The Pentagon just released its annual report to Congress on China's military. Weapons programs got ink, especially its cyberwar programs, its expanding navy, ballistic missile projects. The report summarized China's strategic priorities as "perpetuating Communist Party rule, sustaining economic growth and development, maintaining domestic political stability, defending China's national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and securing China's status as a great power."
At the moment, the United States and China have numerous military and defense-related disagreements. Discussions among Pacific region defense ministers held in Singapore this June made that clear. America's Secretary of Defense Robert Gates insisted that North Korea's sinking of a South Korean warship last March required a rigorous response by all nations that are committed to peace in Asia. He was challenging China, which has hedged criticism of North Korea. China remains miffed at U.S. plans to help Taiwan modernize its defense forces.
This month, the United States and Vietnam conducted joint naval exercises off Vietnam's coast in the South China Sea. China recently rejected a Vietnamese diplomatic initiative intended to resolve territorial disputes in the region. A senior Chinese defense official called the exercises provocative.
When the global super power and Asia's regional giant chide and argue, the world ought to pay attention. However, that media focus -- U.S. versus China -- can distort.
A quick tour of China's borders suggests friction with the United States is a symptom, not a cause. China faces numerous troubles with its neighbors -- many of the problems exacerbated by Beijing's muscle-flexing and claims of regional hegemony. (China's internal challenges will be the subject of a future column.)
India is China's foremost regional competitor. The economic competition receives the most media coverage, but the military dimension concerns Beijing. China sees India's nuclear weapons, new ballistic missiles and naval buildup as strategic challenges. China continually frets over access to natural resources. The Indian Navy is positioned to interdict ships transporting oil and minerals from the Middle East and Africa to China. India also sees China as a threat. According to StrategyPage.com (July 13), the Indian Air Force's Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment (equivalent to the U.S. Navy's "Top Gun" program) now features Chinese air tactics and aircraft. Indian pilots train to fight Chinese pilots.
Though Beijing and New Delhi have discussed settling remaining Sino-Indian border issues, Chinese and Indian competition for influence in Central Asia, the Himalayas and Southeast Asia is increasing. Both nations remember the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The Chinese quietly acclimated an assault force, preparing infantry for high-altitude operations, then conducted an offensive that punished the Indian Army. The Indian Army won't let that happen again. The Tibetans still resist Han Chinese domination. For Beijing, the aging Dalai Lama remains a diplomatic thorn. China insists on having a role in selecting his replacement.
Central Asia: Kazakhstan's oil attracts Beijing. Kazakhstan wants to sell oil, but it has no interest in becoming a Chinese protectorate. Thus, Kazakhstan and the United States have several mutual interests. China has internal troubles in its western provinces, some stoked by Uighur Islamic radicals.
Siberia: A long, empty border, and Russian military power is ebbing. Yes, Moscow sees China as a market for advanced arms, but Kremlinites know an expansionist China threatens Siberia's treasure chest of natural resources.
The Koreas: North Korea has been an asset for China, a nuclear-armed midget that rattles Japan and America. North Korea, however, is also dirt poor and starving. South Korea is wealthy, modern and militarily-able. In a crisis, at best the Koreas are question marks for Beijing.
Japan: Old enmities mark the Japanese-Chinese relationship. Beijing once let Washington know it approved of the U.S. Navy vessels berthed in Yokohama. From Beijing's perspective, Washington kept a thumb on Japan. The U.S. and Japan are allies. Japan operates Aegis destroyers and needs more. Why? The Jamestown Foundation "China Brief" recently noted China's navy must breach the "natural barrier" of the Japanese archipelago in order to achieve its "blue dream" of high seas operations.
Taiwan: Taiwan gets American weapons -- a sore spot in U.S.-Chinese relations. While China-Taiwan trade and investment relations are good, Beijing insists it wants to acquire Taiwan -- preferably by diplomacy.
Vietnam: In 1979, China and Vietnam fought a brief but bloody border war. That war told even hard-core Vietnamese cadres that Communist brotherhood was kaput. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Vietnam lacked a major power ally to make the Chinese "colossus to the north" think twice. Hanoi complains of U.S. imperialism, but Asia has experienced millennia of Chinese imperialism. At least with the Americans, you get rock and roll. A bellicose Beijing spurs closer U.S.-Vietnamese strategic cooperation.
South China Sea: Potential petroleum reserves always excite interest. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and even Cambodia claim slices of the seabed. Vietnam and the Philippines have both sparred with Chinese forces in the Spratly Islands. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) already has the outline of an anti-China alliance.