American Outlook
July/August 2001
By Alan W. Dowd

Last summer, the “trade uber alles” caucus in Washington promised us that Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China would transform the nation’s one billion peasant-subjects into consumers, overwhelm its dictatorship, shut down its laogai slave labor camps and subdue its imperial inclinations. The fact that American companies would be making a ton of cash was just icing on the cake.

Thanks in part to China’s midair mugging of a U.S. Navy surveillance plane in April, many of those who cheered the victory of commerce over prudence are beginning to recognize that China is neither a panda bear nor a democracy in the making. As President Bush put it months before his election, “China is a competitor, not a strategic partner.”[1] With Beijing in the midst of the greatest military buildup on earth – a buildup aimed at consolidating its borderlands in the short-term and challenging America in the long-term – the Bush administration’s hard-nosed, clear-eyed view of China may be coming at just the right time.

From Taiwan to Hainan

If, as Norman Cousins once observed, “History is a vast early warning system,” then the history books have been sounding the alarm over the People’s Republic of China for decades.

One of those books, Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, describes a time not unlike our own. In it, he marvels at “the amazing extent to which intelligent, well-informed and resolute men, in the pursuit of economy or in an altruistic passion for disarmament, will delude themselves about realities.”[2] To illustrate his point, however, he cites not Chamberlain, but Churchill. Asked in 1924 to assess the possibility of Japan attacking Britain’s Pacific possessions, Churchill concluded, “I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in our lifetime. The Japanese are our allies. Japan is at the other end of the world. She cannot diminish our vital security in any way. She has no reason to come into collision with us.”[3] He may have succeeded in convincing himself and his prime minister, but he didn’t convince Tokyo. Japan would sweep into the British Malaya, Hong Kong and Thailand on a single day 17 years later.

Today’s China, like yesterday’s Japan, is an empire, and like all empires its goal is to expand. China has 16 territorial disputes with 10 different countries. Its territorial ambitions are no secret, and its leaders have often resorted to military force to sate them. Indeed, as the Pentagon’s Annual Report to Congress on the Military Power of China warned last June, “China’s resolve to employ military force should not be discounted.”[4] And history shows why. The PRC has smeared every decade of its 51-year existence with aggression:

In the 1950s, China seized Tibet, invaded Korea, and bombed the Taiwanese islands of Quemoy and Matsu. In the 1960s, it turned west, attacking India, and north, invading the Soviet Union. In the 1970s, China gobbled up the Paracel Islands and invaded Vietnam. In the 1980s, Beijing invaded India for a second time and took Vietnam’s Spratly Islands. And in the 1990s, during the most pro-China period in Washington since World War II, Beijing swung its military sights back to Taiwan with waves missile tests, a fusillade of demands that invoked memories of Austria’s pre-World War I ultimatums on Serbia and a nuclear-tipped warning for America.

The Hainan incident was anything but an aberration.

Crumbling Credibility

It took the United States and NATO about 10 weeks of air bombardment to bring the Serbs to heel in Kosovo. A full 10 years after the Gulf War, the United States and Britain continue to fight a low-grade war against Iraq, launching hundreds of raids and reconnaissance missions each month from the relative safety of high-flying aircraft. What does this have to do with China, you ask? China’s leaders want an empire of their own, and they have no intention of asking Washington for permission. With the pummeling of Iraq and Serbia fresh in their minds, they know that a military with a truly global reach is the only thing that gives America pause. On the strength of a 314-percent increase in military spending over ten years – capped off by a staggering 17.7-percent increase this year – Beijing is building such a military.[5]  Its bulging arsenal includes sophisticated Russian warplanes, a blue-water navy and technologies that have enabled it to leap 20 years forward in missile development.

Through its buildup, Beijing is essentially seeking to intimidate the United States from interfering in some future crisis in or around China, or as the Pentagon concludes, “to achieve a military solution before outside powers [can] intervene militarily.”[6] Taiwan provides a chilling illustration of this strategy. For half-a-century, the Taiwan Straits and a vaguely worded document known as the Taiwan Relations Act have protected Taiwan from invasion. But those deterrents are growing increasingly irrelevant.

Instead of an open commitment of protection, which such stalwart allies as Kuwait and Albania now enjoy, Taiwan is left clinging to words written not to reassure, but to obfuscate. As a result, neither side of the Taiwan Straits knows exactly what Washington would do in the event of a cross-straits war. And that is a recipe for a much wider war. As Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., observes, “It is imperative that we make credible our commitment to assist Taiwan if China uses force to unify the island to the Mainland. The credibility of our commitment will determine the validity of our deterrence.”[7]

Ironically, even President Bush’s pledge to do “whatever it took to help Taiwan defend itself” – hardly the description of a military alliance – has contributed to the uncertainty: Many of Lugar’s colleagues scoffed at Bush’s statement and thereby undermined his credibility. Doubtless, the Chinese took notice.

Moreover, the sea no longer provides any real protection to Taiwan. Pentagon analysts have concluded that China could use airborne assaults and short-range missiles to achieve many of the objectives of an amphibious landing.  In fact, historian Paul Braken argues that with just 45 missiles, “China could virtually close Taiwan’s ports, airfields, waterworks and power plants.” To hold onto Taiwan, China could then use its medium-range missiles to blackmail the countries that host America’s forward-deployed bases. Beijing is betting that the mere threat of missiles raining down on Okinawa or Korea of Manila would deter U.S. intervention. According to Braken, Beijing could lob “several hundred missiles, perhaps several thousand” at the U.S. bases and ships that dot the Pacific.[8] And if that fails, Beijing can always brandish its nuclear-tipped ICBMs at Los Angeles or San Diego, as it did in February of last year. 

This is not unprecedented. Three times in the last century alone, emerging empires threatened America’s very existence. It wasn’t wishful thinking or free trade that overcame those empires. It was conflict.

Turning a blind eye to Japanese aggression throughout the 1930s, the United States was chased out of the western Pacific. America would reclaim every island and reef, but at enormous cost. Likewise, London’s decision to trust Hitler at his word and ignore his actions led from Czechoslovakia to Dunkirk and nearly to surrender.

But as the Cold War with Moscow reminds us, conflicts between empires and democracies don’t have to be waged on the enemy’s terms. Invoking the hard-learned lessons of Munich, a wiser Churchill outlined a new response to the 20th century’s last empire. “I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war,” he said in 1946. “What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power. There is nothing they admire so much as strength.” The stakes were too high to gamble again on appeasement. And so, in stark contrast to the previous decade, alliances were forged, arsenals built, lines drawn.

Berlin would be the proving ground for this new way of dealing with empires. In the first of countless showdowns between East and West, Moscow pushed, the allies pushed back and then Moscow blinked. The pattern would be repeated again and again, from Berlin to Korea to Cuba and back to Berlin.

Good Fences

What worked in the 20th century will work in the 21st. To follow this approach in response to China’s increasing aggressiveness, however, the United States will have to retool its crumbling military.

When Bill Clinton took office in 1993, the United States devoted 4.5 percent of its gross domestic product to national defense.  Today, defense outlays account for just 3 percent of GDP – their lowest level since World War II.  The Republican Congress has been a willing accomplice in diluting the U.S. military – preferring instead to concentrate on balancing the federal budget, expanding social programs and cutting taxes, all while allowing the president to pursue a hyperactive foreign policy with fewer resources. Not since 1940, at a time when America had virtually no overseas commitments, has the country devoted such a paltry amount on national defense.   

Every branch is feeling the strain. Marines are working 84-hour weeks. Air Force pilots are piling up thousands of flight-hours in tedious, skill-sapping missions over Iraq.  Fully one-quarter of the Air Force's planes cannot fly because of equipment and maintenance shortfalls.  The number of annual Army deployments has risen to 68, an increase of almost 300 percent since the late 1980s, even though the Army now has 650,000 fewer soldiers. And the Pentagon recently conceded that during the Kosovo War not a single U.S. aircraft carrier was deployed in the western Pacific. China was watching.

Beijing’s behavior makes it clear that the solution, however, is not to cut back and retreat behind a wall, but to build up and defend the frontiers of freedom. To that end, America’s alliance system must also be shored up. Alliances can be formidable bulwarks against empire. From the late 1940s, when Moscow threatened to incorporate Europe piecemeal, to the 1980s, when the Soviet Empire endured its death throes, the West’s open system of alliances protected countries as large as America and as tiny as Luxembourg.

A revived system of alliances in the Pacific need not be an Asian equivalent of NATO, and probably couldn’t be, given the diversity of relationships between China and its neighbors. However, such a system could be a kind of chain-link fence of bilateral guarantees stretching from Japan and Korea to Taiwan and the Philippines to Thailand and India. Perhaps even Vietnam could fill an important gap in this Asia-Pacific security fence.

Those who counter that such a posture might trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy of US-China conflict don’t live in China’s neighborhood and are oblivious to China’s behavior.

Beijing’s neighbors desperately want America to stand up to Beijing. Take the Philippines, for example. After sending American ships and planes unceremoniously back to the States a decade ago, Manila has invited them to return – and for good reason. China is prowling the oil-rich waters of the South China Sea. In June, Chinese ships began menacing the Philippine’s westernmost islands and atolls, the latest in a series of reckless incursions into Philippine waters by the Chinese navy. Sending a clear signal to China, Manila and Washington have launched or planned 34 exercises on Philippine territory since the Philippine senate ratified a new security agreement with the United States in 1999.[9]

With an eye on China, the new Bush administration has sought warmer relations with India as well – a perfect regional counterweight to China and an old nemesis of Beijing. Within hours of his confirmation, Secretary of State Colin Powell praised India as a country with “the potential to help keep the peace in the vast Indian Ocean area and its periphery.”[10] Just days earlier, New Delhi had test-launched a long-range version of its Agni missile, bringing a wider swath of China within range. Bush responded not with condemnation, but with a promise to lift Clinton-era economic sanctions against India, leftovers from the country’s nuclear showdown with Pakistan in 1998.

Finally and perhaps most remarkably, Vietnam is pursuing military ties with Washington, a fact underscored by last year’s groundbreaking talks between then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen and his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Van Tra. Talks are underway for U.S. military assistance in natural disasters, de-mining, search-and-rescue operations and permanent military-to-military contacts.[11] It’s not “the special relationship,” but it’s a start.

Tomorrow’s Preeminent Power

Many differences separate this eclectic mix of nations, but one very important thing unites them – their view of China. As the Pentagon’s Annual Report to Congresson the Military Power of China concluded, China wants nothing less than “to become the preeminent Asian power.”[12] And that presents a problem for every nation in the region, especially the United States, the current preeminent power in Asia. As the Hainan takedown underscores, China’s leaders believe the People’s Republic extends deep into international waters, encompassing Philippine, Vietnamese and Taiwanese islands – and they’re willing to go to war over it. To the west, Beijing is beginning to flex its muscles toward the Central Asian states. And with some 50 million ethnic Chinese living outside the PRC, the region has all the ingredients of a Serbia-style war of reincorporation.

To be sure, whether or not Beijing chooses to follow the path taken by yesterday’s empires is something over which the United States has little control. But America and its allies can still determine whether Taiwan or one of its neighbors becomes this generation’s Berlin or its Czechoslovakia.

[1]Bush speech in Simi Valley, Calif., November 19, 1999.

[2]Paul Johnson, Modern Times, p.175.


[4]Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress on the Military Power of China, June 2000.

[5]Robert Sutter, “China’s Rising Military Power and Influence,” CRS Report, 1996.

[6] Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress on the Military Power of China, June 2000.

[7] Sen. Lugar speech at Hudson’s International Conference on the USA, Taiwan and the PRC, Jan. 11, 2001.

[8]Paul Braken, “America’s Maginot Line,” The Atlantic Monthly, December 1998.

[9]Jim Garamone, “US, Filipino Leaders Meet to Strengthen Ties,” AFIS News, Sept. 18, 2000.

[10] Sunanda Datta-Ray, “China plays India card in new strategy for Asia,” International Herald Tribune, January 30, 2001.

[11] Linda Kozaryn, “Symbolic visit foretells positive future,” American Forces Press, April 26, 2000.

[12]Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress.