Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Chinese military power and America's future in the western Pacific

Just yesterday I read Mike Few's interview in Small Wars Journal of Stephen Glain (pdf), author of the new (and rather unfortunately-titled) book State vs. Defense. I've not yet read the book, but portions of it have been published in adapted form in various places around the internet over the last several weeks. Glain makes a provocative argument, and one that I think has a solid and troubling basis in truth: that American foreign policy is overly militarized and securitized, that this trend is a near-inevitable result of the way our political system produces foreign and defense policies, and that the problem is most clearly manifest in the dramatic disparity in resources devoted to the Pentagon and the State Department.

This is a book that needed to be written and needs to be read, particularly when it's juxtaposed with pollyannaish tracts trumpeting the achievements of the modern cooperative military, like Derek Reveron's dire apologia entitled Exporting Security. But having already seen a very little reaction to Glain's work, I fear that his outsider perspective and occasionally overstated claims may detract from the overall impact of his argument; many military officers and defense analysts who would otherwise be sympathetic to his conclusions will be put off by his aspersions and won't recognize the Manichean struggle he describes.

I bring this up now because I very much enjoyed Glain's insights on China as expressed in the SWJ interview, and I wanted to share them here.
China was not our largest creditor ten years ago and, most significantly, it is unlikely to be our largest creditor in ten years’ time. The Chinese know the U.S. dollar is a diminishing asset and it is likely to continue depreciating along with the credibility of our lawmakers in Washington. No doubt Beijing, like Wall Street, is gaming out ways of reducing its exposure to the dollar without destabilizing the world’s $4 trillion foreign exchange market. If there are only so many Swiss francs China can buy for dollars it can convert its reserves into tangible assets like real estate. Either way, we console ourselves with the MAD theory of Sino-U.S. economic relations at our peril.
Strategically, there is nothing in three thousand years of recorded history to suggest China will assert itself militarily worldwide, particularly given how successful it has been wooing resource-rich developing states through commercial means. China clearly regards itself as the once-and-future overlord of Asia, however, which puts it on a collision course with the Pentagon. Here, Washington and Beijing are talking past each other in a rather ominous way. The Americans say they welcome China’s peaceful ascent while refusing to concede its authority over the Asian littoral, to say nothing of its deep-water seaways. The Chinese, meanwhile, claim dominion over the South China Seas and other disputed waters while implying they expect nothing less than the kind of regional hegemony Washington carved out for itself in the Americas throughout the nineteenth century. Absent a vigorous diplomatic effort to reconcile these discordant positions, I fear some kind of Sino-American conflict is inevitable. [...]
Washington must also know that China, as the world’s second-largest economy with three millennia of history as a regional power, will seek to impose its own Monroe Doctrine in Asia and it must acknowledge its limits in opposing this. Attempts to "contain" China would result in a decidedly asymmetrical contest that would exhaust America’s already depleted accounts but which Beijing could sustain at relatively low cost to itself.
I am more sanguine than Glain about the prospects for peaceful management of the U.S.-China relationship in the future. It seems certain that this is a result of my greater confindence in the U.S. foreign and security policy establishment to think strategically and behave rationally, a confidence that's inexplicable in light of my tendency to offer near-constant criticism of America's strategic failures. But I'd like to believe that we'll develop a somewhat more sophisticated understanding of our economic and security interests in the future, an understanding that will allow us to perceive and react to the legitimate interests of others in cool-headed and even-handed fashion, one that will help us move past the current fad for primacy everywhere and at all times.

A guy can dream, right?

Relatedly, the Defense Department's annual report (pdf) on "the current and probable future course of military-technological development of the People's Liberation Army and the tenets and probable development of Chinese security strategy and military strategy" -- mandated by Congress since the FY 2000 NDAA -- was published today. (In a week, it would've been six months late.) Kate Brannen summarizes and excerpts the report's contents here for Defense News.

1 comment:

  1. In every Foreign Service test, there's always this question: Which is the least funded agency or department in the US gov't?

    a). Department of Defense
    b). Central Intelligence Agency
    c). Homeland Security
    d). Department of State

    (Answer: D, so from the very git go you as an applicant w/ DoS are told you'll be taking a back seat, way behind, from these other gadget oriented agencies)