China stays cool as new US defense strategy targets Asia

Some Chinese scholars worry that the new US defense strategy could promote strategic competition in the long term. The most likely theater for crisis? The South China Sea.

By , Staff writer

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    A color guard of US and Chinese flags awaits the plane of China's President Hu Jintao at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland in this April 12, 2010 file photo. President Barack Obama unveiled a defense strategy on Thursday that would expand the US military presence in Asia but shrink the overall size of the force as the Pentagon seeks to reduce spending by nearly half a trillion dollars after a decade of war.
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As the Pentagon puts China firmly in its sights with a new US defense strategy that makes Asia its top priority, Chinese analysts are keeping their cool. Though targeting Beijing will complicate US-China relations, they say there is no reason to panic.

“Military guys always seek the best but prepare for the worst,” says Jin Canrong, deputy head of the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, commenting on the strategy document unveiled Thursday by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. That document calls for an increase in the number of US troops in Asia both in the face of uncertainty over China’s strategic goals, and North Korea's future.

Officially, Beijing was mute Friday about the US strategic shift to its doorstep. Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Defense Ministry answered requests for comment. But several scholars closely linked to foreign policy-making circles say they do not see the move as a fundamental shift in US attitudes to China.

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“It does not mean that the US is trying to contain China” as it once sought to contain the former Soviet Union, says Yuan Peng, head of the US department at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a government-linked think tank. “They are hedging, but they still hope to have positive relations.”

 American analysts agreed. “This document emphasizes the pessimistic scenario. It is necessarily an insurance policy,” says Denny Roy, a security expert at the East-West Center in Hawaii. “You don’t see the full breadth of US policy toward China here.”

That does not mean, however, that Washington is not worried by China’s intentions as it modernizes its military, building advanced stealth jet fighters, developing an anti-ship missile that could keep US vessels 1,500 km (about 932 miles) away from the Chinese coastline, and refurbishing an old Soviet aircraft carrier with which to run sea trials.

Promoting strategic competition

“China would not be wrong to conclude that the US is concerned by its military modernization and its intentions,” says Bonnie Glaser, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But it would be wrong to say China is now a US adversary.

“There are areas where we compete and areas where we cooperate,” she adds. “The key is to stop the competition from slipping into strategic rivalry that would overwhelm the cooperation.”

Some scholars here worry that the US shift, while posing no immediate threat to China, might promote such strategic competition in the longer term.

“It will damage mutual trust, and if it poses a potential threat it could lead to a vicious circle and deepen misperceptions,” argues Professor Yuan. “It is very natural for the Chinese to think that they are a very important target, so it is not constructive.”

Potential crisis?

Sun Zhe, a security expert at Tsinghua University’s department of International Relations, shares that fear. In the face of Washington’s new posture, he says, “China probably has no choice but to adopt hedging itself. “We won’t give up talking to the US but we will continue to strengthen our military power,” he predicts. “I am afraid of an escalation of military competition and a potential crisis.” 

The most likely theater for such a crisis would be the South China Sea, believed to be rich not only in fisheries but in oil and other minerals. China has laid sovereignty claims to almost the whole sea, bringing it into conflict with Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei, which all maintain claims to specific islands and atolls.

Washington has officially declared itself neutral in these disputes, but US officials have recently done little to hide their support for China’s neighbors.

Washington’s new “tilt” toward the Asia Pacific region “implies that if China does something to prevent US power projection, the US will fight back,” suggests Professor Sun. “That hurts our bilateral relations.”

The new US defense strategy, however, “is only a new step in the same direction” that Washington has been taking for two years toward greater involvement in Asia, points out Professor Jin. “China’s leaders have had some psychological preparation for this,” he says. “It won’t shock them … and they won’t be very nervous.”

One thing it will do however, he adds, referring to the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army, “is give the PLA an excuse to ask for more money. I think they’ll get a bigger budget now.” 

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