Romney’s China Policy Hypes Military Threat, Ignores Diplomacy And Engagement

Our guest blogger is Will Scheffer, national security team intern at the Center for American Progress.

The Washington Post reported last week that GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney “is preparing to broaden his challenge to President Obama’s management of foreign affairs.” One issue the former Massachusetts governor has been trying to hit Obama on is China. Romney continues to attack the administration for not doing enough and not spending enough. In a recent op-ed, Romney promised to confront what he called the threat of a “Chinese century” by spending more money:

But the dawn of a Chinese century — and the end of an American one — is not inevitable. America possesses inherent strengths that grant us a competitive advantage over China and the rest of the world. We must, however, restore those strengths.

That means shoring up our fiscal and economic standing, rebuilding our military, and renewing faith in our values. We must apply these strengths in our policy toward China to make its path to regional hegemony far more costly than the alternative path of becoming a responsible partner in the international system.

But the reality is that the Obama administration should be commended for figuring out how to confront China’s military build-up while simultaneously reducing defense spending. As CAP’s Nina Hachigian and the National Security Network’s Jacob Stokes point out in their recent report, the Obama administration’s approach to China recognizes the challenges posed by China’s rise, but doe not exaggerate the possible threat for political gain. Though China’s defense budget has grown to $160 billion, this number is still about four times smaller than the U.S. defense budget.

President Obama and top military officials, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, are in agreement that getting our own fiscal house in order is critical to strengthening American national security.

Viewing China policy through this lens prevents a strategically and fiscally irresponsible overreaction to a perceived Chinese threat, while simultaneously keeping a watchful eye on their continuing efforts to develop militarily.

China’s military development is indeed a cause for concern, but it is still far from being a serious military challenger to the United States, even in the Pacific. Take, for instance, the newest addition to the Chinese Naval fleet, which is not really “new” at all; the aircraft carrier Shi Lang (formerly Varyag), a 25 year old refurbished Ukrainian dinosaur that has been called a “piece of junk” by military analysts. Compare that to the U.S. Navy’s 11 technologically unmatched carrier strike groups and U.S. superiority becomes obvious. Below the ocean’s surface, the Chinese navy is similarly deficient, with a recent U.S. Navy assessment concluding that modern Chinese-made submarines are more easily detected than Soviet subs during the Cold War.

Given that the U.S. maintains a force of roughly 50 ships in the western Pacific at any given time, American forces are not in imminent danger of being outmatched. Instead the U.S. should devote more time and energy to improving diplomatic relations, including military-to-military, with the goal of better managing any future conflict. By linking China with the threat posed by the Soviet Union, conservatives like Mitt Romney are moving the U.S. to a future military standoff. Progressives are working to ensure that this type of warmongering and budget busting foreign policy rhetoric doesn’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy.