How China is replacing America as Asia’s military titan
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has refashioned the People’s Liberation Army into a force that’s rapidly closing the gap on U.S. firepower — and in some vital areas has surpassed it. The American victory over China in a regional war is no longer assured.
For the first time since Portuguese traders reached the Chinese coast five centuries ago, China has the military power to dominate the seas off its coast. The conflict between China and the United States in these waters would be destructive and bloody, particularly a clash over Taiwan, according to serving and retired senior American officers. And despite decades of unrivalled power since the end of the Cold War, there would be no guarantee America would prevail.
“The U.S. could lose,” said Gary Roughead, co-chair of a bipartisan review of the Trump administration’s defence strategy published in November. “We really are at a significant inflexion point in history.”
Roughead is no armchair theorist: A retired admiral, as former Chief of Naval Operations he held the top job in the U.S. Navy until 2011. His alarm reflects a growing view across the American defence establishment. In their report, he and his colleagues issued a dire warning. The United States faces a “national security crisis,” principally arising from growing Chinese and Russian military power. “U.S. military superiority is no longer assured and the implications for American interests and American security are severe,” the panel concluded.
It is clear that Xi wants to bring the era of U.S. dominance in Asia to an end. “In the final analysis, it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia,” he said in a 2014 speech to foreign leaders on regional security.
China’s Ministry of National Defense, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the Pentagon did not respond to questions for this article or detailed summaries of its findings.
This account of Xi and the PLA – which despite the “army” in its name comprises all military branches – is based on interviews with 17 current and former military officers from China, the United States, Taiwan and Australia. Many would only speak on condition of anonymity. It draws on the accounts of Chinese officials and people with ties to the senior leadership in Beijing who have known Xi Jinping and his family for decades and are familiar with his career as he rose through the party and government bureaucracy. It also relies on Chinese government publications describing Xi’s political thinking, his speeches and official documentaries showcasing his leadership of the military.
In Washington, the world’s pre-eminent military power is mobilizing to respond. After decades of seeking engagement in the expectation that Beijing would become a cooperative partner in world affairs, the United States is treating China as a strategic competitor bent on displacing it as Asia’s dominant force.
Largely in reaction to this challenge, Washington is boosting defence spending, rebuilding its navy and urgently developing new weapons, particularly longer-range conventional missiles. It is expanding military ties with other regional powers, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Singapore and India. And it’s conducting an international diplomatic and intelligence campaign to counter China’s cyber-attacks, traditional espionage and intellectual property theft. This campaign includes efforts to contain the global reach of Chinese telecom companies Huawei and ZTE Corp.
The confrontation comes as the administration of President Donald Trump is waging a tariff war aimed at reducing China’s massive trade surplus with the United States. However the trade conflict is resolved, a grave risk is a possibility that the deeper tensions could boil over into an armed clash between Beijing and Washington and its allies in the hotly contested maritime zones off the Chinese coast.