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DoD: China's rise continues. Now what?

China has continued adding weapons, ships and aircraft to its growing military arsenal over the past year, DoD announced on Wednesday. To what end exactly, it didn't say, nor did it answer other key questions about how the rise of China could play out in the 21st century.

China holds a substantial chunk of U.S. sovereign debt -- how does its leadership view that reality in the context of its rise as a global military power? Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Lynn said recently that DoD and other American entities have lost 'terabytes' of sensitive data to cyber-espionage, with China as a leading culprit. How much will China's military modernization continue to depend on repurposing knowhow from the U.S. or elsewhere?  And just what are Beijing's long term global ambitions?

Defense officials may know the answers to these and other questions, but they weren't included in Wednesday's annual report on Chinese military power. To be fair, DoD's China report is packed with information and analysis, and reading it will make you an instant expert on the People's Liberation Army's forces, doctrines, and near-term aspirations. But it mostly adds to the posturing, confusion and conjecture about China, instead of cutting through it.

Congressional defense advocates will seize upon the information in the report as fresh evidence for why the U.S. should not reduce defense spending. Chinese commanders, for example, want to improve the survivability of their nuclear arsenal with mobile missiles -- all the more reason, one could argue, for the U.S. Air Force to get its new long-range penetrating bomber. China's first aircraft carrier, the Shi Lang, is doing its sea trials, and its navy may begin building an indigenously designed carrier this year that could sail by 2015. Maybe that means the U.S. Navy needs more fast attack submarines and new anti-ship missiles. The first flight of the J-20 shows that China wants its own fast, stealthy fifth-generation fighters. Maybe that confirms American pilots need the F-35, or even, as some die-hards sill hope, more F-22s.

But beyond the ping-pong match here, it's difficult to get a complete picture of how China's leaders want to use their growing arsenal -- and the DoD report says as much: "China has made modest, but incremental, improvements in the transparency of its military and security affairs. However, there remains uncertainty about how China will use its growing capabilities." A few things are clear, though: We know China wants the ability to keep American forces well away from its coastline, so it can act freely against Taiwan or elsewhere. We know it wants to be able to project power across the Western Pacific with aircraft carriers and other warships, which has prompted a naval arms race that many in Washington have missed while paying attention to the Middle East. And we know China has dipped its toe in American-style global engagements, including humanitarian and disaster relief missions and counter-piracy patrols.

So does that mean China wants to be the United States? Maybe eventually, but for the medium term it probably wants to be the United States of Asia -- it wants exclusive control over its sphere of influence, over its energy supplies and over its neighbors. It wants to be a "great power;" and that's the origins of the focus on its navy, the DoD report says: "Historically a continental power, China increasingly looks to the maritime domain as a source of economic prosperity and national security. China’s evolving 'maritime consciousness,' as reflected in senior-level rhetoric and resource allocation, has potentially far reaching consequences in the Asia Pacific region and beyond. Many PRC officials and citizens view maritime power as a prerequisite to becoming a 'great power.'"

This reality means China and the U.S. will probably never be completely free from tension, but it does not mean they will necessarily have an armed conflict. Americans bristle at the notion that huge swaths of open ocean can be declared off limits, not only on principle, but for the practical reason that it hampers trade and air and maritime surveillance. And so long as the U.S. and China remain two of the world's biggest cyber-antagonists, leaders on both sides may never actually trust each other.

DoD's China report gives reasons to be hopeful, too: At least PLA leaders are willing to play ball and keep up a relationship with their American counterparts. Their official doctrine rules out a nuclear first strike, and includes general principles about using force only for defensive purposes -- although they do say that an opponent's provocation doesn't have to be military to justify a military response. (A foreign violation of  "sovereignty and territorial integrity" can constitute an attack, and be met with a 'first shot' on the battlefield.) All this may seem like pretty thin gruel as an upside, but add the reality that the American and Chinese economies are so closely intertwined it might be mutually suicidal for them to fight. Then subtract the fact that people said that exact same thing about Europe before both world wars.

Ultimately, DoD's China report raises almost as many questions for the United States as it does for China: The Obama administration has evidently decided it's imprudent to sell Taiwan a batch of F-16 Cs and Ds, probably in part because it's not worth angering Beijing at a time when America's fiscal health is so weak. So when and where else does China get a veto over American policy? Will the United States persist with its support of Taiwan up to the brink of a shooting war -- which could become a nuclear war -- with its biggest creditor? It all underscores the dual reality that the 21st century  won't only be defined by the rise of China, but by how the United States decides to respond.

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