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.
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
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.
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.
Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images