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."