In one of the great comedic routines of all time, Abbott and Costello went round and round about a baseball player by the name of Who and which base he was on. As Chinese President Hu Jintao shows up to be feted in Washington this week, the question is not whether Who's on first, but whether Hu's becoming first - the leader of a nation on a trajectory not merely to rival the United States as a "peer competitor," but to supplant it as the world's only superpower? Unfortunately, the answer may be no laughing matter.
It is well known that China has long been striving to emerge as a preeminent economic power. Using a model that is more fascist than communist, Beijing has enjoyed extraordinary success in the past three decades in: attracting foreign investment and technology; harnessing such assets, in combination with an immense and easily exploited workforce, to transform the PRC's productive capacity; and exporting the resulting abundance of increasingly high quality goods to markets around the world. This dynamic combination of factors has garnered Beijing, among other things, vast hard currency reserves.
These reserves have been used to acquire huge, and politically useful, positions in the U.S. and other foreign debt markets. And of late, Communist China has been applying them to buy up not only valuable - and often undervalued - corporations in the West. Beijing is also obtaining colonial-style control of energy and other natural resources (including, notably some 98% of the world's exports of rare earth minerals that are indispensable for state-of-the-art manufacturing for a host of commercial and military purposes). And the PRC is aggressively taking over a growing number of what amount to strategic facilities and forward operating bases around the world, from Cuba and the Panama Canal to Myanmar and Africa.
It has become increasingly obvious of late that China is also making a massive investment in revolutionizing its military in ways that will enable it to hold at risk and possibly, in the not too distant future, to neutralize the power projection capabilities of the United States. This is not an accident or unintended. Rather, the purchase or indigenous production of advanced fifth-generation stealth aircraft, nuclear submarines, anti-ship and other ballistic missiles, new generations of nuclear and conventional forces, space weapons, etc., bespeak a determination to exercise power in Asia and far beyond.
At the same time, the United States is indulging in one of its periodic bouts of unilateral disarmament. This week's fiftieth anniversary of President Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address, with its warning against the U.S. military-industrial complex, is seen as a fitting backdrop and abiding rationale for those Democrats and even some Republicans bent on: cutting defense spending; jettisoning our own forward positions; and abandoning allies who have depended upon us for their protection - in some cases at least since Ike was in the White House.
Never mind that the U.S. defense industrial base is a fraction of what it was in Eisenhower's day in terms of the number of domestic suppliers involved, the size of the associated workforce and output of materiel. In some cases, there is only one U.S. vendor for key components of weapon systems; in a few, there are no indigenous manufacturers at all. Similarly, the number of bases - and, therefore, host communities - supporting the U.S. armed forces has been cut dramatically from what it was in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the Korea conflict.
Far from exercising, as Eisenhower put it, "unwarranted influence, sought or unsought" leading to "the disastrous rise of misplaced power," the armed forces today and the industry that supports them are at risk of being hollowed out. This is partly a function of the draining effects on personnel and resources of two protracted conflicts. Another factor is Secretary Gates' determination to preemptively to impose $100 billion in defense budget cuts, now compounded by a further $78 billion reduction demanded by the Office of Management and Budget. Congress may compound the damage. Then, there is Mr. Gates' fixation on fighting insurgencies like today's instead of preparing for tomorrow's possible conflicts with more formidable foes like China.
The cumulative effect of these trends has been to put our "military-industrial complex" in a condition Eisenhower would probably recognize as more unsustainable and ill-advised than threatening to the Republic. That is especially true in light of the fact that, according to Dr. Michael Pillsbury - one of the nation's foremost China scholars and astute monitors of its doctrine, political affairs and military capabilities, Beijing has recently decided that the rate of our national decline is accelerating. This creates opportunities for mischief and worse for Communist China, the sorts of things their accelerating build-up (made possible, interestingly, by the most formidable military-industrial complex on the planet) will enable.
Eisenhower's Farewell Address included one line which we would be well advised to remember as President Hu undertakes his charm offensive in America this week and the Obama administration pursues its program of accommodation and disarmament that can only embolden Communist China and other foes: "Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together." Today, such a meshing requires a clear understanding of Hu's efforts to make his country first, and the grave risks to freedom should that happen.