Official American attitudes toward China in recent years have varied from benevolent to suspicious to guardedly hopeful. Some of the variance is due to a lack of knowledge: much of China’s decisionmaking process remains hidden to the outside world. Even current statistics on such basic issues as population and health, military size and spending and economic performance are unreliable, if not misleading.
But much of the reason for the lack of a clear vision of the American relationship with China is the very recognition of the looming importance of that relationship — the very positive implications of cooperation, and the potentially disastrous implications of an aggressive competition. There is a natural reluctance to focus on the negative in fear of making it come true.
Nevertheless, the essential elements of American and Chinese national interests in the East Asia and Pacific region, now and even more so in the future, make competition of some sort inevitable. It is a paradox that for China, with the third largest land mass among the world’s nations and with a military dominated by the army, the primary strategic interests are maritime. With the exception of India, confrontation with any of China’s rivals would take place in the South China Sea or Straits of Taiwan, through which flows the oil and gas it is increasingly dependent upon. Consequently, China has increasingly turned its military attention toward developing a robust coastal defense and littoral power-projection capability designed to keep others out of areas it claims as exclusive zones, including the waters around Taiwan.
Today, China’s naval and air capabilities are limited by American standards. They lack integrated information and command and control networks, have limited modern electronic-warfare capabilities, and exhibit significant weaknesses in logistics and sustainment ability. However, with a determination to purchase advanced technology from Russia and an emphasis on asymmetric warfare, China is positioning itself to challenge the continuation of the American role in the East Asia and Pacific region in the future.
If Taiwan does not take action to improve its defenses against a surprise missile attack within the next few years, the threat from mainland China to annex Taiwan by force will be compelling. And while the United States has several key initiatives underway to bolster capabilities in the East Asia- Pacific — such as Aegis missile defense, the Littoral Combat Ship and Virginia-class submarines — a long-term commitment to counter the emerging Chinese anti-access strategy is essential.
The initial draft of this report was written by Myra S. McKitrick. All members of the Naval Strike Forum had an opportunity to review and modify the final report.
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