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Can the Pentagon Afford a New China Pattern?

This Week at War: The Pentagon’s China Syndrome

Robert Haddick’s recent post in his Small Wars blog raises a set of interesting questions about the development of U.S. strategy about China.  

It is certainly not news that China’s power, economic, military, diplomatic, and even sporting, have been on the rise.  This is of sufficient concern to the United States that Congress requires the Pentagon to prepare an annual report on China’s military power.  This year’s report came out last week.  The report notes China’s growing investments in military modernization and warns that this “may contribute to regional tensions and anxieties.”

Equally alarming, the report discussed growing debates among China’s policymakers about whether China should assume a more assertive “great power” status, backed by its expanding military power. The report noted that until recently, China’s security strategy followed former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s advice to maintain a low profile and focus on internal development. Today, China’s growing nationalism, renewed attention to regional disputes, and concerns about access to global markets and raw materials over sea lines of communications have opened internal debates about whether China now needs to discard Deng’s long-standing advice.

The U.S. government has hoped to influence these debates inside China. The Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) in 2006 explicitly stated an intention to “shape the choices of countries at strategic crossroads.” The 2010 QDR restated a commitment to enhancing deterrence, notably for “large-scale conflicts in environments where anti-access weaponry and tactics are used.” These missions were clearly aimed at China, with a goal of dissuading Beijing from challenging the U.S. strategic position in the Western Pacific.

For foreign policy realists this is all to be expected.  Realists think that nothing in international relations matters as much as the relative power of the major countries.  Some see the history of international relations being driven by a recurring contest between the most powerful country of any historical period and the country whose growing power gives it the potential to challenge and perhaps replace the current champion.  This matters a lot because the most powerful country tends to have more say over the implicit rules by which international relations operates in a given historical period.  The leading country can thus enjoy all sorts of military, economic, and political advantages.  It’s no wonder that a leading country would want to postpone as long as possible a serious challenge from a rising country.  (The Eagles captured this cycle in a different arena in “New Kid in Town.”  

Some international relations scholars think that a period in which a rising country is catching up with the current number one power is very dangerous and may  be when large destructive wars are most likely to occur.   

So, how would the United States respond rationally to the concerns raised in the annual China report?  According to Haddick, by realigning how the Pentagon budget is allocated among the military services.

To persuade China that challenging the status quo is a waste of its resources, the United States needs to permanently increase its naval and air power in the region, while also reassuring China that the status quo is no threat to its interests. But with Pentagon spending facing a 5 to 10 percent cut over the next decade, something else is going to have to pay for such an expensive expansion in naval and air power. That something is the U.S. Army, which may be making plans to cut 10 or even 15 of its 45 active-duty brigade combat teams.

This is pretty straightforward strategic thinking.  As threats change over time, the US government should add the kinds of resources needed to meet the changed threat.  In this case, add naval and air power and spend relatively less on ground forces.  

However, the Bureaucratic Politics approach to foreign policy analysis tells us that governments don’t always behave rationally.  Different departments, e.g., the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force, often compete for larger shares in budgets and other intra-mural prizes.  Competition can be muted a bit when budgets are growing or relatively stable, but we are in a period when budgets will be shrinking.    

The Army, Navy, and Air Force have maintained a decades-long truce over money by agreeing to aroughly constant distribution of the Pentagon’s pie. The rise of China’s military and the demands that will place on naval and air power during a time of shrinking budgets is about to void that interservice treaty. This year’s report on China’s military power may spark a long-simmering budget war inside the Pentagon.

With the military services competing over relatively fewer dollars, supported by their allies, especially in Congress and the defense industry, it may be tempting to make decisions that seek a compromise among bureaucratic interests rather than strategically driven choices.  Leadership in the Pentagon, whether in the Obama administration or a coming Republican administration, will require not just strategic clarity but also top-rank managerial skills.  

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  1. Samuel Park
    September 4, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    The United States is currently the only superpower in the world because, the United States is the only nation that is able to project military power across the globe. The United States has 11 aircraft carries while China and other nations have 1. This clearly shows the strength of the United States military. With advance technology such as the General Atomics Predator Drones, Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor Fighter jet, as well as the 5,113 warheads and 2200 active nuclear weapons, China still has a long way to go to catch up to the military status of the United States. The United States wants to continue to remain the sole superpower, and to do this the United States has no other choice than to “up” the military budget. Although the United States is many steps ahead of China militarily, the United States must continue to invest in technological advancements because the power of a nation is not its economy or population, but its military power.

  2. Jocelyn
    September 4, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    China needs to get in control of their budget for their military services because I dont think the US can keep spending money on China’s problems, since we have problems of our own, with our budget.

  3. Hillary
    September 5, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    sometimes the US should stop stressing out about China

  4. Sarah B.
    September 6, 2011 at 9:36 am

    I understand the benefits the U.S. gains from being the top country, but we need to manage our budget better and focus on improving extremely low employment rate, rather than blowing money just because a country MIGHT gain a better military force. It is not definite that China will advance us. In order to gain a better military, we first need to focus on minor set backs, which will lead us to producing a better economy. Thus, will give us money that COULD be put towards out elite military. In my opinion, putting money towards our already powerful military not be our first priority.

  5. Sarah B.
    September 6, 2011 at 9:38 am

    I understand the benefits the U.S. gains from being the top country, but we need to manage our budget better and focus on improving the extremely low employment rate, rather than blowing money just because a country MIGHT gain a better military force. It is not definite that China will advance us. In order to gain a better military, we first need to focus on minor set backs, which will lead us to producing a better economy. Thus, will give us money that COULD be put towards our elite military. In my opinion, putting money towards our already powerful military should not be our first priority.

  6. Neil
    September 7, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    The United States will be challenged eventually, which is a problem, however not guaranteed, but the very real possibility is still out there.
    I would think that investing more in defense would create private sector jobs to help out the economy. Not just manufacturing, but advanced applications as well (i.e. a competing space defense shield that China is rumored to be interested in, if we haven’t already started doing so and other things like that), and reopening of closed bases to help revive local economies.
    But in order for anything to happen, the United States needs to get its budget act together, focus on the people for a bit before trying to police the world, and figure out a way to costs, while at the same time employing people.

  7. Richard Munoz
    September 7, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    To follow up on what Samuel said above me, the Chinese military is far from being an international threat. While the Chinese do have one of the largest military forces in terms of pure man-power- not surprising considering China’s growing population- they have no effective means of deploying that man-power. They have on air craft carrier, which was purchased from another country and refurbished, their navy isn’t very advanced or well trained compared to the United States, United Kingdom, or France- three premiere Naval-forces,- and they simply lack the means to really exert military influence upon the world beyond their closest neighbors.

    That being said, China’s true power lies in the interdependence which has been constructed between it and the United States. The reality is that over the last ten years, China and the United States have continued to become more and more deeply connected at an economic level.

  8. Irain J.
    September 8, 2011 at 10:14 am

    It is understandable that the U.S. is concerned with the way China is beginning to develop into a more powerful nation. The United States has been the Central Power for many years so it is logical for its citizens and officials to be concerned. Yet in a way we have helped China rise to its current ways by engaging in certain trades and policies. As it is we need to help our economy and cut back on military spending yet not at risking for another country to rise and be equal in influence and power. The military has a certain aspect to it that makes the US. respected and most likely holds off other countries from attacking the U.S. If China succeeds then we are in for some form of change maybe for the better or worse. We must wait and see how matters play out.

  9. Jennifer
    September 8, 2011 at 10:23 am

    what I understad is the fact the united states is scared and threatened by the fact that china is incresing in military power. They are afraid that they are going to threaten the united states standing and bring the U.S down in power. but i believe the united states needs to relax and look at the potential harm that it could further cause our economy to make a sudden expansion in the army that everybody well knows the U.S. can afford right now. The U.S is spreading itself too thin among the world and one day that thin line will be easily broken

  10. Nathan Reed
    September 8, 2011 at 11:47 am

    The sad truth is that the United States will no longer be the top country if we continue to spend money we don’t have. What is even more sad is that China has invested their money in the US. They are essentially ensuring that the US will not attack them for whatever reason. China is quickly becoming America’s puppet master. On China’s military, the US essentially pays for most of their defense budget. I forgot the exact percentage, but with the amount we are paying them for our interest, it was well over 50% of their defense budget. What we need to do to defeat China is to spend money within our means, and stop borrowing China’s money.

  11. Deirdre
    September 8, 2011 at 11:47 am

    It should be very interesting, as well as an excellent opportunity for political science research, to see how this tension plays out. First, is the Pentagon correct in assuming that China’s military growth is a threat to the US, or is it a natural effect of China’s continuing development? Furthermore, is it right for the US to decide who can and cannot have a powerful military? Is responding to China’s growing military by upping the status quo really the most effective way for the US to deter conflicts? How will China respond – will they perceive such US action as a means for keeping peace, or as a direct threat? How will Pentagon bureaucrats allocate the shrinking defense budget? Is focusing on China’s military a priority for a government that is already stretched thin?

  12. Lauren Barrera
    September 8, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    When considering how to respond to the concerns raised in the annual China report, we must act as the current superpower of the world. The frightening thought of China “catching up” to the United States military is one that should not be taken lightly. As stated in the article “some international relations scholars think that a period in which a rising country is catching up with the current number one power is very dangerous and may be when large destructive wars are most likely to occur.” Because this may be the case, the United States must be prepared and expand our naval and air power. I especially liked, and agree with the comment in the article that says “as threats change over time, the US government should add the kinds of resources needed to meet the changed threat.” Because we should take China’s annual report as a threat, we should also respond and add resources that will allow us to maintain our superpower status.

  13. Ana Waskiewicz
    September 8, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    The United States needs to focus more on the issues happening right now in the country, rather than be worried about what China is doing. At the moment, China only has a possibility of becoming the super power while there are economic issues going on in a America that need to be addressed.

  14. Hannah Perkins
    September 8, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    The rise in China’s military power is inevitable, in the current economy it’s going to be hard for the US to keep up.

  15. Daniel kemether
    September 8, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    I think America needs to worry about its self first. We need to focus on our economy, and work to fix it. Let china take the lead, worry about our selves and let other countries deal with their own problems. Once we fix our economy, capitalism will prevail over chinas controlled market.

  16. Yesenia Gutierrez
    September 8, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    I think that we should continue to monitor China’s progress, but I don;t think that the United States should stop them from becoming a super power, but rather, the United States should guide them to make sure that they build up their army without endangering the environment or their economy. This way if and when China becomes a strong onternational power, we will have ties to to them, hopefully making it so that they help us in international affairs. Although, we should fortify our armed forces to be ready at what China has to throw at the United States. While the United States should be prepared it should take it;s own economy into consideration, and not forget about other internal issues such as healthcare or social security.

  17. Chris
    November 2, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    I think that the United States should not spend another dime on anything that has to do with military. I truly believe that our current economic downturn has a lot to do with millions of dollars being spent on U.S. military technology. China will always be competing technologically and America depends on China’s technology. China can handle their own problems the country is not having issues like the U.S. I think America needs to focus on it’s current situation and not China’s.

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