According to the Pentagon’s “Annual Report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” the Chinese military “has rapidly expanded its overwater bomber operating areas, gaining experience in critical maritime regions and likely training for strikes against U.S. and allied targets.” Media outlets have issued similar reports, though under slightly misleading headlines, that China is training pilots to strike the U.S. homeland. But given that the Trump administration’s new National Defense Strategy portrays China in menacing terms — wanting to re-shape the world consistent with its authoritarian model and achieve global preeminence — how worried should we be about this latest development in Chinese military capability?
It’s important to emphasize that the Pentagon acknowledges that even though Beijing is “developing air strike capabilities to engage targets as far away from China as possible,” China “has thus far not been clear what messages such flights communicate beyond a demonstration of improved capabilities.” Threat, however, is a function of both capability and intention. So while China may have demonstrated the capability to reach certain U.S. and allied military targets in the Pacific Ocean, that does not necessarily mean that China intends to attack those targets.
More importantly, it does not mean that U.S. national security is imperiled. China’s expanded overwater bomber capabilities do not extend to the U.S. homeland. Even if they did, the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal — consisting of 1,550 warheads divided between 400 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 14 Trident submarines carrying submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and 18 B-2 and 42 B-52 long-range bombers — is a powerful deterrent — not just against Chinese would-be bomber capability, but against China’s existing ICBMs and SLBMs.
Even less threatening, China does not have global conventional military power projection capabilities that directly threaten attack or invasion of the U.S. homeland.
China increased its military spending in 2018 by 8.1 percent to $174 billion. Contrast that with the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2019, recently signed by President Donald Trump, which authorizes $717 billion for the Pentagon — more than four times what China spends on defense. It could be fair to view China as a rising power, but it is not a global geostrategic peer equivalent in power to the United States.
To the extent that China is a threat, it is largely in its immediate region. As such, the primary responsibility to counterbalance that threat should rest on the shoulders of the countries in the region — not the United States. U.S. allies in the region are more than capable of underwriting their security needs. Japan is the third largest economy in the world (after the United States and China) with a gross domestic product (GDP) of $4.9 trillion. South Korea is the 11th largest economy in the world with a GDP of $1.5 trillion. Combined with Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia — all of which are within China’s military reach — their combined economic power is on the order of $9 trillion. India ($2.6 trillion GDP), Indonesia ($1 billion GDP), and Thailand ($455 billion GDP) should also have an interest in countering a militarily ambitious China.
U.S. interests and security would be better served by allowing the countries in the region to establish their own regional balance-of-power arrangements. This does not mean that the U.S. would abandon its allies. Rather, it would still be committed to security in the region, but as an offshore balancer-of-last resort — intervening if, and only if, the countries in the region cannot contain the situation.
Certainly, Chinese military developments bear watching. But that does not mean those developments are direct military threats to U.S. national security that require a U.S. response.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of defense-policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.