China’s Military Challenge
An Interview with Ashley J. Tellis
By Greg Chaffin
November 6, 2012
To mark the release of the twelfth volume in NBR’s Strategic Asia series—Strategic Asia 2012–13: China’s Military Challenge—we spoke with Strategic Asia Research Director Ashley J. Tellis (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). In this interview, Dr. Tellis discusses the key findings of the book and argues that China’s increasingly sophisticated military capabilities hold the potential to fundamentally alter the strategic balance of the Asia-Pacific region.
Last year’s Strategic Asia volume examined the rise of China and India, the implications for the Asia-Pacific, and the responses of other Asian nations and the United States. The focus of this year’s volume was narrowed down to the implications of China’s advancing military capabilities. Why did you choose to focus on this single facet of Chinese power?
We narrowed the focus of this year’s volume quite consciously because China’s military capabilities have now become a significant factor in Asia-Pacific stability. We wanted to examine specific dimensions of that modernization, especially China’s access-denial capabilities, because it appeared to us that these elements really have the greatest potential to change the strategic balance of the Asia-Pacific region.
I have always held the view that Asia’s success has been a function of at least two critical factors. The first is the ability of the United States to provide a pacific regional environment through its capacity to project power into the Asian littorals. The second is that the military capabilities of the regional states have remained in a state of equilibrium.
However, China’s investments in strategic denial capabilities over the last decade have clearly come to impact the first variable. And although people have not paid as much attention to it, I think Chinese capabilities are also on the cusp of affecting the second variable and destroying the stability of the regional balances that we have come to take for granted. If China’s denial capabilities do threaten to undermine both dimensions—the U.S. ability to project power and the regional balances that have slowly congealed over the last 30 or 40 years—then the stage is set for some consequential transformations in the Asia-Pacific.
Hence, we felt that this topic was worth closer scrutiny. The last time we looked at China’s military capabilities was six years ago. In Strategic Asia 2005–06, we presented a broad-brush assessment of China’s military modernization. This year we thought we should really drill down on the specific dimensions of capability to see how they have affected the two variables outlined above. And we found that China’s strategic denial capabilities are exerting tremendous impact along both dimensions. The chapters of the volume offer thorough assessments of how and why that is the case.
Does China’s growing military power threaten regional stability? How have China’s neighbors sought to reconcile their strategic concerns with their growing economic reliance on China?
The issue of whether China’s military capabilities threaten stability has to do with structural factors rather than diplomatic factors. While China will continue to provide diplomatic reassurances to the region, these reassurances by themselves will not suffice to change the material facts on the ground.
Indeed, most Asian states are responding in just that way—that is, they are taking the diplomatic reassurances for what they are worth. However, there is still high anxiety among China’s neighbors because they know that the balance of power is changing to their disadvantage. This change is occurring at a time when they see American military power as increasingly challenged in Asia, America’s economic power as weakening, and their own military capabilities as diminishing in relative terms compared with China. It is these material changes that affect the calculations of China’s neighbors more than what is happening at the level of diplomacy.
Moreover, the Asian states are clearly in a bind. Even as they see material changes in the balance of power, they are also conscious of the fact that there is growing economic interdependence with China. China’s neighbors would like nothing more than to have the best of both worlds—that is rational for any actor in this situation. They want all the gains of trade that come from interdependence, but they also want the immunities that come from having a favorable balance of power. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to square the circle.
To the degree that increased economic interdependence between China and the region may lead to greater affinities among regional actors, it is certainly a positive development. That being said, however, the fact that this process occurs concurrently with what are transformations in material capabilities leaves many of the regional partners unsettled as to whether China’s growing economic gains will eventually find realization in ever more potent military capabilities.
Historically, the region solved this problem by relying on the United States. Even if the military balances were deteriorating in some specific instances, Asian nations took solace in the fact that the United States provided them with protection. Because this protection was robust, the regional actors could continue to trade with China, even if, at the end of the day, China was growing faster than they were. However, what is now undermining this traditional calculus is that the United States seems to be in a significant economic crisis, the end point of which is still not clear. Consequently, there is great uncertainty about the future of U.S. military power, particularly given the successful development of Chinese denial capabilities. So we are now living in that great moment of transition where I think all of the region’s states are afflicted with fundamental uncertainties about the future.
Everyone is hoping that the global economy will return to normal, and that the United States will see a period of renewed economic growth after the deleveraging from the economic crisis is complete. Everyone is hoping that the United States will also be able to make a comeback in terms of its larger economic capabilities and that through a combination of technological innovation, new operating regimes, and new strategic partnerships, the United States will be able to restore the potency of its security guarantees. If that hope is borne out, I think there will be a reversion to the traditional equilibrium. But if any of these factors do not materialize in the way that the region hopes for, then I think we are likely to enter a period of significant instability in the years to come.
In your introduction to the book, you note that, as the world’s leading power, the United States faces a dilemma: by underwriting the stability of the international system and encouraging economic interdependence, the United States enables the rise of potential challengers—such as China—that may destabilize the system as they seek to overturn or modify the existing order to their liking. Is there any way to avoid or mitigate the effects of this paradox?
To my mind, the dilemma that the United States faces with respect to managing interdependence and security will be the central dilemma for at least the first half of the century. There is no easy solution to this dilemma.
The only solution that would be satisfying in both an intellectual and a practical sense is one grounded in the strengthening of U.S. hegemony. If the United States finds a way to make a comeback in terms of its own economic renewal, if it finds a way to generate new innovations that allow it to dominate the global economy for yet another generation, then that outcome provides, I think, the best solutions to this dilemma. Essentially, it would have the effect of restoring the status-quo ante. It would recreate the conditions that existed when the United States put into place the global trading system—which then became the foundations for global interdependence.
If the United States is unable to do this, if it is unable to go back and rebuild the foundations of its economic strength, then it will constantly be confronted by very painful choices. Central to this will be the questions: Can the United States continue to bear the costs of maintaining a global regime that increasingly will produce more and more competitors? Further, would this represent a sound investment? That is to say, the United States may not gain, in relative terms, as much as its competitors, particularly as its competitors begin to levy greater and greater challenges in the military arena. This dilemma will become more and more pressing and troublesome if the United States cannot make an economic comeback.
The good news is that there is nothing that prevents the United States from making such a comeback. The United States is still the most innovative of all the global economies. As the Australian prime minister put it, the United States is really one budget deal away from getting its fiscal house in order.
If the United States manages to do this, among other things, there is no reason why the transformations that are taking place in the real economy in the United States cannot be matched by rectitude in the monetary economy. In terms of the real economy, there is potentially great news on the horizon. The United States is on the cusp of becoming energy independent for the first time in many, many decades; it is on the cusp of a new industrial revolution with technologies like 3-D manufacturing; it still has a terrific lead in critical military technologies; and the United States remains the single-largest center of science and technology production in the world. So in the real economy, things do not look as bad as they are sometimes portrayed. But the key will be producing a sustainable fiscal condition in order to create a more hospitable environment for incubating these revolutions in the real economy. If our politics permit us to make strategically wise choices, we could end up creating a very favorable national environment for a new iteration of Schumpeterian success in the global economy. And that is really what I think our near- and medium-term goals ought to center on.
In January the U.S. government announced a policy of “strategic rebalancing” in response to the global shift of geopolitical power to the Asia-Pacific. Do you think this strategy will prove successful, and what challenges do you see the United States facing?
The U.S. government’s decision to rebalance toward the Pacific was both necessary and inevitable. It was necessary because the Asia-Pacific region is now the global center of politics and economics. It was inevitable because all states will be compelled to redirect their resources to those areas where they are likely to reap the greatest benefits and face the greatest challenges. The Asia-Pacific littoral clearly represents both dimensions. So I think that if the Obama administration had not announced rebalancing, some successor administration would have.
It is important to remember that when the George W. Bush administration came into office, there already was the understanding that the United States would have to focus on the Asia-Pacific. In fact, if you remember all of the administration’s pronouncements before September 11, they were all focused on how to manage the rise of China. That orientation represents the nucleus of strategic rebalancing. The administration recognized very early that the big investments made within Europe and the Middle East would slowly be displaced in favor of a new engagement with Asia.
Unfortunately, September 11 intervened, and the United States got far more heavily involved in the greater South Asian region and the Middle East than it had ever anticipated. These interventions in South Asia and the Middle East were aberrations because they were compulsions born of temporary necessity, but they were not drivers of some secular trend. The secular driver was still Asia, because that is where the growth story is. Indeed, if the events surrounding September 11 had not occurred, the United States would have moved with much greater alacrity in terms of its focus toward the Asia-Pacific. The Obama administration has simply picked up where the Bush administration’s original impulses lay. It is the right thing to do, and it has not come a day too soon.
The biggest challenge to rebalancing is constrained resources. The intentions are right, the direction is correct, but whether the United States will have the resources to implement a successful rebalancing is unclear. To my mind, for the rebalance to be successful, it must achieve three strategic tasks.
First, the United States must maintain American regional hegemony through the application of comprehensive national power—military, political, economic, etc.
Second, it must be able to defeat the challenges of denial that are currently manifested by countries like China in the Far East and Iran in the Persian Gulf.
Third, the United States must maintain sufficiently robust military capabilities within the region to dampen any local security competition among regional states—and sometimes even among its own allies.
Whether the United States will have the resources to effectively implement a strategy that will achieve these three objectives is still, to my mind, an unanswered question. It is unanswered because we don’t quite know whether the United States will be successful in regard to its own economic transformation. My instinct is that it will be successful, but I have to admit that the jury is still out at the moment. We will know by the end of this decade if the United States is able to get its fiscal house in order and get its politics to be minimally efficient so as to permit it to make smart decisions that move the country where it wants to be.
Given their already contentious relationship typified by misperception and growing strategic mistrust, how can the United States and China avoid a security dilemma that spirals toward conflict?
Unfortunately, the United States and China are already locked into a security dilemma. It is a security dilemma that both sides will have to manage for several decades, from which there is no easy exit.
As long as China continues to grow in capabilities, the United States will be nervous about what that development portends for both regional security and America’s own regional primacy. China will continue to be anxious about whether the United States will invest in more resolute strategies at constraining China’s growth. This is the nature of the beast, and it is not something that can be resolved magically. Both sides must manage the dilemma in ways that prevent it from degenerating into open conflict.
The rise of great powers has always led to unsettling periods in international politics. We have had repeated instances in the past where the rise of great powers has contributed to intensifying mistrust and even conflict. If we are lucky, we might be able to avoid the worst outcomes—open-ended conflict that is active and kinetic. And I say “if we are lucky” in part because the intensity of economic interdependence does put a break on the potentiality for conflict. The presence of nuclear weapons places another break on the potentiality and intensity of conflict. Despite this, the situation will require a great deal of work on both sides in order to prevent an actual outbreak of war. Moreover, both sides will have to do a lot of things right to keep this competition moderated and on an even keel. However, I think this competition will persist for a long time to come.
Greg Chaffin is an Intern at The National Bureau of Asian Research.