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Misunderstanding Chinese Intentions

“The United States possesses only a limited understanding of Chinese intentions.”

Is that really true? It is, at least according to a draft report of the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board on the Chinese military. Perhaps the Board is right, but if we do not understand how Beijing intends to use the People’s Liberation Army, then it is our own damn fault. By now, the Chinese have made their intentions amply clear, and it’s way past the time for complaining, as the draft report does, about the lack of China’s transparency.

Last Wednesday, Bill Gertz of the Washington Times broke the story about the board’s draft internal report, entitled “China’s Strategic Modernization.” This ten-page study contains many sound recommendations about how the United States can meet China’s military challenges — by defending Taiwan, reassuring allies, countering espionage, and upgrading missile-defense capabilities, to name just a few examples — but the real problem for us is one of recognition of threats. More than anything else, the United States needs to confront reality and properly comprehend Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions. China, unfortunately, is a potentially hostile state.

By now you would think that diplomats, analysts, and military planners in Washington would understand that China, a nation that was the world’s sole superpower for centuries, today is preparing to regain that role — in other words, to first make itself a peer competitor of the United States and then push us aside. It cannot attain these goals without a military that is better than America’s, especially on the sea, in the air, and in space.

The draft report correctly perceives that China wants to project power across the oceans. Its conclusion is in line with a series of recent statements of Chinese analysts. For example, Hong Yuan, a military strategist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, noted last October that the country’s leaders had recently broadened their goals. China, he said, intends to project force in areas “way beyond the Taiwan Strait.”

Beijing has not exactly hidden its grand ambitions this decade or last.

Chinese diplomats have complained both privately and in public of America’s presence in Asia and have been active in forming multilateral groupings, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, that exclude Washington. China openly asserts claims on islands under Tokyo’s control and the Japanese continental shelf. It also declares as its own the continental shelves of five other nations — the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam — as well as the entire South China Sea, often using force or threats to bolster its absurd territorial ambitions. The Chinese have sought to deny the U.S. Navy and Air Force passage through the high seas and international airspace, as the notorious EP-3 and lesser-known Bowditch incidents from earlier this decade show. Moreover, China’s submarines regularly intrude into Japanese waters despite demands from Tokyo to stop. The Chinese, in 2006, lasered at least one American satellite with the intention of blinding it. That, of course, is a direct attack on the United States and, therefore, an act of war. China is supplying, through Iran, the Taliban in Afghanistan and insurgents in Iraq with small arms and the components for roadside bombs.

Yet many in Washington think that Beijing is content with the world as it is. The argument is that in the past quarter century the people who have benefited the most from the American-led system are not Americans but Chinese. In a peaceful world the Chinese have manufactured and traded their way up through the ranks and, as a consequence, have transformed their country for the better. As they have done so, their leaders began to develop relations with other states, sign global treaties and conventions — including at least 21 international human rights covenants — and join a host of multilateral and regional institutions and groups. The People’s Republic, we are told, is now working inside the international system for the first time in its six decades of existence.

All of this may be true, yet American analysts miss the fact that China, both newly confident and increasingly assertive, is now trying to change the global system to suit its own purposes. Beijing’s leaders constantly campaign for a “multipolar” world, which means they want a global order where America is cut down to size as only one of many powers. “China is not America’s ally and never will be,” notes a prominent Beijing academic. Says American analyst Robert Sutter, “China is the only large power in the world preparing to shoot Americans.”

He’s right. “China is preparing for armed conflict with the United States,” the draft task force report states. The country’s military is being configured to fight the United States: students at China’s naval academy spend their time figuring out how to sink America’s ten active-duty aircraft carriers; Beijing’s initiatives in space, including its anti-satellite program, are intended to take down America’s communications and surveillance systems orbiting the earth; and China attacks American defense networks every day by computer, sometimes penetrating the Pentagon and other vital defense installations.

And there’s one more thing. “Chinese military modernization is proceeding at a rate to be of concern even with the most benign interpretation of China’s motivation.” That’s for sure. China discloses only a small part of its military budget, but the trend of expenditures is clear. This year will see the 18th announced double-digit increase in military spending in the last 19 years.

By now, I don’t think we need to ponder Beijing’s intentions. There’s more than enough information in the draft report to know what the Chinese are really up to.