Analyzing threats to national security requires a geopolitically and chronologically macro-perspective. That’s increasingly difficult to adopt for an American public that is so deeply entrenched in a political system that chases daily headlines and that considers national policy to be in its twilight every three to six years as the nation prepares for a shift in leader and accompanying directives. This approach to national government is unique among America and its most significant rivals; nations like China and Russia.
You’d be hard pressed to know it based on some defense analysis work, but the United States remains the premier military power on the planet. There is no national military on earth that could stand up to the combined power of America’s armed forces — and yet, piece after piece seems to indicate that the U.S. has lost its edge in the near-peer power competition. Story after story indicates that America’s days of supremacy are over, and many Americans have trouble appreciating how journalists and researchers can say “America has no peer” in one breath and then worry out loud about China’s increasing strength in the next one. It isn’t that journalists and analysts are looking to mislead you — it’s that they’re approaching the topic from a completely different perspective than you may be.
Defense policies, modernization efforts, new weapons programs, and even changes in warfare doctrine are all topics of frequent discussion pertaining to American, Chinese, and Russian military forces. These are all also topics that are tied to in-the-moment news (often a lawmaker or military official makes a statement that prompts a headline), but those efforts initiate long-term processes that lead to gradual change. It’s impossible for a national military to turn on a dime — there’s a lot of paperwork and signature-chasing to be done before the first training objective is even shifted. When a new program is revealed, analysts set about trying to assess what this could mean for a conflict in 50 years, not a conflict today. We all know a weapon unveiled this week isn’t going to win a war next week… but it could play a significant role in one a decade or two down the line.
China, in particular, has surfaced in recent years as the most foreboding of foreign threats on the horizon. A massive reorganization and modernization effort within China’s military aims convert their once-troubled force into a global power house, and that effort benefits from the consistency of the nation’s leadership. President Xi Jinping recently had the Chinese constitution changed to allow him to remain in power for life, ensuring that his over-arching foreign policy initiatives won’t suffer under a change of regime.
Under Xi, the People’s Liberation Army set about expelling corrupt officials and re-organizing the military command structure to allow for a more modern war fighting doctrine. Here in the United States, defense journalists tend to address this significant overhaul briefly, in large part because it’s not the part of the story that drives foreign policy or a reader’s attention — but the truth is, this endeavor is extremely complex and far from over. Corruption remains a significant concern within the organizational hierarchy of the People’s Liberation Army despite the initiative to remove these leaders from power. Likewise with their tech initiatives: the J-20 may indeed pose a real threat to American forces eventually, but today it lacks a sufficient engine and only 20 or so of the jets even exist.
What that means is, no, China isn’t a particularly formidable threat to the United States this week, in terms of straight military power — but the truth of the matter is, that doesn’t mean anything. Defense officials, journalists, analysts, researchers, you and the guy that served you coffee at Dunkin Donuts this morning all know we’re not at war with China today and aren’t at significant risk of finding ourselves in one tomorrow. Nobody needs analysis to tell them that. Instead, however, we need to be looking at these topics from a more macro perspective.
The threat China poses isn’t an immediate one… it’s more dangerous than that. In thirty years, the United States will have seen presidents and policies come and go, but Xi Jinping and his regime will remain laser-focused on their nation’s singular geopolitical goal: to dethrone the United States as the dominant economic and diplomatic power on the planet. Now is the time to pay attention — because by then, it could be too late.