The new US National Defense Strategy, released this morning, appears to treat China as an enemy of the United States. The aim of the strategy is to avoid war with China by making constant credible threats to use US military force, including nuclear weapons. The guiding assumption is that if the United States government does not make these threats, China will attack the United States and its allies.
To make those threats credible, the strategy commits to significant new spending on US conventional and nuclear weapons “for decades to come.” It is difficult to see how this approach to China is different from US policy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
China is not the Soviet Union
One thing that is different is that China, unlike the Soviet Union, has not spent a disproportional amount of its national wealth on its military. The most reliable open source data shows that over the past several decades China spent a constant and comparatively small percentage of its annual gross domestic product building the military it has today. Moreover, the percentage of Chinese national government expenditures allocated to the military declined from a high of nearly 17% in 1992 to just over 5% in 2021.
Another significant difference is that China does not have a large nuclear arsenal and is not pursuing nuclear parity with the United States. The best open-source accounting indicates the United States currently enjoys a 15 to 1 advantage over China in the number of nuclear warheads, and a ten to one advantage in the number of delivery vehicles. The new missile silos China is building will not come close to eliminating that imbalance. More importantly, the sole purpose of China’s nuclear arsenal is to prevent being struck first by maintaining a credible ability to retaliate. Chinese planners do not need to achieve nuclear parity with the United States to meet that objective.
So, a US defense strategy focused on China that presumes increased military spending will have a decisive influence–especially increased spending on new US nuclear weapons–is likely to fail.
An old strategy for a new problem
The US government is worried about China because it remains a communist country. US experts assumed Chinese leaders would need to adopt a more democratic politics to continue to grow their economy. The experts were wrong. US decision-makers are now struggling to find a way to respond to the unanticipated emergence of a large, economically successful, and scientifically and technologically proficient communist nation. They’ve turned to military spending because the two government’s don’t talk much, and don’t trust each other.
The urge to return to the old anti-communist Cold War playbook is not surprising, especially given the age and experience of many US political leaders. But their Chinese counterparts are more likely to interpret the new US defense strategy as an indication the United States is stuck in the past rather than prepared for the future.
China’s new communist rulers no longer look to the United States for guidance and are seeking a new path forward that is less dependent on US ideas and institutions. They believe the United States is in a period of decline, that its government is dysfunctional, and that the US economy is captured by corrupt, self-serving elites with no sense of responsibility for the welfare of the American people or the rest of the world. But that does not make them enemies of the United States. Treating them like enemies and responding to their turn away from the United States with excessive military spending is counterproductive.
A preferable alternative
The focus of Chinese military modernization is to be able to resolve, by force, if necessary, the many territorial disputes on China’s periphery. A US defense strategy narrowly focused on those disputes, rather than an imaginary Cold-War like contest for global supremacy, would be more likely to succeed and far less expensive. There is no conceivable role for US nuclear weapons in helping to resolve those disputes.
An appropriately focused US defense strategy would also leave room for US-China cooperation on the serious global challenges both nations must face together, including the emergence of new pandemics and the prevention of catastrophic climate change. The current defense strategy makes cooperation highly unlikely.
US disappointment with recent political developments in China is understandable. But Chinese politics are beyond US government control and cannot be ameliorated by threats to use military force. Keeping the peace on China’s periphery is important, especially in light of recent Chinese provocations, but imagining those provocations are a prelude to a contest for global supremacy conveys an unbecoming sense of panic. One of the most important lessons of the Cold War is that this is a fear excessive military spending can never relieve.