- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Sino-U.S. Competition and U.S. Security: How Do We Assess the Military Balance?

Dan Blumenthal

How should we assess the military balance in Asia? As Asia takes center stage in international politics, this would seem a question of prime importance for statesmen, military officers, policy analysts, and scholars. Scholars and practitioners of international politics insist that a political leader’s knowledge of his country’s relative power is a prerequisite for successful statesmanship. [1] U.S. presidents seem to agree: in one form or another, all have called or pressed for a balance of power in Asia favorable to the United States. But how can presidents know that the military balance in Asia is in its favor, and why does this matter? This essay will make four points. The first section addresses why analyzing the Sino-U.S. balance of military power is important. Second, the essay suggests that analysts can learn from some of the methodologies developed to assess the military competition during the Cold War. Third, it explains what the United States is competing over in Asia, and how the nature of that competition will shape the changing Sino-U.S. military balance. I do not believe that analysts can say much of use about a Sino-U.S. military competition without understanding the underlying dynamics of the political competition. Fourth, the essay addresses key themes and questions that could helpfully structure an assessment of Sino-U.S. balance.

Why Study a Sino-U.S. Military Balance?

Since the end of the Cold War, a broad consensus has emerged among policymakers and analysts that Asia is becoming the center of power in world affairs. As Asia’s prominence grows, so do U.S. interests in the region. Scholars and policymakers all agree that both the manner in which China becomes a great power and the way it exercises power is central to Asia’s future. At the same time, many have recognized that China’s growing military capabilities could disrupt the region’s ongoing peaceful transformation. Thus, U.S. policy has been based on two broad impulses. Washington seeks cooperative relations to integrate China into the international system, and it has sought to hedge against or balance China’s growing military might. Sino-U.S. relations are thus characterized by elements of cooperation and competition, which U.S. policy must balance. While this may be counterintuitive, if the United States maintains a favorable balance of power, it is more likely to have cooperative relations with Beijing. The United States can only compete, however, if it knows over what it is competing. This in turn requires an understanding...

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[1] See Aaron L. Friedberg, The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895–1905 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), chap. 1. For example, Friedberg quotes Henry Kissinger’s assertion that "the test of a statesman…is his ability to recognize the real relationship of forces and to make this knowledge serve his ends” (p. 10). Friedberg similarly cites Hans Morgenthau and Walter Lippman, among many others who wrote about the importance of assessing one’s country’s relative power position.