During the 1960s when the Vietnam War was draining American resources and also undercutting the bipartisan consensus behind American foreign affairs and defense policy, the Soviet Union took advantage of the situation to reduce the strategic gap between the superpowers. It was this gap that had forced the Soviet Union to back down during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
We may now be facing a deja vu of that scenario as a cash-rich China is taking advantage of American involvement in two wars – Iraq and Afghanistan -- together with its Washington's parlous budgetary state, to cut into America's strategic lead. The American defense budget is about to be cut at a time that the Chinese are able to invest increasing resources in their defense budget.
It is against this troublesome background that US Defense Secretary Robert M Gates arrived today in China for talks with Chinese generals and with Chinese President Hu Jintao who will be off next week to Washington for a meeting with President Barack Obama.
What added spice to Gates' talks were reports last week about presumed Chinese progress on two major weapons systems. China last week rolled out its version of a stealth fighter jet called the J-20, that if successful can challenge American air supremacy in the Pacific. China has also been developing a "carrier killer " missile --a conventional missile that can be used against American aircraft carriers from a distance of 1800 miles away. As the carriers form the mainstay of American naval power in the Pacific, this threat can jeopardize the American presence in the Pacific and trigger a major diplomatic realignment in the region towards China.
Defense Secretary Gates, despite his desire to make prudent cuts in the defense budget warned that the US would have to "respond appropriately" if the Chinese pose a threat to American forces in the Pacific.
While some American defense analysts have pooh-poohed China's presumed advances, the historical graveyard is filled with national leaders who believed that other nations could not emulate their country's skills. The Germans never believed that the Japanese could match them in optics, the Americans in turn underestimated the Chinese capacity for building automobiles and the same may be true about China's military capabilities. China has no shortage of cash, engineers, and access to technology.
The Chinese are delighted by American nervousness over China's military progress, while at the same time they assert that any increase in Sino-American tensions is the fault of the United States. The English language Global Times reminded its readers that it was American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who announced in Hanoi last July that the South China Sea was in the sphere of US national interests.
Furthermore the American peevishness was symptomatic of America's refusal to face reality, it continued. "Most powers wish that their superiority will last forever. China is growing up fast, and the US military edge over China is unavoidably shrinking."
United States will not regard this situation in an adult fashion because the US wishes to maintain its exclusive role "They cannot accept the fact that China will sooner or later possess a first-class military. They are too used to the old power structure, in which China and other developing countries have long been treated unfairly."
Gates will try to get the Chinese to be more open about their intentions when he speaks with both the top political leadership andh the Chinese military brass. As has been the norm in Communist regimes, the official defense budget is an iceberg that reveals only the tip of what is concealed in other budgetary items. The Chinese, however, believe that they are holding the whip hand and if there is to be an arms race between the United States and China, it is the US that will enter the race with an arm tied behind its back.