[Editorial] A rare look inside the world’s biggest military expansion.
- The Economist
At a meeting of South-East Asian nations in 2010, China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi, facing a barrage of complaints about his country’s behavior in the region, blurted out the sort of thing polite leaders usually prefer to leave unsaid. “China is a big country,” he pointed out, “and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.” Indeed it is, and China is big not merely in terms of territory and population, but also military might. Its Communist Party is presiding over the world’s largest military build-up. And that is just a fact, too – one which the rest of the world is having to come to terms with.
China worries the rest of the world not only because of the scale of its military build-up, but also because of the lack of information about how it might use its new forces and even who is really in charge of them. The American strategic-guidance document spells out the concern. “The growth of Chinas military power”, it says, “must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region”.
Officially, China is committed to what it called, in the words of an old slogan, a “peaceful rise.” Its foreign policy experts stress their commitment to a rules-based multipolar world. They shake their heads in disbelief at suggestions that China see itself as a “near peer” military competitor with America.
A pugnacious editorial in the state-run Global Times last October gave warning: “If China’s neighbors don’t want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sounds of cannons. We need to be ready for that, as it may be the only for the disputes to be resolved.” This was not a government pronouncement, but it seems the censors permit plenty of press freedom when it comes to blowing off nationalistic steam.
It is hardly surprising that China’s neighbors and the West in general should worry about these developments. The range of forces marshaled against Taiwan and India, plus China’s “A2/AD” potential to push the forces of other countries over the horizon have already eroded the confidence of America’s Asian allies that the guarantor of their security will always be there for them. Mr. Obama’s rebalancing towards Asia may go some way towards easing those doubts. America’s allies are also going to have to do more for themselves, including developing their own A2/AD capabilities. But the longer-term trends in defense spending are in China’s favor. China can focus entirely on Asia, whereas America will continue to have global responsibilities. Asian concerns about the dragon will not disappear.