Sino-U.S. Competition and U.S. Security: How Do We Assess the Military Balance?
This essay argues that scholars and analysts can help policymakers advance U.S. interests in Asia by assessing the dynamic Sino-U.S. balance of power in the region.
Assessments of the military competition between China and the U.S. are badly needed but mostly missing. Such assessments should consider the political objectives of the competitors, their military doctrines, and alliance politics, in addition to quantitative measures of military power in the context in which such capabilities would be deployed. Clashing political and military objectives will define the rivalry between the U.S. and China. For the U.S., the most important characteristics of the rivalry are those that impinge on Washington’s ability to defend its interests in the world’s most important region. These interests include protecting the U.S. homeland, preventing the emergence of a hostile hegemon in Asia, encouraging continued liberal economic and political reforms, and preserving the global commons. These goals must be assessed against China’s growing ability to coerce U.S. allies, interdict U.S. forces, and cut off U.S. access to parts of the global commons in possible pursuit of regional hegemony. Considered in these terms, the United States may not have the overwhelming advantage that many assume.
- Thinking seriously about rivalry with China is more likely to preclude rather than encourage conflict. Unfounded fears can be put to rest while fears with foundation can be remediated. If the United States successfully balances Chinese power, the two sides may be dissuaded from conflict and forge more areas of cooperation.
Washington has long supported a security umbrella over allies and partners in Asia, but China’s political and military ambitions may challenge this status quo. Clashing Sino-U.S. regional political objectives will be the key driver of the changing military competition.
The advantages of the U.S. and its allies on paper relative to China can be misleading when accounting for the differences in strategy, doctrine, and political goals of the two sides.