Senior U.S. officials made two major statements last week concerning the implications of China’s military modernization:

  • On Tuesday, Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, released the 2009 National Intelligence Strategy Document, identifying Chinas military modernization and natural resources-focused diplomacy as a “complex global challenge.”
  • Then on Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Gates discussed how China’s military capabilities were enhancing their “ability to disrupt our freedom of movement and narrow our strategic options. Their investments in cyber and anti-satellite warfare, anti-air and anti-ship weaponry, and ballistic missiles could threaten America’s primary way to project power and help allies in the Pacific – in particular our forward air bases and carrier strike groups.”

Beijing responded almost immediately, calling the claims “totally groundless and irresponsible.” The spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense said that China had “always pursued a national defense policy that is defensive in nature and unswervingly follows a road of peaceful development.” “We demand the U.S. side to respect the fact, take measures to correct the wrong comments and stop doing things that undermine the military relations between the two countries.”

Each year Beijing dismisses public comments and high-level reports from Washington concerning China’s military modernization in a similar, and forthright manner. But what explains the disagreement – Is Washington embellishing the threat? Is Beijing purposely misleading in an effort avoid regional efforts to balance against it?

In short, the two nations are comparing apples and oranges. Washington is concerned about the capabilities China is acquiring and Beijing, instead of addressing its growing capabilities, responds by insisting the implications of its military modernization should be judged solely on its foreign policy intentions.

A common theme in China’s diplomacy is that it intends to seek “peaceful development” instead of “hegemony.” Its military modernization, Beijing says, is entirely consistent with its increasing international status and its desire to protect its national sovereignty and territorial integrity, which its feels are threatened.

On the contrary, the comments by Secretary Gates and Director Blair were meant to express a growing concern with the strategic implication of China’s military capabilities, where the record of the PLA’s modernization effort in the past decade is vividly clear:

Beijing’s future intentions, as its economic and military power continue to expand, will remain anyone’s guess. What can be determined is that the PLA’s contingency-drive modernization effort – aimed at undermining traditional American military advantages – continues to mature at a pace where American policymakers feel it necessary to question the future implications. While Washington welcomes Beijing’s “peaceful development,” its public concerns remain entirely valid.