Senior Pentagon officials, top military commanders, and powerful lawmakers from both parties have long wrestled with a single question: is China, home to one of the world's largest and fastest growing militaries, a direct threat to the peace and security of the United States? Beijing's surprise announcement of a massive increase in its defense spending Wednesday is adding new fuel to the debate and emerging as a major obstacle to the Obama administration's hopes of trimming the Pentagon's bloated wartime budget.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took to Capital Hill Wednesday to try to sell the administration's new, controversial $495.6 billion base budget for fiscal year 2015. Under the White House plan, the Defense Department would receive roughly $420 million less than in fiscal year 2014. That will require the Army to cut its forces from about 490,000 to about 440,000 over the next five years, while the Air Force cuts its own troops by about 20,000, from 503,000 to 483,000. The services will also have to say goodbye to an array of cherished weapons programs, from the Air Force's famed U-2 spy plane to the Army's planned replacement for its workforce fleet of Humvees.
The plan was controversial from the start, with many lawmakers griping that the budget would result in a military that was too small, and too poorly equipped, to tamp down potential conflicts around the world or deal with an increasingly assertive Russia. China's announcement Wednesday that it would be boosting its military budget by 12.2 percent in 2014, to $131.6 billion, simply fanned the flames.
"I must say your timing is exquisite," Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain told Hagel during a heated Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. "Coming over here with a budget when the world is probably more unsettled since the end of World War II. The invasion of Crimea, Iran negotiations collapsed, China more aggressive in the South China Sea, North Korea fired more missiles in the last few days, Syria turning into a regional conflict."
The growing Chinese defense budget, McCain argued, made the administration plan even more dangerous.
McCain has long been a China hawk, part of a large camp of Republicans, and some conservative Democrats, who warn that the United States risks losing its military edge over China unless it purchases hundreds of billions of dollars worth of next-generation warplanes, drones, and ships. Doves believe that the threat is overstated because the Chinese economy is so intertwined with the American one that Beijing wouldn't risk tanking it by starting a conflict with the United States.
The Pentagon itself has long seemed divided over China's true intentions. The Defense Department's the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review , or QDR, which was released earlier this week, characterized the Chinese in decidedly measured tones. The 64-page report, which will help frame the Pentagon's strategic decisions over the next four years, states that while China's ongoing military expansion bears concern, the Pentagon will continue to build a "sustained and substantive dialogue" with China's People's Liberation Army, or PLA, to increase the two militaries' cooperation on counter-piracy, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and other issues of common interest.
The 2014 QDR is strikingly similar to its predecessor, which was published in 2010. In the four years since, China's military budget has nearly doubled, a speed far outpacing most other nations in the region, and tensions have grown to dangerously high levels between Tokyo over the Diaoyu, disputed islands in the East China Sea which Japan administers and calls the Senkaku, and with Southeast Asian nations, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Like its predecessor, the new QDR raises questions about Chinese ambition, but it frames it in part on how it could feed regional risks in the Pacific as it increasingly becomes an international business hub.
"As nations in the region continue to develop their military and security capabilities, there is greater risk that tensions over long-standing sovereignty disputes or claims to natural resources will spur disruptive competition or erupt into conflict, reversing the trends of rising regional peace, stability, and prosperity," the new QDR said. "In particular, the rapid pace and comprehensive scope of China's military modernization continues, combined with a relative lack of transparency and openness from China's leaders regarding both military capabilities and intentions." The Pentagon's response, then, is to "manage the competitive aspects of the relationship in ways that improve regional peace and stability consistent with international norms and principles."
If anything, the 2010 report was more pessimistic about Chinese intentions. The study concluded that the Pentagon welcomed a strong, prosperous China, and advocated keeping communication open with Beijing. But it also ominously ticked off a long list of weapons the Chinese were building. "China is developing and fielding large numbers of advanced medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles, new attack submarines equipped with advanced weapons, and increasingly capable long-range air defense systems, electronic warfare and computer network attack capabilities, advanced fighter aircraft, and counter-space systems," the 2010 QDR said. "China has shared only limited information about the pace, scope, and ultimate aims of its military modernization programs, raising a number of legitimate questions regarding its long-term intentions."
The list of weapons in development is stripped from the latest strategy document, perhaps a reflection of expanded engagement between the rival militaries. Between 2012 and 2013, the number of contacts between the U.S. military and its Chinese counterpart doubled from about 20 to 40. In September, two senior Chinese naval officers traveled to San Diego and Washington to meeting with Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations and tour a U.S. aircraft carrier and submarine. The Chinese officers also visited the Marine base at Camp Pendleton, Calif., the Pentagon, and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
"Although sovereignty disputes in the East and South China Seas are not new, China's growing diplomatic, economic, and military clout is improving China's ability to assert its interests," according to a report released to Congress in November by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. "It is increasingly clear that China does not intend to resolve the disputes through multilateral negotiations or the application of international laws and adjudicative processes but instead will use its growing power in support of coercive tactics that pressure its neighbors to concede to China's claims."
Last May, the Pentagon released a detailed, unclassified report to Congress outlining its understanding of the Chinese military. It stated that the Chinese appeared to be preparing for potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait, the site of numerous crises over the last 60 years. But the Pentagon noted in May that China's interests "have grown as it has gained greater influence in the international system," and that its military will become increasingly capable of conducting missions beyond immediate territorial concerns.
"Some of these missions and capabilities can address international security challenges, while others could serve more narrowly defined [Chinese] interests and objectives, including advancing territorial claims and building influence aboard," the report said.
One of those emerged in November, when the Chinese unexpectedly and unilaterally established an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, rattling Japan and other neighbors in the process. U.S. officials expressed disapproval for the way in which it was sprung, but have signaled a willingness to allow China to keep it as long as backs off a demand that all aircraft traveling through it must check in first.
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