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Wishful Thinking in Our Time

From the August 8, 2005 issue: The Pentagon looks at China, and blinks.

Aug 8, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 44 • By DAN BLUMENTHAL and GARY SCHMITT
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But rather than face the facts presented in the report about the character and scope of China's military buildup, the tendency in the senior ranks of the administration is to wash over them with sound bites about our relationship with China being "good but complex." Or worse.

The day after the report was issued, in response to a question about the cross-strait military balance, Marine general Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said, "There's lots of countries in the world that have the capacity to wage war," but "very few have the intent to do so. . . . There's absolutely no reason for us to believe there is any intent on [China's] part." Absolutely?

For one thing, as these annual Pentagon reports have repeatedly pointed out, China shrouds its military plans and senior decision-making in secrecy. But what we can observe could hardly lead anyone to think that we should be so confident about China's intentions. After all, this is the country that now ranks third in the world in overall defense spending, and the one that has increased its military budget fastest over the past decade, with growth in military expenditures outpacing even China's own remarkable growth in GDP. General Pace had better hope his statement doesn't go down in history alongside George Tenet's now infamous, "It's a slam dunk, Mr. President."

One theme that was added to this year's report is that China is at a "strategic crossroads." It faces one path leading to peaceful integration with its region and the world, the other to competition with the other significant powers in the region and with the United States. In one respect, this is a truism: Theoretically, any power, at any time, can choose to alter its relationships with the outside world. But the data at the heart of the Pentagon's report suggest that China is not at any crossroads; rather, it is already headed down a path previously taken by other autocratic, rapidly rising great powers. And until China undertakes major political reforms, it will probably stay on that path.

In reality, it is more accurate to say that the United States is at a strategic crossroads when it comes to China. With our plate full around the globe, we are understandably reluctant to raise publicly the prospect of a new great power competition. Nevertheless, the administration is doing quite a bit to contain Chinese military power--our upgraded relations with Japan, India, Vietnam, Singapore, and Australia are cases in point. But our reluctance to admit this publicly to ourselves or to our allies, and our rosy rhetoric about our "constructive" relationship with Beijing, leave us at a disadvantage as China ratchets up the competition. As a practical matter, this attitude often leaves us a day late and a dollar short when it comes to matching new Chinese initiatives.

Nor is our position sustainable. Beijing is not blind to our reaching out to the powers in the region. For it, the competition has already begun. The Pentagon's report provides ample evidence that this is the case, but then ducks the obvious conclusion. Preparing the Congress and the public for that competition should be a priority of the administration. Unfortunately, this year's report, for all its substantive merit, fails the test.

Gary Schmitt is executive director of the Project for the New American Century. Dan Blumenthal is resident fellow in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and former senior director for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mongolia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.