The Corner

National Security & Defense

China and the Binary Choice

Late last week, President Trump met with Xi Jinping, the Chinese head of state and (more importantly) the head of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. The two men no doubt discussed many issues, but the elephants in the room were the conflict in strategic visions between China and the United States, and the military facts on the ground that are empowering China’s regional strategy.

China’s leaders want their country to reassume its historical role as the Middle Kingdom in Asia — as the hegemon of, at minimum, East Asia and its near seas. They want this for powerful strategic, economic, and nationalistic reasons, and also in order to ensure the stability of the Communist regime.

There are of course no democratic institutions in China, and there aren’t going to be under the current regime. The Party is not going to give up power, but at the same time it knows that to support its legitimacy, it must deliver not only a better quality of life, but also the “China dream”: the idea of a resurgent China that once again is master of its strategic environment — the big dog that gets the benefits, to which other countries must defer, regardless of the nominal rules of international engagement.

To that end, China has in the last six years asserted the rights of a sovereign throughout the region. It has declared an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea; flooded the Senkaku Islands, which Japan controls, with ships and planes; used its maritime militia and Coast Guard (which includes several well-armed ships, some of which are painted-over former naval frigates) to harass and attack the fishing vessels of other nations; deployed an oil rig in disputed waters; wrested control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines; and built military installations on several of its claimed artificial islands in the South China Sea — after having specifically promising not to militarize the islands.

The United States wants what it has always wanted: a rules-based international order where countries relate to each other according to agreed-upon laws and norms rather than size and strength, and where everyone is free to move and trade on the same basis. The Trump administration has added certain elements to this mix — a more protectionist approach to trade negotiations, and somewhat greater insistence on enhanced allied contribution to defense — but it has not and will not change the broader strategic objectives of the United States.

So the first elephant in the room is that the vital interests of the United States and China are fundamentally incompatible. President Xi understands that; he knows that China cannot have what it wants unless it succeeds in disrupting America’s alliance relationships, detaching China’s neighbors from the United States, and reducing American influence and the effectiveness of its forces in the region. The regime he leads has been pursuing those goals over the last six years through systematically coercive tactics, relying on the enormous power that China has built over the last two decades.

President Trump has only two choices. He can gradually surrender American interests and rights, or he can resolve to defend them. Beijing will not leave him any other option. And if he makes the latter choice, he must deal with the second elephant in the room: China’s fast-modernizing military, and the impact it is having on the strategic balance of power in the region.

I have written before about the growth of China’s military power and the decline of American strength because of the defense cuts in recent years. Here is a graphic illustration, compiled from open sources, of how that shift in power is affecting the Pacific theater:

China has become, at least regionally, a peer military competitor of the United States. It may or may not be the greatest global threat to America’s global interests, but it is beyond question the “pacing” threat: the primary factor against which the Pentagon must plan as it sizes and shapes American forces for the future.

But no matter how much the Pentagon plans and maneuvers, it cannot restore the balance of power in the Pacific without a major increase in the defense budget — something on the order of $150 billion over the next two years. That cannot happen unless Congress removes the caps on defense spending that the Budget Control Act imposed five years ago; it is extremely unlikely that the Senate at least can be induced to do so unless the caps are also removed on non-defense discretionary spending.

So we have reached an inflection point. The United States can either continue to suppress both defense and non-defense discretionary spending, or it can remove the caps, increase the short term deficit, and build up its military enough to defend its interests, not just in Asia, but in Europe and the Middle East, and against Islamic jihadism globally.

Many choices in public policy are not binary. But this one is.

President Trump has repeatedly said that his maxim for foreign policy is “peace through strength.” It was Reagan’s maxim too. But peace through strength only works if a nation actually is strong, and the first and most important index of national power is military power, particularly in the minds of authoritarians like Xi Jinping.

Joseph Stalin was once warned that the pope did not approve of his oppression of Catholics in Russia. Stalin responded: “The pope? How many divisions has he got?”

For my part, I believe the spending caps must come off. The major fiscal challenge facing the federal government isn’t the discretionary budget anyway; it’s the cost of the entitlement programs, which consume most of the federal budget. The Budget Control Act didn’t even address those programs.

I liken America’s current situation to that of a family that is in a budget crisis because it is spending 60 percent of its income on shelter, and that decides to relieve the pressure by reducing the food budget — even though the children are already malnourished. A family in that situation urgently needs either to reduce its housing budget or get another job to increase the family’s income. But while it decides what to do, the children have to eat, even if the only way to feed them is to borrow money.

It is time for Washington, on both sides of the aisle, to prioritize the defense of the United States, whatever the cost. The weaker America becomes, the greater the risk that it will face a choice even more unpalatable than the one it faces now: the choice between surrendering its rights, or making a stand against a purposeful adversary under circumstances where the United States is outnumbered, outgunned, and outranged. President Trump won’t have to make that choice immediately, but unless the facts on the ground change quickly, he may well have to make it before the end of his term. The net is closing now, on him and on us, and the man he hosted last week at Mar-a-Lago knows it.

Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.


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