China has been making massive investments in its military structure. Much, if not most, of the money underwriting the unprecedented defense improvements has come from the United States. This, of course, is the unintended, but easily foreseeable, consequence of the Clinton administion's opening of trade with China. It is proving true that the prime beneficiaries of the neo-liberal Clinton move are not Walmart shoppers but Chinese soldiers, sailors and airmen.
It is not likely that the Men of the Forbidden City are chomping at the bit to challenge the US to a mano a mano war. Rather, they are intending to cast a large, a very large shadow over Asia and the Pacific while simultaneously limiting the ability and credibility of any potential American response.
At the same time the improvements in the Chinese defense establishment will serve the goal of inhibiting the Russians in the Great Game for influence in Central Asia. The same massive restructuring will assure that no viable challenge can emerge from another rapidly developing country with which China has historically had rocky relations. That country is India.
Finally, the Senior Mandarinate of the Middle Kingdom aspire to a global position which will serve to further ambitions for access to both resources and markets throughout the world. A very strong and evident military capacity translates quickly and effectively to the sort of diplomatic leverage which constitutes Great Power status and the accompanying benefits.
China is an ancient, proud, intensely nationalistic country which long ago dropped the self-imposed isolation which had characterised much of the past thousand years. It is recreating the China of a long ago period which saw large Chinese fleets on the coast of Africa acquiring both knowledge and tribute from far away places and potentates. Had the Chinese emperor not willfully abandoned the outward orientation of the empire, China would have emerged as a, perhaps the, major player in the earliest days of European exploration and colonization.
China was not there to oppose the European expansion not because China was backward technologically or politically to the several European states nibbling on the margins of Africa and the Western Hemisphere. China was not there because the government of the day chose to withdraw from the world's stage.
During the reign of Mao the Chinese made tentative steps back to engagement with the larger world. At that time the effort came to little or nothing because the country lacked the necessities of Great Power status. Other than minor encroachments in Albania and Tanzania, the Chinese might as well have stayed home for the benefits their outreach efforts produced.
Thanks to the Neo-liberal economic ideology of the Clinton years and the rush by the High Minded to believe that open, free trade would make conflict between nations impossible, the Chinese now possess the prerequisites of Great Powerdom. They have both the ability and the political will to make their mark on the globe.
In a real sense China, or, more accurately, the American mythology of China, has made the country the bane of our existence. Way back when, a century or so ago, the US declaration of the Open Door made us see ourselves the special protector of China against rapacious colonial powers. That foreign policy delusion set the US on a collision course with the emerging Japanese Empire.
More recently the myth of China as attached hip and shoulder with the Soviet Union in the global Communist menace demanded implacable hostility to Beijing. It also justified sending the troops to South Vietnam among other, lesser, bad foreign policy choices.
Then the US bought into the myth that China had turned both free enterprise and democratic. This belief which might have been true in part but was not accurate overall provided the basis for the New Open Door--a door open to inexpensive Chinese goods flowing one way and US dollars flowing the opposite.
Far from making China our new, best friend or at least a cooperative partner in the march of capitalism, privatization and globalism, this action has allowed the Men of the Forbidden City to become far more effective enemies. Other than maintaining the stability of the US economy, the Beijing regime shares few, if any, national interests with the United States. Even those other interests which might be held in common such as ending Somalian piracy will be pursued by the Chinese in ways and using means not necessarily compatible with those of the US.
In the piracy patrol context it might be noted that the Chinese flotilla liaises with but does not operate with the international force, CTF 151. The Chinese naval vessels confine their direct escort duties to protecting ships carrying cargoes to or from China or flying the Chinese flag. Other than that their anti-piracy acts have been limited. Not so limited are excursions into African ports and waters providing opportunities for showing the flag and giving officers a familiarity with distant waters of interest to Beijing.
As manifested by their espionage efforts, both traditional and cyber based, as well as the lack of overt, enthusiastic cooperation with the US on matters such as nuclear non-proliferation, the Chinese have no great bent toward either accepting American claims of unchallenged Great Power status or failing to challenge these claims whenever and wherever possible. Bluntly, China is not a friend. It is not a partner. It is not an active or potential general purpose ally of the US.
Overall, it would be imprudent in the extreme to leave China out of the QDR. China, along with, or, perhaps even more than, Russia, is a potential armed adversary of the US. In both cases the probability of direct war is very low. In both cases the potential for diplomatic rivalry is high and getting higher.
Whether the High Minded and Lofty Thinking like the idea or not, the credible capacity and political will to use military force in support of diplomacy is a vital component of foreign policy. Unless the American military is seen as capable of waging symmetrical war with China (or Russia) our ability to operate in the world is impaired--perhaps fatally. It is not necessary to become a neocon ninnie of the Bush-Cheney sort to accept that the US will not be perceived as a Great Power, even in a multi-polar world, without a credible full-threat military capacity.
By placing China in the QDR along with failing or failed states, Islamist jihadism, nuclear proliferation and the still willing to growl Russian bear, the Pentagon is trying to assure that the US will not surrender its place in the world. This may (no, more likely, will) stick in the craw of the Blame-America-First crowd, but the effort is necessary.
That President Obama has allowed the inclusion of China in the QDR hints that he may be a closet realist. That he isn't willing to see the US diminished in its global potency--regardless of his somewhat spineless performance during segments of his recent Grand Tour. This possibility undoubtedly will inflame the "progressive" elements in his base.
Only time will tell if Mr Obama has the testicular fortitude to stand up to the High Minded, the "progressives" the The-World-Is-Best-Off-Without-Us crowd. If he fails this test, well, the Geek hopes he personally isn't too old to learn Chinese.