Shadow Government

Why the U.S. should keep an eye on China’s military

By Thomas G. Mahnken One topic that is likely to arise during President Obama’s trip to Asia, if not in his meetings in Beijing, is the continuing modernization of the Chinese military. Asian leaders are privately, and increasingly publicly, concerned about China’s growing military might and what they see as a failure of the United ...

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By Thomas G. Mahnken

One topic that is likely to arise during President Obama’s trip to Asia, if not in his meetings in Beijing, is the continuing modernization of the Chinese military. Asian leaders are privately, and increasingly publicly, concerned about China’s growing military might and what they see as a failure of the United States to respond. This year’s Australian defense white paper, for example, portrays a future in which China contests American primacy in Asia and beyond. When one of the United States’ closest allies expresses such concerns, Washington should listen.

According to at least one high-ranking official, the United States has systematically underestimated the pace and scope of Chinese military modernization for years. On Oct. 21 in an interview with the Voice of America, the incoming Commander of U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), Admiral Robert F. Willard, USN, told reporters that, “In the past decade or so, China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability and capacity, every year. … They’ve grown at an unprecedented rate in those capabilities. And, they’ve developed some asymmetric capabilities that are concerning to the region, some anti-access capabilities and so on.” Willard should know. Prior to becoming the USPACOM commander, he was in command of all U.S. naval forces in the Pacific; before that, he was Vice Chief of Naval Operations.

Willard’s observation should be cause for concern, but is not a surprise. Intelligence organizations have a tendency to underestimate rising powers. As I discuss in my book, Uncovering Ways of War, U.S. Army and Navy intelligence in the period between the two world wars underestimated the growth of the Japanese military power not because of racial bias or ethnocentrism, but rather because of the very real tendency to look back on Japan’s modest military capabilities and project them into the future. As a result, American intelligence organizations overlooked a number of areas where the Japanese military innovated, failures that cost the United States and its allies dearly in World War II.

I suspect that the same pathologies may be at work today regarding China. The People’s Liberation Army of the 1980s and 1990s was hardly first-rate. In recent years, however, China has made real strides, including the testing of an anti-satellite weapon in July 2007 and the development of an anti-ship ballistic missile designed to attack U.S. carrier strike groups. Outside a small circle of cognoscenti, however, perceptions of Chinese military power have failed to keep pace with this reality.

If we are in danger of underestimating Chinese military power, China’s leaders are in danger of overestimating it. Some portions of the Chinese military have not seen action since China’s 1979 war with Vietnam; others have not seen combat since the Korean War. Although China is in the process of fielding increasingly capable weapons, the military effectiveness of the PLA is very much an open question.

The United States needs to do more to understand the Chinese military. The PLA intently studies the U.S. military; the U.S. military lacks a similar curiosity about them. That needs to change. It would be worthwhile, for example, to translate and make available to scholars a broader array of Chinese writings about military affairs. In addition, the U.S. military needs to devote greater attention to understanding the Chinese military, as well as the strategic and operational challenges it poses. Doing so will not, as some assert, preordain conflict with China. To the contrary, a better understanding of the Chinese military should help us avoid misperception and bolster deterrence. Such an effort should include our allies and friends in the region, who have their own perspectives and their own concerns with China’s military expansion.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

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