This week’s state visit of Chinese president Hu Jintao to Washington comes on the heels of a series of recent Chinese actions that should concern all Americans. In the preceding months, China has matched its increasingly troubling diplomatic and rhetorical belligerence toward the United States with military actions that appear calculated to exacerbate tensions between the two nations.
Only the Chinese know why they have chosen to antagonize their leading trading partner at a time when it knows the United States is faced with a mounting deficit and high unemployment. That is not something people or nations deserving of the label “partner” do. China’s recent actions can hardly be said to tamp down pressures in the United States for the imposition of tariffs on Chinese goods, if China continues to resist opening its markets to American-manufactured products. Treasury Secretary Geithner apparently thinks he can achieve more through bribery than through a relationship based on mutual respect and trust. He would allow the Chinese even more access to American high technology and increased American investment if they would only “play fair.” (Geithner would be better served by emulating his visitors and reading what American admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan had to say in the 19th century about the importance of a strong navy to the protection and expansion of trade.)
What is even more appalling than Chinese behavior of late has been the failure of leaders of both political parties in the United States to respond to China’s increasing militarism, bullying of its neighbors, and growing threats to the legitimate interests of the United States. Both parties still look to the Pentagon’s budget as perhaps the largest place to find funds to close rising deficits, fund social programs, and avert painful cuts in entitlements. But whether they like it or not, strategic threats to American economic well-being and physical security do not go on holiday during economically difficult times. Perhaps we should be grateful to China’s leaders for reminding us of that.
China’s recently publicized test of an advanced stealth fighter, preceded by a warning from the top U.S. commander in the Pacific that Beijing’s long-anticipated “carrier-killing” cruise missile is near operational deployment, should come as little surprise. It is significant that Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted, on the eve of his recent trip to Beijing, that China is “somewhat further ahead” in these key areas than most analysts realized. (Gates recently lost a battle within the administration to curtail major cutbacks in his department by peremptorily offering up more modest ones, which were already too draconian.)
Better late than never. Over the last decade, Beijing has been rapidly modernizing its military forces with the specific objective of reducing the ability of the United States to defend its allies and maintain its commercial presence in East Asia. With its introduction of a fifth-generation fighter aircraft and missiles capable of crippling American aircraft carriers, China is signaling that it believes that the United States is a declining power, that it can be forced — both by Chinese bullying and domestic concerns — to reduce its presence in Asia, and that Beijing can intimidate other nations to negotiate with it on less favorable terms should they share its assessment that the United States is becoming less engaged in the region.
China’s assertion of sovereignty throughout the South China Sea, coupled with its aggression against states like Japan, India, and Vietnam, suggest that Chinese adventurism in the region can be expected to increase in tandem with China’s rapid military advances. Reduction in American strength and capabilities in Asia and elsewhere will increase rather than decrease world tensions and make for a less stable world.