Politics & Policy

A Message to China

Our budgetary responses to Chinese naval aggression will send a signal that no state visit can.

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.)

#ad#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.

#page#Until this week, American reaction to all of this has been astonishingly restrained. The Obama administration, while it has made appropriate diplomatic protests and undertook military maneuvers to demonstrate the American resolve to remain active in Asia, continues to cut back on vital weapons systems, like the F-22 fighter. It, like its predecessor, has allowed the U.S. Navy to atrophy to its lowest fleet strength since the 19th century. The Air Force is flying a thinly stretched and shrinking force of aircraft, many built during the Eisenhower administration. If the “new isolationists” in Congress and the green eye-shades on their staffs get their way, America’s investments in the critical weapons needed to safeguard our security interests will be even further reduced.

#ad#A national acceptance of significantly reduced military capacity would be a telltale sign that the United States is acquiescing to its own decline. China and other would-be challengers to American economic and security interests will be watching closely as the United States begins its long-awaited debate about how to bring its budget into balance over time and how.

President Obama and the Republican leadership in Congress should make clear to their Chinese visitors both that the United States intends to remain an active presence in Asia and that it will maintain a military capable of deterring aggressors. The Chinese are an extraordinary flexible, ingenious, and adaptive people. Their leaders will adjust themselves appropriately to American actions as they act to further what they perceive to be China’s best interests. A strong stand by the United States is not the path to a new Cold War, as some have suggested, but a blueprint for international stability, increased trade, friendly competition, and peace. This is a message China understands, even if the “new isolationists” in Congress and out do not.

 — Alvin S. Felzenberg, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and at Yale University, is the author of The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game. Alexander B. Gray studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and the war-studies department of King’s College, London.

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