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Over the Horizon

Is worrying about war with China a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Is it possible that, a decade after 9/11, America has become too preoccupied with the threat from "nonstate actors" and too complacent about the more classic dangers posed by powerful and self-aggrandizing states? Or, put more succinctly, how afraid of China should the United States be?

We know, of course, that China owns $1.5 trillion worth of U.S. Treasury bills and thus has the U.S. economy by the short hairs; that China refuses to significantly revalue the renminbi and thus retains its colossal imbalance in trade with the United States; and that China has begun to buy American real estate and other assets (including, perhaps, the Los Angeles Dodgers). But should Americans regard China as a national security threat and not merely an economic one?

The authors of "Asian Alliances in the 21st Century," a report published by the Project 2049 Institute, a conservative think tank that focuses on East Asia, insist that we must. (The lead author is American Enterprise Institute scholar Dan Blumenthal of Foreign Policy's Shadow Government blog.) The report concludes that "China's military ambitions threaten America's Asian allies, raise questions about the credibility of U.S. alliance pledges, and imperil the U.S. military strategy that underpins its global primacy."

This is startling news to those of us who think of China as a "status quo" power, a view that until recently was widely shared in the academic and policy community. In Power Shift: China and Asia's New Dynamics, published in 2006, David Shambaugh, a leading China scholar, concludes that "China is increasingly seen as a good neighbor, constructive partner, and careful listener." Shambaugh and others wrote then that China had emerged from a long era of suspicion and insularity and had begun to join regional organizations, send peacekeepers to U.N. missions, and improve bilateral relations in the neighborhood. Yes, China's military was rapidly modernizing in ways that gave the Taiwanese a fright, but such signs of belligerence had been offset, Shambaugh concluded, by "bilateral and multilateral confidence-building measures."

But five years is a long time for a country growing, and changing, as rapidly as China. "Asian Alliances" argues, in effect, that China has now fully emerged from its defensive crouch. In recent years, China has developed a new generation of ballistic and cruise missiles, attack submarines, tactical and stealth aircraft, radar, and space-based intelligence, as well as an anti-satellite missile, which together give it the capacity to establish "contested zones" in air, sea, and space, and thus push the United States further and further out from regions of the Pacific that it has long patrolled and protected. And China's behavior in the neighborhood has turned markedly bellicose, aggressively pursuing its claim to islands in the South China Sea and sending its blue-water navy on long-range exercises off the Japanese coast. It's for this reason that Robert D. Kaplan wrote in the current issue of FP that the future of conflict lies not in the sands of the Middle East but the open water of the South China Sea.

It seems odd that a country so famously patient and slow-gestating would have so radically, and so quickly, changed its posture to the world. Maybe that careful listening was an elaborate show, or a transitional phase. Elizabeth Economy, a China scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that China's peaceful rise was never more than a "rhetorical formulation"; only now, however, has China's military capacity and its rhetoric caught up with its long-held aspirations to expand its sphere of dominance in East Asia. U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has not accepted that view, but has nevertheless warned China to play by the rules of the international system. In the 2009 speech in which he coined the phrase "strategic reassurance," then-Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg noted that China's "enhanced capabilities" and "overbroad assertion of its rights" in the South China Sea had caused Washington and its allies to "question China's intentions."

There's little debate over those capabilities, which are clearly superior to what they were only a few years ago, and improving fast. But China's intentions are harder to read. David Finkelstein, director of China Studies at the Center for Naval Analyses in Alexandria, Va., says that he shares the "great uneasiness about how China will use its incipient but growing maritime power" throughout the region, but also notes that in recent years China has concluded that "time is on their side on Taiwan" and thus have been "relatively more relaxed" than in the past.

The obvious Cold War analogy is to the policy of containment: George Kennan believed that the Soviet Union hoped to dance on America's grave but he was prepared to wait for history to inevitably unspool itself; the Soviets could thus be deterred by a patient and persistent policy of containment. Finkelstein argues that a combination of forceful American diplomacy, which he credits the Obama administration with undertaking, and the current level of American military presence -- the Pacific fleet and 60,000 active-duty troops in the region -- has already contained China's ambitions, and will probably continue to do so. Kaplan, too, for all his projections of growing Chinese naval and air power, argues for maintaining the current state of military deployment. In short, it's the intentions that matter.

The authors of "Asian Alliances," by contrast, tend to infer China's intentions from its capacities. In an ominous scenario that carries a strong whiff of Herman Kahn, or perhaps Dr. Strangelove, they describe China using missiles and bombers to launch a devastating attack on Taiwan and the United States responding with a missile strike against the mainland, which in turn leads to … Armageddon. The only way to preclude such a cataclysm, the authors argue, is to adopt much tougher counter-measures: rollback, in Cold War terms.

The "Asian Alliances" report warns that "Asia's future demands nothing less" than a new "shared strategic concept." The web of Cold War alliances should give way to a military partnership among the United States, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, and others that would require a major increase in military spending and in military and intelligence cooperation. "[A]ny would-be aggressor" would be made to understand "that targeting one ally means invoking the ire of the rest." It's hard to believe that these states would agree to join such an explicitly anti-Chinese coalition. There's also the danger that China would react by concluding that time was no longer on its side, thus turning the coalition into a devastatingly self-fulfilling prophecy.

The costs for the United States would be greater still. The "Asian Alliances" report accuses the United States of courting "strategic insolvency" and proposes investments in vast amounts of new weaponry. In a congressional briefing, Blumenthal specified the hardware: "a next-generation bomber; large numbers of attack submarines (SSNs); a sizeable fifth-generation tactical aircraft fleet" and on and on and on.

That sounds costly, no? Mitt Romney, who never loses an opportunity to talk up the threat from China, not to mention Russia, would peg defense spending at 4 percent of GDP -- $600 billion, or $70 billion more than the current total, which of course would necessitate equivalent cuts elsewhere to make up the difference. Or perhaps voters should accept that national insolvency is a price worth paying in order to address strategic insolvency. Or of course we could Lose China again. Or risk the Big One.

Americans are, understandably, much too obsessed with the economy right now to spare a thought for national security. But the debate is waiting in the wings. The threat of terrorist attack is very real, but diminishing. Al Qaeda is not the national nightmare it once was. Are Americans going to replace it with a new nightmare -- or rather, a recycled one from the depths of the Cold War? I certainly hope not. China's regional ambitions do need to be checked. But if America bankrupts itself in the process, we'll win the battle and lose the war.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

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