How to counterbalance China's swelling military power

As China's military might increases, the US and its Asian allies should consider forming a coalition to offset its growing dominance in the region.

At the peak of American power in the immediate post-Cold War period, then-US President George H.W. Bush declared the birth of a ‘new world order.’

According to Bush Senior, it would be a world in which ‘the principles of justice and fair play protect the weak against the strong and respect for human rights finds a home among all nations.’

Today, these words ring tragically hollow.

Russia is progressively dismembering Ukraine, savage Islamic State fighters are severing the heads of journalists and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, and the threat of genocide stalks the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Notwithstanding the sickening spectacle of slaughter and war in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, the real challenge to the US-led liberal international order is much closer to home.

Authoritarian China is poised to end the era of unrivalled US global leadership, and with it the ideal of world affairs guided by international law and human rights norms.

In my latest report, I predict that China’s annual military spending is likely to surpass $US1 trillion in 2050, making the Chinese defence budget 114 per cent the size of the expected US defence budget of roughly $US890bn.

This sobering projection is based on the relatively conservative assumption that China will only increase its military spending from the current level of approximately 2 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent of GDP by mid-century.

Indeed, given China’s strategic and territorial rivalries with its neighbours and the US, and its extensive and expanding geostrategic interests in Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa, Beijing arguably has a sound strategic rationale for spending much more than 4 per cent of the country’s GDP on its military.

Irrespective of the precise percentage of GDP devoted to defence, Beijing’s surging military spending will steadily narrow the capabilities gap between the US and China.

China has already started developing a fully fledged blue-water navy of aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered and ballistic missile-armed submarines, and is now poised to deny US forces access to the Chinese littoral.

As well as possessing supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, which have no operational US equivalents, and the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missiles, China will likely match the combined naval power of Japan and the US in the Western Pacific by the late 2020s.

More worryingly still for policy planners in Canberra and other Asian capitals, Beijing will continue to enjoy a massive asymmetrical advantage in Asia as its military fortunes soar: Whereas the US must project military power across the vast Pacific Ocean, China occupies the geographical heart of the region.

What, if anything, can authoritarian China’s nervous neighbours do to ensure that Beijing responsibly exercises this newfound strategic superiority?

After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 and the embrace of Deng Xiaoping’s policies of ‘reform and opening up,’ political leaders and policymakers hoped that China would eventually embrace international law and human rights norms.

The goal of the collective West was to turn China into what Robert B. Zoellick, former US deputy secretary of state, famously called a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the liberal international order.

These hopes have been dashed in recent years.

China regularly seizes disputed territory from its maritime neighbours in the South China Sea, systematically oppresses religious minorities and political dissidents, and now offers tacit support for Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperial aggression in Ukraine.

To hedge against the rising risk of a resurgent China morphing into an imperious regional hegemon, the US and its allies and partners in Asia should actively work to counterbalance Chinese power.

By crafting a balance of power, a US-led coalition would be able to impose sufficiently high costs on China in the event that it sought to bully its neighbours or dominate the region.

Assuming slight increases in military spending as a percentage of GDP, the US and its five Asian allies (Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia) are likely to spend roughly $US1.1 trillion on their militaries by mid-century.

This collective military spending would be $US100bn more than China’s in 2050, or the equivalent of approximately 110 per cent of the Chinese defence budget.

Together with countries like Taiwan and Singapore -- not treaty allies but close US security partners -- the US and its Asian friends would constitute a credible bulwark against potential Chinese belligerence.

In 1454, Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of the Republic of Florence, observed that Rome’s military might risked overwhelming the power of the other Italian city states. This prompted him to stress to his Milanese counterpart: ‘The affairs of Italy must be kept in balance.’

Medici’s priority of preserving a balance of power is also an urgent task for Asian nations.

With the Chinese pole of power set to become dangerously oversized in the coming decades, the region should be unapologetic about its efforts to counterbalance China as part of a US coalition.

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and author of 'Preserving Peace as China Rises II: Preparing for a Post-American Asian Order'.

Related Articles