Sino-American relations have evolved drastically over the last several decades. The rise of China has created fears and concerns within certain sectors of the US defense establishment. The question that is asked time and time again is whether or not China poses a threat to American’s regional interests in East Asia. This paper seeks to summarize the main arguments, place them in context, and attempt to answer whether or not China is indeed a threat to the United States, a threat that could use military force to change the prevailing status quo in East Asia.
The United States has economic and political relationships in East Asia, in particular with South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and to a lesser extent, the Philippines. These post-World War Two arrangements are now viewed as critical to the security and economic well-being of the United States. China has undergone a period of rapid economic growth, a growth that now has China increasingly looking beyond its own borders for resources and economic prosperity. Like the United States, China also needs additional natural resources to fuel its growth and wishes to seek out new trade partners and relationships in East Asia and beyond. In order to satisfy its economic growth, China must become a player on the world stage, but does becoming a global actor put China directly at odds with the United States and its own security and economic interests?
Many would argue that China does in fact seek to become a regional hegemon and that China would like to be the most influential actor in Asia. China also seeks to resolve their own territory disputes, mainly with Taiwan, which the PRC government feels should be integrated back into China. What we must now turn our attention to is whether there are any signs that China actually wishes to challenge the American presence in East Asia and the Pacific Ocean using military force.
Deng Xiaoping promised to modernize the Chinese military in the 1970s (Dreyer, 104) after realizing that his country was lagging behind the military power of Russia and America. In order to maintain China’s own internal security, if nothing else, they had to overhaul their military and re-think their military doctrine. Previously, China has always intended on “luring the enemy deep into Chinese territory in order to fight a prolonged war of attrition using guerrilla as well as regular forces” (Dreyer, 106). This strategy was abandoned because of “Deng Xiaoping’s judgment…small- and medium-sized local conflicts, not general or total wars, were the most likely threats that China would encounter in a world no longer characterized by intense competition between two superpowers.” Xiaoping also believed that the threats facing China in the future would be, “local conflicts as sudden, intense, and destructive” (Fravel, 126). This new doctrine called for China to be able to fight local wars under modern high-tech conditions, a doctrinal belief that was only reinforced by China’s analysis of the 1991 Gulf War.