Last week in Honolulu, I spoke at a high-level conference hosted by our Pacific Command of special operations forces (SOF) commanders from numerous Pacific Rim countries. This gathering was notable primarily for the attendance – for the second year in a row – of senior officers from the People’s Republic of China.
Now, depending on your worldview, you might be aghast that: (1) the U.S. military even interacts with SOF personnel from China, our rising competitor in the East or (2) that it’s taken this long for such interactions to begin with a power already as globally significant as China is today.
I fall into the second category.
I know most great power experts have long argued that America’s sole superpower status simply cannot last, that history demands a balance must somehow be achieved.
Yet no such military has arisen since the Cold War’s end, not even China’s rapidly modernizing force, whose overall spending is reasonably estimated as less than one-fifth our own. Moreover, China’s acquisition strategy is narrow: clearly focused on threatening America’s capability to threaten its own capability to threaten Taiwan’s ability to defend itself from possible invasion.
If you define Taiwan’s defense as a key pillar of American national security in this globalizing world, where Taiwanese businesses routinely ship high-tech manufacturing facilities to Shanghai’s technology corridor, then clearly something’s amiss. But if you have a hard time, as I do, contemplating the folly of letting Taiwan declare war between globalization’s two most important economies, then China’s build-up underwhelms.
China’s economic and network connectivity with the global economy grows far beyond its current ability to manage that interdependency through diplomatic and security means. China punches far below its weight.
This is troubling today, but it becomes worse tomorrow, especially as China’s dependency on energy from the unstable Middle East skyrockets in coming years. America, by contrast, imports little of its foreign oil from the Persian Gulf, now and in the future. Increasingly, it’s America’s blood for China’s oil.
If China can continue free-riding on the global security system maintained by America’s military forces, this “say/do” gap might never be revealed – much less become crucial. But consider: Globalization’s advance, currently equating in the minds of many with becoming more Western – especially American, will soon enough start being equated with becoming more Asian – especially Chinese.
China will then find itself targeted like America is today by those who violently oppose globalization. Good example? Last week rebels attacked a Chinese oil well in eastern Ethiopia, killing nine. Violent extremists seeking civilizational apartheid with a “corrupt, materialistic world” will attack Chinese influence just as they today seek to limit Westernization.
In that future, a China that cannot adequately defend its economic interests globally in the manner similar to America – and, to a lesser extent, Europe through NATO – will represent a serious source of global instability.
China will either be forced to retreat from the world or rely on others to defend its interests, neither being a path we should welcome for all the reasons America itself would find such a situation unbearable.
To avoid that scenario, China needs to rebrand its military from its revolutionary origins into a force with moderate capacity to project itself around the planet, focusing on crisis response, humanitarian relief, and post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction.
This rebranding process should mirror – in function but not in magnitude – our own military’s emergence from relative international obscurity in the late 1800s to a position of trusted prominence following its successful entry into and conclusive impact on World War I in Europe.
America’s role in China’s military rebranding should be one of mentor, much like Britain’s role vis-a-vis the United States in the first half of the 20th century.
Viewed in that grand historical light, China’s embryonic military and strategic dialogue with the United States should be viewed as anything but adequate.
Rather than continuing to size our conventional forces implicitly with China’s residual threat in mind, our military commands around the world should rapidly and dramatically expand their military-to-military cooperation with the People’s Liberation Army.
Not because we trust China nor because we fear it but simply because it makes strategic sense in a complex international security environment America cannot hope to govern on its own.