The U.S. Response to China’s Military Modernization

The U.S. Response to China's Military Modernization

by Dan Blumenthal
September 13, 2012

This chapter will argue that the U.S. must protect its primacy in the Asia-Pacific in order to advance its strategic goals in the face of China’s
military modernization.


This chapter will argue that the U.S. must protect its primacy in the Asia-Pacific in order to advance its strategic goals in the face of China’s military modernization.


Since the end of World War II, U.S. strategic aims in the Asia-Pacific have included maintaining a forward defense of the homeland, enforcing a great-power peace, stemming the tide of WMDs, and creating a liberal political and economic order. The U.S. has accomplished these goals through a strategy of primacy that is underpinned by the U.S. military’s preeminence. However, the rise of China and its increasing military capacity are undermining American primacy and thereby the broader Asian order. The current U.S. response to this strategic problem, manifested in part by the operational concept called air-sea battle (ASB), is inadequate in several respects. First, cuts to the defense budget will make it difficult to resource ASB. Second, ASB is an operational concept detached from a strategy. Finally, the concept underemphasizes the need for nuclear deterrence. As a result, the U.S. is both making commitments to Asia that it may not be able to afford and articulating a high-risk operational doctrine that does not answer basic strategic questions.

  • The president should have a range of options to control the escalation of conflict.
  • The U.S. military must be able to master the main military domains—air, sea, and space—should they come under threat.
  • The U.S. should be able to wrest back control of contested zones that China sets up closer to its shores.
  • The U.S. must have the capacity to punish and weaken any aggressor that challenges U.S. primacy.

India’s strategic concerns regarding China arise from the latter’s emergence as the most influential actor in Asia—one with the ability to shape the future balance of power. What is even more worrisome to India is growing Chinese influence in South Asia and the extended Indian Ocean region (IOR), where New Delhi believes Beijing is severely depreciating its area of influence. Furthermore, China is backing its aggressive assertions with a steady buildup of comprehensive national power and regional military capability. Its military budget has grown annually by double-digit figures for over two decades, with the current 2012–13 fiscal year (FY) outlay crossing $100 billion. This trend continues to fuel apprehension and concern that China will play an increasingly assertive role in Asia and beyond.

There is a general understanding in India that the main focus of China’s military modernization and grand strategy is geopolitical competition with the United States, particularly in light of Washington’s recently announced “rebalancing strategy” for the Asia-Pacific. Indian concerns about the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), however, arise primarily from what Robert Kaplan calls the “collapse of distance brought about by advances in military technology,” allowing countries to encroach on each other’s sphere of influence. [1] Although China tends to underplay the threat from India, both in terms of India’s military modernization and existing capabilities, Beijing has recently exhibited a tendency to look at these capabilities from the larger perspective of strategic collusion between India and the United States. [2] This tendency reflects a mindset that increasingly perceives India as a “near peer competitor”—one acting in concert with the United States—that could in the long run challenge China’s regional and global aspirations for preeminence. This is despite repeated assertions by the Indian leadership that India does not have major security issues with China other than the boundary dispute. [3]

India and China went to war over their 5,045-kilometer (km) undemarcated border in 1962. Today, New Delhi claims China illegally occupies 38,000 square km of its territory, while Beijing periodically asserts ownership over a 90,000-square-km area encompassing the northeastern province of Arunachal Pradesh. Although there has been an upswing in diplomatic, political, economic, and even military ties over the past decade—intensifying from 2004 onward—no resolution to the frontier dispute seems imminent. China’s continuing military modernization and incremental upgrading of its military posture in Tibet to enable rapid force deployment, backed by logistics capability and communications infrastructure, are worrisome to India. So are repeated incursions by the PLA across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), including into settled or undisputed areas like Sikkim in northeastern India. India looks upon these actions as coercive tactics to keep tensions alive and New Delhi on the defensive.

Another source of tension is Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan—a close Chinese military and nuclear ally. A large tract of Kashmiri territory was ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963, the future of which is to be decided upon final settlement of the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan. China has built a military highway in this territory and is unlikely to vacate the region. In recent years, Beijing has subtly joined the Kashmir dispute, weighing in on Pakistan’s side and causing New Delhi much discomfort.

Thus, the bilateral relationship is largely dictated by each country’s understanding of the other’s strategic vision, capabilities, and areas of influence. Any miscalculation of the other side’s military capability or core interests could degrade ties and lead ultimately to possible conflict. Given this trouble-ridden backdrop, this chapter aims to address two significant and interconnected policy issues: (1) the impact of China’s military modernization on India’s security, and (2) how India is responding to these…


[1] Robert D. Kaplan, “The India-China Rivalry,” Stratfor, Global Intelligence, April 25, 2012.

[2] The details of Chinese thinking are outlined in He Zude and Fang Wei, “India’s Increasing Troop May Go Nowhere,” People’s Daily Online, November 15, 2011.

[3] “No Issues with China Except Boundary Dispute: SM Krishna,” Jagran Post, June 6, 2012,

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