How U.S. should respond to China's growing assertiveness
January 29th, 2014
10:53 AM ET

How U.S. should respond to China's growing assertiveness

By Robert Spalding and Adam Lowther, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Robert Spalding is a Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Adam Lowther is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for the National Interest. The views expressed are their own.

Earlier this month, largely unnoticed by the international media, China took a significant step toward rendering defense systems across the globe obsolete.  On January 9, China conducted a test of its first hypersonic glide vehicle, believed to be capable of traveling at 10 times the speed of sound.

The test comes at a time of growing regional concern over Beijing’s increasingly assertive territorial claims, including the announcement in November of unilaterally declared Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea.

For those China analysts that see a more ominous future ahead, such actions are not unrelated, but instead part of a concerted effort on the part of China to return the Middle Kingdom to its former glory and displace the United States from the region. And, based on public statements and writings from a variety of Chinese government sources, China seems to believe it is reaching conventional parity with other Asian states in the region.

True, some argue that China is deluding itself, contending that Chinese naval forces are not even a match for the Japanese Navy, much less the U.S. Navy. The same could be said of Chinese airpower. Yet the reality is that China likely has no intention of matching Japan or the United States ship for ship and plane for plane.

More from GPS: China takes the gloves off

While China is trying to build an expeditionary navy, the strength of its forces is rapidly shifting toward ballistic missiles and other asymmetric capabilities. And, as the hypersonic glide vehicle test demonstrates, China is getting extremely good at building them. For example the DF-21D, a so-called “carrier killer” missile, has an estimated range of about 900 miles, and could make it virtually impossible for the U.S. Navy to get close enough to the Chinese coastline to intervene, for example, in a Taiwan contingency.

More optimistic China watchers suggest that none of this is anything to worry about, pointing to the economic interdependence of China and the United States as evidence. Whether it is analysts arguing that China has enormous leverage because of the size of the U.S. debt to China, or those suggesting that China actually needs its second largest trading partner more if it wants to continue growing, many believe there is just too much at stake economically for the two sides to come to blows.

And yet, recent Chinese moves threaten to destabilize Asia, and by extension America’s significant economic interests in the region. China, it seems, is intent on continuing to push forward with its military interests while betting the United States will try to keep economic relations separate.

More from GPS: Why Asia is arguing over its islands

Is this plausible? Recent experience suggests that China’s government may be right, and Beijing may be able to push the envelope further and further. After all, the great powers have not engaged in open conflict since World War II.

But this view is far too complacent and is actually a misreading of history over the past six decades. Remember, although tensions between the United States and Soviet Union did not break out into open conflict, the Cuban Missile Crisis is but one example of how the Cold War left the world a miscalculation or two away from nuclear catastrophe.

And even short of that, it’s important to remember that shots were indeed fired by both sides. In fact, during the Cold War, the United States lost 15 aircraft to Soviet interceptors, and downed three Soviet aircraft. While tragic, these instances did not lead to World War III. The question, though, is whether China will have drawn the lesson that a naval or aerial engagement or two that helps push it closer to its territorial goals might be a risk worth taking?

Meanwhile, counterintuitive as it may sound with China having tested a nuclear delivery capable glider, Beijing may actually believe that it will be able to consolidate its strategic position by opposing nuclear arms.

In October, Wu Haitao, Permanent Representative of China to the Conference on Disarmament, called upon the international community to advance the cause of nuclear disarmament.

“Countries with the largest nuclear arsenals should continue to take the lead in making drastic and substantive reductions in their nuclear weapons,” Wu said. “When conditions are ripe, other nuclear-weapon states should also join the multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament. Nuclear disarmament should stick to the principles of maintaining global strategic balance and stability and undiminished security for all. The development of missile defense systems that undermine global strategic balance and stability should be abandoned.”

Such rhetoric is self-serving, and the United States should reject the efforts of the Global Zero crowd. The reality is that further reductions in the United States’ nuclear arsenal, much less unilateral disarmament, are only likely to encourage not just further Chinese aggression, but provocations from other actors, including North Korea.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel actually had it right when he argued recently that we need to modernize our aging nuclear forces. While neither a new arms race nor a new Cold War is desirable, America should certainly not encourage the Chinese to commit nuclear blackmail because we abandoned the thing most likely to deter a major conflict, an eventuality that could easily result from the downing of a plane, never mind the sinking of a vessel by a “carrier killer” missile.

“[C]ertainly the nuclear component of our defense capabilities – the deterrence capabilities that nuclear gives us – and as I have said in the past and believe firmly, that nuclear deterrence has probably had a lot to do with keeping peace in the world since World War II,” Hagel said earlier this month. “No World War III…we've had wars, but none on the scale of what we saw in the first half of the 20th century.”

In order to ensure a peaceful future for the Asia-Pacific the United Sates must do more than pay lip service through talk of a pivot to the region. Instead, it needs to make clear to China that the United States will not abandon the tools that have helped underpin prosperity in Asia, and that it will stand firm – and beside is allies in the region – to ensure continuing stability.

China’s peaceful rise is in every nation’s interest. The United Sates must make sure that Beijing understands unnecessary provocations put such promise at risk.

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Topics: China • Military

soundoff (114 Responses)
  1. YYJ

    Doesn't mean we should downgrade our nuclear capabilities. In fact we should upgrade them. Also improve and install more our missile defense capabilities. But that doesn't mean China trying to defend itself means they are trying to be aggressors either.

    January 29, 2014 at 11:26 am |
    • humberto

      Who dumped 700 people with Norovirus in Bayone NJ just in time for the Super Bowl ?
      Wonder if all the security figured in all the whales beaching themselves at the jersey shore.

      January 29, 2014 at 7:51 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Apart from the US pivot to Asia, Russia's military build-up under Putin is also a concern for China. The US claims that Russia has tested a new ground cruise missile recently, despite the treaty signed by Reagan and Gorbachev, banning medium-range missiles.

      January 30, 2014 at 7:42 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        That's why China's permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament, "called upon the international community to advance the cause of nuclear disarmament".

        January 30, 2014 at 7:42 am |
  2. Room101

    «Si vis pacem, para bellum» is perhaps a well know sentence, in my opinion here and now applicable.

    January 29, 2014 at 12:13 pm |
  3. Name*penguin

    Another paranoid war hawk who wants to bring more money to the defense industry. We need a military, but not to the extent we have now. Money would be better spent on our nation's infrastructure.

    January 29, 2014 at 12:17 pm |
    • don

      If the gov. keeps cutting military benefits, we wont have a military left.

      January 29, 2014 at 3:22 pm |
      • mike


        January 29, 2014 at 7:49 pm |
    • jonainpdx

      While I agree we should always keep an eye on the military industrial complex you also have to acknowledge that we also rely on the military industrial complex as we need them. The days of just going down and grabbing the musket from the farm are gone.

      When it comes to China perhaps you are just optimistic, or perhaps just disengaged from all the reports month after month for the last year and a half that tell us, China is increasingly belligerent. And they are designing their military tailored to fight the United States.

      January 29, 2014 at 4:12 pm |
  4. Michael

    "Buying made in China" IS financing the war our children WILL fight!

    January 29, 2014 at 12:28 pm |
    • Jack 2

      That is so true but complacent liberals think we will all be friends. Buy American

      January 29, 2014 at 2:52 pm |
      • lemon

        Hmm, the corporations that regularly do business with China, import and sell their goods, don't seem very complacent, or liberal, to me.

        January 29, 2014 at 4:54 pm |
    • LiveFree

      Time to change strategic economic partner, at least, our money will not be used to kill us.

      January 29, 2014 at 9:57 pm |
  5. Si-shun

    It's all over

    January 29, 2014 at 12:34 pm |
  6. Name*peter

    If this opinion is the thinking that dominates our foreign policy, we continue to delude ourselves as a nation.
    1. China's character as a nation belies this bellicose rhetoric. The great wall of China was built to keep out hegemonic forces like the west.
    2. We accuse Russia for example of being stuck in the past, yet we are the nation still with bases in Europe even though WW2 is over. We are still fighting the communist in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean even though the cold war is over. Our hostility to Iran is a hangover from the cold war. If America does not demilitarized its foreign policy we will continue fight wars into oblivion.
    3. The pivot to Asia is a farce if we cede the economies of Africa to China.
    4. China remains a land power and America poking away at this sleeping giant is repeating the mistake the Nazis made with America in WW2. In my opinion, in a nuclear exchange we will come out the loser, because China has an industrial base and 1billion people...their recovery has a much better chance than ours.

    January 29, 2014 at 12:35 pm |
    • Mr. Farooq

      What I don't understand is that we had a 40 year cold war to defeat a communist Russia and we used tremendous amount of resources in doing that. Yet, within a few years, we turned around and fully trusted another communist China and incredibly sent them all of our tried and trusted manufacturing technologies just so we could buy things a little cheaper at Wal-Mart. The manufacturing technology that we exported to China was hard earned by us and developed by us over many years and China got it on a silver platter. Since China did not have to develop the technologies by themselves, they can now use the money saved and develop advanced weapons. As the saying goes, the capital system would even sell the rope to an adversary who is planning to hang them.

      January 29, 2014 at 4:08 pm |
      • LiveFree

        Greed makes every one to become a fool, unbelievable fool, doesnt it?

        January 29, 2014 at 10:02 pm |
    • Da Cornal

      Peter, You obviously don't understand the concept of M.A.D. M.A.D. makes nuclear war an option only in retaliation for a nuclear attack, or in the minds of mad men. China, and the US are not run by madmen, thankfully.

      January 29, 2014 at 7:00 pm |
    • Name*zedave41

      @nameplate, I like and enjoy your insight, I too wonder why we have so many bases overseas.

      January 29, 2014 at 11:04 pm |
  7. Skipper Sam

    DF-21D, a so-called “carrier killer” is fired at say the Ronald Reagan

    10 B-2's flying out of Guam, then destroy the Three Gorge Dam

    End of story

    January 29, 2014 at 1:02 pm |
    • Monstro

      The Cold War was perpetrated by the US government in conjunction with the military industrial complex after we turned our backs on Russia and broke our treaties following WWII.

      The other was perpetrated by greedy capitalists with help from bought and paid for US officials and our Wall Street government.

      Different, but similar....$$ is all that matters in our society.

      January 29, 2014 at 5:32 pm |
  8. iceload9

    If we were to upgrade our nuclear armaments would we outsource that work to China? We just need to change the discussion from numbers of nuclear arms to defensive strike capability. The bombs may need an upgrade but the delivery systems have always been the tricky after the first bomb was created. Frankly, China is no nuclear threat. China's hierarchy is so deeply entrenched they don't want to end up vaporized. Countries without such entrenched govt are much more a threat.

    January 29, 2014 at 1:12 pm |
  9. Adam Saleh

    Imagine if the United States has no military or nuclear weapons today, what would China do? They would take over and rule America for economic gain. World leaders don't care who you are or what country do you represent but they care about your money. They treat you like paid slaves.

    January 29, 2014 at 1:13 pm |
    • lemon

      I hear those IPhone factories are a hoot to work in.

      January 29, 2014 at 4:55 pm |
  10. BeechFlyGuy

    Remember we are talking about a country with a communist government. Communism 101 dictates "World domination through subversion or open conflict". Since the Chinese own most of our debt, I'd say our eventual takeover is well underway.

    January 29, 2014 at 2:07 pm |
    • don

      I doubt that. In my opinion, the U.S. military force is far more superior than China's. China does have the numbers on us though.

      January 29, 2014 at 3:25 pm |
      • Lewis

        So did Saddam and we occupied his entire country in a matter of days. China is not a military threat, they are at least 20 years behind us and we are still advancing faster than them in weapons technology.

        January 29, 2014 at 4:33 pm |
    • Jon

      The Chinese own 1/17 of our debt.

      January 29, 2014 at 10:32 pm |
    • Dave H.

      China is a communist government in name only. Since Deng Xiaoping opened the nation to international markets in 1978, communist ideology has largely gone out the window. You're forgetting that China's GDP still pales in comparison to the U.S., and China's economy is still heavily reliant on government investment and subsidy. Also, environmental concerns still challenge their growing economy as little of their land is arable. China is on the up and up, but still more fragile than most give credit for. They aren't in any position to be starting a war with the world's most well financed military.

      Also, I'd like to criticize Spalding and Lowther for drumming up concern with claims of the vehicle that breaks the speed of sound, only to promptly drop it. That's shady journalism in my opinion.

      January 29, 2014 at 10:40 pm |
  11. LiveFree

    Nuclear deterrent is a must-have to maintain peace. China misses no chance to build up military capability and stir up nationalism that will soon reach the point of no return, like Nazi in 1930. They will eventually have to grab territory from neighbors to please nationalism (or military) or look weak.

    A WW is in the making. It's time US needs to seek new economic partners and military alliance before it is too late.

    January 29, 2014 at 2:10 pm |
  12. Dave

    It seems like the US is a little two faced here on nuclear weapons, according to Chuck Hagel nuclear weapons are the one thing that could deter a major conflict, but on the other the US says that proliferation of WMDs must be stopped (North K. And Iran). So, doesn't deterrence work; have two nations with Nuclear weapons ever gone to war with one another?? I say let nations have a deterrent and start world peace. The US wants nations without nukes so it has nations to go to war with, if not tell me why?

    January 29, 2014 at 2:15 pm |
  13. Wow

    China = Sleeping beast. That sleeping beast is playing with a dragons tail.

    January 29, 2014 at 2:23 pm |
  14. andres

    A military threat to the US? Well certainly a threat to US hegemony. If China had military bases in our part of the world we'd be apoplectic and demand that our government remove those bases. Yet the US has bases from South Korea all along the eastern area of China well to its south. Even at the current rate of military spending increase it will be decades before China reaches the levels that the US is at. The author is yet another political hack for the military industries in an attempt to keep military spending on an upward trajectory. What we really need is GOOD diplomatic solutions, but we will have to wait until that hack Kerry is gone.

    January 29, 2014 at 2:33 pm |
  15. TATAH

    It does not raise eyebrows what really is the underlying factor in making that move. Surely time will come when other uses will emerge apart from the ones seen and known now.

    January 29, 2014 at 2:42 pm |
  16. Jack 2

    China knows war with the US would ultimately turn into a nuclear war. They know conventional wise they will never catch up in the near future so it would be wise to prepare for the worst. They have the land mass, maybe they foolishly think they would survive a nuke war.

    January 29, 2014 at 2:50 pm |
    • Lewis

      No, not even the Chinese are that stupid. Maybe the North Koreans but not the Chinese.

      January 29, 2014 at 4:36 pm |
    • LiveFree

      China does not want war with US at all. However, it does not mean China will stop its territorial against China neighbors. In fact, in their narrow mind, China wants to partner with US and Russia to divide the world into 3 blocks, just like China 3-country legend story. Would we agree to that scheme? If yes, we have nothing to worry about.

      January 29, 2014 at 10:09 pm |
  17. smellferd

    Time to wake up America.

    January 29, 2014 at 3:07 pm |
  18. MWebb

    All America needs to do is bring our industry home and quit imports from china and their economy will collapse. America is still the destination of everyone else in the world.

    January 29, 2014 at 3:34 pm |
  19. banasy©

    Say what you will about America, give advice, and do a little bit of Monday morning quarterbacking, America still makes the best pepperoni pizza in the world.

    January 29, 2014 at 4:01 pm |
  20. The GOP Solution

    The GOP solution: Turn all the Old, Sick, Poor, Non-white, Non-christian, Female, and Gay people into slaves. Then whip them until they are Young, Healthy, Rich, White, Christian, Male, and Straight. Or until they are dead. Then turn them into Soylent Green to feed the military during the next "unfunded/off-the-books" war. And don't forget the GOP all time favorite...........TAX CUTS FOR THE RICH!!!!

    January 29, 2014 at 4:48 pm |
  21. Robert

    China has been waging an all out economic war with us ever since Bill Clinton foolishly and treasonously granted them "most favored nation" trade status. (And there is evidnce that Clinton received laundered campaign contributions from China, which is an act of high treason.) Ever since then, China has NOT engaged in fair trade practices but rather in practices that were aimed at shutting down our businesses so that they could buy them, dismangle our factories and have them shipped to China. It was worse than if they had sent their bombers here. If they had merely bombed our factories, we could have rebuilt them, but now we're out of business and can't afford such a thing. China has done this by their state subsidies designd to put products in our market at a cheaper price than we can afford to produce them at, and their aim has been to destroy us. Thank you Bill and Hillary Clinton for causing our great nation to bow before the communist dragon of Asia, the regime that puts good and honest people in slave labor camps and uses them to produce cheap goods that we buy at WalMart, Costco, Sam's Club, Sears, Penneys and every supermarket in the land. Bill and Hillary Clinton should get the Chinese "Comrad Medal of Revolution." They've earned it.

    January 29, 2014 at 5:36 pm |
    • LiveFree

      Absolutely. Unless we wake up soon and launch counter measure. They will destroy us economically, without a fight.

      January 29, 2014 at 10:13 pm |
  22. Joseph McCarthy

    Aside from all these ignorant anti-Chinese comments, countries like Germany and J apan also need to be more self assertive and stand up to those right-wingers in Washington. We Americans have been bullying other countries for decades and it's time for a change!

    January 29, 2014 at 7:20 pm |
  23. kgk

    China has 1.4 billion ppl vs 0.3 billion
    more industry than US similar to US in 1940
    politically manipulates most of africa and Asia, and US
    Owns most of precious metals
    They have most of US tech by cyberattacks

    Right now US is feeding a dragon who will swallow it quickly in 5-10 yrs. China is already pushing all its neighbors stealing their lands soon it will push US, EU.

    January 29, 2014 at 7:41 pm |
    • Lataya.Dingo

      You give China too much honor.

      January 29, 2014 at 9:44 pm |
  24. Andrey

    More money to American Military-Industrial complex: that's the answer to all your questions!

    January 29, 2014 at 9:00 pm |
    • Lataya.Dingo

      A hit B
      B hit back
      CNN reported that B hit A, which is fact.

      January 29, 2014 at 9:14 pm |
  25. tdsd

    Craps, China is not yet even a challenger.

    January 29, 2014 at 9:43 pm |
  26. JD

    If we went to war, trade would kill everything. It would be a catastrophic even. We need eachother to survive. One world peace please. Cmon Canada – get with the program!

    January 29, 2014 at 10:04 pm |
  27. Leigh

    What threat is this? China has a supersonic glider? US direct non-war related funding of DoD was $682b in 2012, China was $166b. Is the writer of this article saying we need to spend more than 4x as much as China's military in order to keep them in check? Of the 37 commissioned aircraft carriers in the world USA has 19 and USA + allies have 32 of the 37. China has 1. I fail to see the author's site of a threat against the USA unless the military budgets of USA and all of its allies are cut by 80%.

    January 29, 2014 at 10:07 pm |
    • Lataya.Dingo

      Leigh, I wish author could see bigger picture as you did. Author tried to make a point by presenting one side of the coin. The world is not that "black or white".

      January 30, 2014 at 3:06 pm |
  28. rupert

    test 1,2.3,5

    January 29, 2014 at 10:13 pm |
  29. rupert

    Hi, Im rupert. I will start blogging here.
    Plz dont troll me.

    January 29, 2014 at 10:16 pm |
  30. geral

    Usa is at war with the world & seeks in humanely to dominate all nations and all persons at any cost.I defended this evil nation which is Godless and hopelessly corrupt. See my report on The Age Of Madness. Thank you kindly. Geral Sosbee

    January 29, 2014 at 10:18 pm |
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