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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China, the US and Clashing Aims

September 19, 2010

Ehsan Ahrari
Asia Sentinel
September 14 2010

No document reflects the conflicting strategic
position of a declining superpower and that of a
rising one more aptly than the Department of
Defense's congressionally-mandated annual reports
on China's military modernization.

The Pentagon issued the latest version of that
report entitled, "Military Security and
Development Involving the People's Republic of
China" (aka China's military rise) on August 20.
That report was issued almost simultaneously with
the global splash of a headline that the PRC had
surpassed Japan as the number two economy.

Considering the fact that China's economy has
been experiencing average annual gross domestic
product growth of 9 percent for the past six
years or so, it can be expected continue to
channel a portion of that wealth into financing
military modernization. This is evidenced by
China's resolve to build aircraft carriers, which
it considers the ultimate symbol of the military
capability of a potential superpower.

Table 1:


As much as China remains a rising economic power,
its military power is not likely to be a match
for America's military prowess and capabilities.
China knows that. That is why it is spending a
lot of its resources developing "anti-access/area
denial" technologies and capabilities, especially
involving Taiwan. The Chinese thinking seems to
be that, in case of a military conflict involving
Taiwan, the PRC would improve its chances of
victory if it can succeed in holding off US
military intervention through the use of such technologies.

Beijing is also spending a lot of its resources
on developing "countermeasures" to nullify
America's ever-escalating capabilities to project
power in far off lands. The 2010 DoD report takes
a detailed look at those capabilities.

Starting from the awe-inspiring performance of
America's military in Operation Desert Storm in
1991, the PLA's top brass, as well as
defense-related scientists, have been spending
many of their resources studying the specifics of
America's space dominance, as much as those
details are available in open sources. In
addition, the espionage wing of the PLA and other
civilian agencies are also busy collecting data
in the field on the use of space by the American
military. China knows how integral a role
America's mastery of space has played in that
country's military capabilities to maintain full-spectrum dominance in warfare.

Second, no military belonging to any country has
been more absorbed in implementing the
"revolution in military affairs" and digitization
of warfare in its combat capabilities. In fact,
China has gone way beyond the use of information
warfare in the field of defense. It has also
mastered "malware" (or malicious software)
espionage, which it has used to spy on Tibetan
dissidents. Malware is used for espionage in
defense as well as in the military and intelligence fields.

Its purpose is to collect data as well as to
corrupt targeted computer systems. According to
one study on the subject, "Few organizations
outside the defense and intelligence sector could
withstand such an attack, Given the high interest
of the PRC in this field, and given that it is a
closed system, its competitors (especially US
government agencies) not only have to constantly
remain on guard in developing electronic
countermeasures, but find themselves in the dark
about the latest capabilities of IT specialists
on the Chinese side who are in charge of running
that country's "black programs."

Third, the PRC is also using its defense experts
to study all the military exercises in China's
neighborhood involving the American military –
Japan, South Korea, Australia and India.
Electronic eavesdropping also works well for
China in studying American maneuvers. In that
regard, China's "String of Pearls" strategy, an
attempt to build client-state relationships to
surround India, has not even begun to bear fruit,
in terms of providing a treasure trove of
intelligence on the activities of the navies of the aforementioned countries.

Fourth, the most impressive aspect of the US
military's war-fighting capability for the PLA is
the ostensible ease with which it develops sui
generis operations for each campaign conducted
since the Operation Desert Storm, which is
regarded as the "first information-based war."
The strategy used in the Kosovo war, Operation
Allied Force, was a reminder of the one used
during the American war in Vietnam. That strategy
focused on gradual escalation of air strikes
without the threat of ground forces. In the
invasion of Afghanistan, Operation Enduring
Freedom, it was the exotic use of spotters from
the Special Forces that directed air attacks on
the Taliban from the ground, while also directing
the offensive power of the ground forces of the
Northern Alliance. For invading Iraq, Operation
Iraqi Freedom, the Centcom initiated the
conventional approach of relying on ground troops
for the brunt of its operations.

What was different about that operation was that
the chief focus of the "Powell doctrine" -- the
use of overwhelming force -- was shelved in favor
of a minimalist approach regarding the size of
force. Former Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld and former Centcom Commander General
Tommy Franks thought that they were making a
unique contribution to combat by creating "shock
and awe" with a minimal number of ground troops.
That was more a "transformational agenda" of
Rumsfeld, who was "appalled to discover how much
the forces were still fixated on preparing for
big wars and purchasing high-profile weapons
platforms rather than developing smaller, nimbler
forces geared to the actual contingencies he
thought they were likely to face." In their
attempt to correct that perceived archaic
approach, Rumsfeld and Franks might have gone too
far in reducing the force size. General Anthony,
who preceded Franks as Commander of Centcom,
immediately went on record in pointing out that
"his own war plan for invading Iraq had a couple
of additional divisions – not for the war
fighting, but for what they call the
consolidation and exploitation phase at the end of the war."

However, even if the Iraqi quagmire that followed
the collapse of the government of Saddam Hussein
has not reestablished the significance of
Powell's insistence on the use of "overwhelming
force," it has certainly discarded Rumsfeld's
transformational agenda related to size of the
force. One of the major lessons that the US
military learned was that it must get ready for
"post-conflict" contingencies before invading a country.

The top brass of the PLA watched these
developments with much interest and drew their
own lessons for future combat that their armed
forces might face. The most significant lesson
that the PLA drew from the U.S. military is to
never stop studying the latter's unique
contribution to the prosecution of war. Since the
United States has been involved in too many major
combats since the Gulf War of 1991, no military
can claim that it has more combat experience than
America's. And any military that wishes to remain
at the cutting edge of its profession without
paying the cost of actual prosecution of war
would serve itself well to become an ardent student of America's campaigns.

Every time the Pentagon's report on China's
military is issued, one can expect a repeat of
the following: (1) When the document is released,
it contains the standard statement that China is
still following the late Deng Xiaoping advice:
"observe calmly; secure our position; cope with
affairs calmly; hide our capabilities and bide
our time; be good at maintaining a low profile;
and never claim leadership;" (2) It highlights
the developments of China's military
modernization, which remains one of its best
contributions to the subject anywhere in the
world; (3) It accentuates the types of strides
being made in China's space capabilities to take
countermeasures against a potential enemy, the
PRC's advances in information and electronic war,
and especially in the realm of access denial.

The U.S. military has rightly concluded that
China can inflict great damage to its space
assets during a military conflict, and that
damage is likely to come during the very early
stage of the outbreak of hostilities; and (4) It
criticizes China for not being truthful about the
size of its military spending and not being
transparent about the real purpose of its
military modernization. On this last point, the
United States' criticism is quite effective,
because it is closely being read by all countries
of East Asia, and by China's major rival, India.

The PRC's standard response regarding America's
perspectives on its military modernization is the
accusation that the lone superpower is attempting
to contain it. In response to the latest issuance
of this document, one Chinese colonel of the
PLAF, Dai Xu, accused the US in an OpEd piece of "strangulating China softly."

The timing of the 2010 version of the Pentagon's
report on China's military was not particularly
good because US-China ties are undergoing an icy
phase emanating from President Obama's meeting
with the Dalai Lama and the US decision to sell
US$6 billion worth of armament to Taiwan. China
responded by suspending the contacts between
militaries of the two nations. The Obama
administration characterized China's response as
an "overreaction" to those events.

The United States is having difficulty realizing
that China's perceptions of itself and of the
lone superpower are undergoing a palpable
transformation. Since the PRC envisages the lone
superpower as a declining hegemon, and since its
self-perception is that of a rising power (and
even of a future a superpower), the current
leaders in Beijing believe the former must accord
the latter more deferential treatment. When China
does the US a favor in global economic matters,
the latter must reciprocate on other heady issues
like not selling arms to Taiwan or not making a
point of receiving the Dalai Lama.

The notion of reciprocity (shu) is a
quintessential aspect of Chinese culture. The
Sage Confucius reported to have instructed one of
his disciples that his doctrine of shu "has only
one simple thread running through it" – "Loyalty
and reciprocity, and that's all."

One has to add to that the major Confucian
principle of the doctrine of hexinliyi ("core
interests"). In the context of Western thinking,
hexinliyi is equivalent to vital interests on
which no country would compromise.

For China, these include, first and foremost, the
survival of its political system. The second is
inviolability of its sovereignty and territorial
integrity, two principles that are also
inextricably linked with that country's bitter
memories of what it frequently refers to as "the
century of humiliation." The third core interest
of China is steady societal and economic development.

What is interesting to note is that, as China
continues its awesome economic rise, it seems to
have initiated the process of expanding the list
of its core interests. In the past, only Taiwan
and Tibet were included in that list. Lately,
however, it has also added the South China Sea as
a core issue. Considering the fact that the PRC
has shown no inclination to negotiate on the
"old" core issues, it is expected to do the same
regarding the South China Sea. There is a major
difference between its old and its new core issues.

On its old core interests (Taiwan and Tibet) no
other country is claiming sovereignty over them
(even though one can argue that Taiwan claims to
be a sovereign nation and its sovereignty is
recognized by numerous countries, but their
numbers are steadily dwindling). However, in the
case of the South China Sea, the interests of
other states of East Asia come into conflict with that of China.

For a country that has been so vociferous about
America's hubris related to its unilateralism and
"hegemonism," China's decision to elevate the
significance of the South China Sea as a core
issue is nothing short of its own manifestation
of arrogance. One can objectively state that
China's behavior might merely be a demonstration
of how a rising or "wannabe" superpower behaves.

However, that type of hubris will only escalate
the suspicion of its East Asian neighbors
regarding the real purpose of China's rise and
especially of its military modernization.
America's hardline China-watchers, who felt
content with the Bush administration's
proclivities for unilateralism, do not like the
Pentagon's 2010 report on China's military
preparedness. The United States' attitude toward
China went through a noticeable transformation in
Bush's second term, however, when he direly
needed that country's cooperation on the
Six-Party Talks and especially during the global
economic meltdown of 2008-2009.

Still, even when there is a recurring softening
of American official attitude toward China, the
notion of competition remains uppermost amidst
almost all the China-watchers of America and
among America-watchers inside China.

Unlike the superpower competition of the Cold War
years, the current competition between Beijing
and Washington is not predominantly ideological
(even though one has to remain conscious of the
fact that the United States is a liberal
democracy while the PRC is an illiberal system
with predominant features of a capitalistic
economy). But the Sino-US competition is for
primacy in the world between the lone superpower,
which is determined not to lose its top position
in the hierarchy of nations, and a rising power,
which is equally resolute to become number one.

Two important questions for the second decade of
the 21st Century are whether China can be
satisfied even by becoming a coequal of the
United States; and whether the latter would be
amenable to accepting China as its coequal? A
very important, but a tacit, aspect related to
the latter question is that the United States
should also be ready for the scenario of China
becoming number one among the hierarchy of nations within a decade or so.

Those are hard questions to answer because the
United States never had a coequal during the
heyday of the Cold War. The former Soviet Union
was arguably America's coequal in the ownership
of nuclear arsenals. In the realm of economics,
however, the USSR was very much a Third World
country. China, on the contrary, has turned the
Soviet template on its head by becoming an
economic power first, then using its economic
wealth to become a military superpower.

That may be why the United States remains so
concerned about China's rise. As long as China's
economy remains as vibrant as it has been for a
decade or so, its rise as a superpower appears inexorable.

Despite the rising spirals of competition between
them, neither the US nor China appears disposed
to seek confrontation that has a high potential
of rapidly escalating. Both – especially the
latter – have a lot to lose if a war breaks out
between the two. China has accomplished much in
the past three decades. It is the "world's largest trading nation."
In the words of Zheng Bijian of the China Reform
Forum, "The most significant strategic choice the
Chinese have made was to embrace economic
globalization rather than detach themselves from
it." And it has not shown any intention of
risking such magnificent gains. In view of their
clashing aspirations, their mutual ties "will
never be warm. But they could well be 'workmanlike."

The best hope for the world is that the
U.S.-China's Janus-faced cooperative and
competitive strategic ties always remain
manageable and open for frequently recurring rapprochements.

Ehsan Ahrari, Ph.D. is a specialist in great
power relations and transnational security. His
latest book on great power relations is entitled,
The Great Powers and the Hegemon: Strategic
Maneuvers. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being
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