operations like no other nation, and certainly not like a newcomer to carrier forces, as is China. When coupled with a submarine force that likewise has a history of training for offensive operations against the Soviet Union, America still poses a major long-range threat to the Chinese homeland that Beijing cannot ignore.

In other words, even as it modernizes, China faces a daunting challenge if it wishes to take on America’s forces: America still poses a greater threat to China than the other way round.

Finally, it not just China that is modernizing; so is the United States. China may be developing hypersonic missiles, but the United States has been doing so at least since 2001, when I re-entered the Department of Defense (DOD), and probably considerably earlier. Washington has a potent cyber capability, which it continues to upgrade. And then there are programs that, for good security reasons, cannot be divulged.

All in all, America remains far ahead of China, or any other rival, militarily. The challenge for Washington is to maintain that lead in the face of a Middle Kingdom that is determined to upend the balance of power — not only in the Western Pacific, but far beyond its reaches as well.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.