Is China's Military a Competitor or Potential Ally?

Much of Asia -- even the United States' closest allies -- see their economic future with China and the U.S. as their security blanket

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Anyone who needs convincing that China's military trajectory is cause for alarm should take a look at "Asian Alliances in the 21st Century," a new report co-authored by several well-known Asia security experts, including Dan Blumenthal, Randall Schriver, Mark Stokes, L.C. Russell Hsiao and Michael Mazza. The report details the rapid modernization of China's military capabilities and claims that Beijing is interested neither in benign hegemonic rule nor in helping Washington address global challenges. Rather, China's leaders are ultimately concerned only with maintaining their power and expanding their maritime reach.

The thrust of the report has merit. China's assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, as well as its increasingly unattractive foreign policy rhetoric, gives significant reason for concern and little reason for optimism about China's real interest in strengthening regional security cooperation in the near term.

There are no shades of gray in the report, however, and the lack of nuance can be disconcerting. Oddly enough, it may even lead the authors to be a bit too optimistic. In the "what do we do about it" section, for example, the report calls for a far more deeply integrated U.S.-led alliance system in Asia. This proposal, however, raises a few additional issues that the report does not fully address.

First, in recommending that the United States weave together a more cohesive military alliance in Asia, the authors seem to assume that given the necessary political and economic will on the part of the United States, the allies will be ready to jump on board. Maybe the authors are right, but for the most part, countries in Asia--even the United States' closest allies--see their economic future with China and the United States as their security blanket. It's not clear to me that absent a truly significant provocation by Chinese military forces, these countries will be willing to upset their economic apple carts.

Second, before the United States begins developing, transferring, and selling its advanced military technology throughout the region, as the report proposes, it may be worth thinking about the fickle nature of global politics. A number of countries in Asia hold joint military exercises of one form or another with China as well as with the United States -- perhaps the authors might suggest a few safeguards against inadvertent or deliberate sharing of technology.

Finally, I think that there is an intermediate step that the United States should take before completely slamming the door on potential military to military cooperation with China. While the U.S. military on its own has not been able to get the PLA to the table in a meaningful manner, the region as a whole may have more success. Collective action has proved useful with China in areas such as climate change and trade; there is no reason not to give it a chance now. The United States and the region's other central military players need to send a unified message to China that they want a legitimate effort from Beijing to sit down to negotiate the rules of the road--or the sea in this case--otherwise China will face the "Asian Alliance in the 21st century".

The report is certain to raise other questions as well. Foreign Policy columnist James Traub, in his commentary on the report, for example, worries that painting China as an enemy may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fair enough, but he may also want to consider, as the report suggests, that it more and more looks like the painting is of China's own design.