U.S. military commanders are expressing confidence that they can hold their own in the face of faster-than-expected advances by China’s military, but looming cost cuts are adding to doubts about the future of American power in the Pacific.
Fueled by its booming economy, China’s military growth over the past decade has exceeded most U.S. forecasts. Its plans to develop aircraft carriers, anti-satellite missiles and other advanced systems have alarmed neighbors and Washington.
Critics, including within the U.S. Congress, note with apprehension that rising Chinese defense spending coincides with Washington’s plans to scale back its budgets.
They accuse the Pentagon of appearing flat-footed in its response to China’s military advances, like the development of a stealth fighter jet and a new missile that could challenge U.S. aircraft carriers.
“I think we’re headed on the wrong track,” Randy Forbes, a Republican lawmaker who is part of the Congressional China Caucus, told Reuters.
Experts agree that as China’s military expands its reach, the risks of potentially dangerous misunderstandings between the U.S. and Chinese armed forces will increase.
But they are divided over whether China’s rise necessarily means a decline in power for the U.S. military, or whether it can indefinitely preserve its edge through investments, technological advances and strengthened Asian alliances.
Moreover interdependence between the world’s two largest economies creates little incentive for conflict, but regional frictions may ultimately prove the most likely spark for confrontation, experts say.
The debate over whether the United States can preserve its military advantage hits home for the U.S. Navy, which is tasked with preserving U.S. access to international waters around China that the People’s Liberation Army appears intent on controlling.
In an interview from an office at the Washington Navy Yard, a military base in the nation’s capital, the top Navy commander said the military had plans in place to cope with advances in China, and elsewhere. “We’re not flat footed” in the response to China, Admiral Gary Roughead told Reuters.
“I would say that we are responding, or advancing, our capabilities in such a way that we’re pacing the global developments that are taking place,” he said.
“That includes Chinese advances, it includes developments that are taking place in other parts of the world as well.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates added his voice to such assurances, saying the United States needed to “respond appropriately with our own programs” to Chinese advances.
Some analysts warn that the United States cannot hedge against every future Chinese capability in an era of tight spending. Then there are practical limitations of providing security in Asia.
“The problem is that for China, it’s a home game. For us, it’s an away game,” said James Carafano, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank.