Ten years from now, China will likely be a predominant military power in Asia, but it apparently does not intend to engage in an arms race with the United States nor to seek to become a global power, said Adam Segal, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
At least for now, the U.S. and China are more interested in working together on various issues that confront them than they are worried about strategic competition, Segal told the Nov. 12 symposium.
Assessing the various motives behind the rapid modernization of the Chinese military, Segal noted that Beijing’s concern over Taiwan’s possible move to seek unilateral independence “has become less of an important factor over the last two years.” China is confident the status quo in its relations with Taiwan will remain — given the weakened position of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, and increased economic integration between the island and mainland China, he said. Washington has also pressured Chen to adopt a more “mature” policy on the independence issue, reassuring Beijing that the U.S. will act as a “restraining factor” in cross-strait relations, he added.
Segal noted that one of China’s ultimate objectives is to own “a military force that allows it to have the final say” on regional affairs in Asia, including energy and territorial disputes with Japan.
At this point, China is “very far away” from challenging the U.S. on regional affairs, “but at some point that goal will be out there,” he said.
China also has a “vague and long-term” goal to have a military force commensurate with its rising economic and political power, he noted. But for this goal, China is content to have a “slow and incremental” buildup and, given what happened to the Soviet Union, “the Chinese leadership does not want to engage in an arms race with the U.S.,” he said.
Segal said it is an “open question” whether China is a predominant military power today. Given the current trajectory, it will be a predominant regional power in 10 years, he said, but added he doubts that China would seek to be a global power equipped with the carrier groups and overseas bases needed to project its power outside Asia.
So far, the U.S. response has included refocusing its forces from Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia, upgrading its antisubmarine warfare capabilities and strengthening its satellites, and improving interoperability with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, Segal noted. The U.S. is also trying to stop the flow of dual-use technology to China and is thinking about ways to limit access of Chinese students in the U.S. to potentially sensitive technology, he said.
Segal noted that the U.S. and China today are in “a state of muted security dilemma.”
“Clearly, in both the U.S. and China, there is a great deal of suspicion of the other side’s strategic intentions. China believes that the U.S. is working to contain its growth, and it responds by trying to develop forces that will ensure its independence and autonomy. And then the U.S. responds by increasing its forces in the region,” he said. “This is the classic security dilemma. Each side believes that it’s acting on its own defense, and pursues its goals in ways that make the other side less secure.”
But it is a “muted” dilemma in that on the grand strategic front, Beijing and Washington agree that they should work together on other issues that confront them — trade, climate change, North Korea and Iran — than worry about strategic competition, he said, although he added the rivalry could come to the front “if all of these other things go wrong.”