By Michael S Chase and Benjamin S Purser III
On January 5, US President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta released new defense strategic guidance, highlighting national-defense priorities and underscoring America's determination to maintain its global leadership and military superiority despite budgetary constraints. 
The strategy indicates that the United States will continue to focus on counterterrorism, and highlights the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions as key regional priorities. Specifically, it states that the US military "will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region" in keeping with the broader "pivot" toward that region illustrated by Obama's Asia-Pacific trip last November, progress toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership economic agreement, and plans to rotate US military forces through bases in Australia - moves that many Chinese analysts have interpreted
as aimed at countering Beijing's growing power and influence.
Within the context of a growing focus on the Asia-Pacific region, the strategy notes that China's emergence as a great power "will have the potential to affect the US economy and our security in a variety of ways", and the United States and China "have a strong stake in peace and stability in East Asia and an interest in building a cooperative bilateral relationship". It also highlights the need for transparency in China's defense policies: "The growth of China's military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region."
Moreover, the strategy commits the United States to maintaining the ability to operate effectively in the region despite advances in Chinese military capabilities aimed at countering US intervention.  In addition, the strategic guidance underscores long-standing and recently highlighted commitments to enforce free use of international water space (eg the South China Sea).
Given this focus on China-related issues, analysts in that country reacted with predictable concern about the strategy itself and US intentions. Official commentary highlighted the importance of maintaining a stable US-China relationship, while other analysts debated Washington's intentions toward China, its ability to implement the new strategy and how China should respond.
Chinese assessments of the strategy highlighted several concerns about its implications for China.
First, analysts clearly interpreted the strategy as further confirmation of a US shift in strategic resources to the Asia-Pacific region. A January 9 article in China Daily assessed the new strategy as marking "an adjustment of the US defense structure in an era of austerity and a shift in its strategic priorities"; it further concluded that the shift, with the new emphasis on space, cyber, naval and air power - despite plans to reduce defense spending - was a reflection of America's supposed determination to extend its hegemony to new domains and a "cause for grave concern".
Chinese observers opined that the United States was shifting its focus toward Asia and the Pacific not only because the region is an engine of economic growth, but also because Washington is worried that China's emergence as a great power will threaten US interests and challenge its supremacy.
For example, a January 7 PLA Daily article suggested the strategy reflected Washington's growing concern about the erosion of its superiority, which it described as "supremacy anxiety". The same article stated that the Pentagon was returning to a threat-based planning model that increasingly emphasizes China. Some Chinese analysts also suggested that whatever the United States says about its motives, the underlying intent is to "contain" China. In People's Daily the same day, Rear Admiral Yang Yi of the PLA's National Defense University opined that the new strategy clearly targeted China and Iran.
Similarly, Luo Yuan, deputy secretary general of the China Association for Military Science, warned that US actions in the Asia-Pacific region were aimed at "containing China's rise".
Other Chinese sources paired grudging acceptance of the US role in the region with concerns about Washington's intentions toward China. For example, a January 9 China Daily article stated that the United States "is more than welcome [in the region], so long as it plays a constructive role", and "both countries stand to gain if they turn the Asia-Pacific into a region of cooperation". It also warned, however, that both countries would lose if Washington saw the region "as a wrestling ring in which to contain emerging powers like China".
Reflecting broader debates within Chinese foreign- and security-policy circles about the extent to which the US is a declining power, at least relatively, analysts also focused on the implications of America's economic problems. Some scholars argued that resource constraints would leave the United States hard pressed to achieve its strategic objectives in the Asia-Pacific region. Yang Yi in the January 7 People's Daily article highlighted what he characterized as the serious consequences of the global financial crisis and the overextension of the US military. According to Yang, "The financial crisis, the economic recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have exhausted the comprehensive national power of the United States." Similarly, in PLA Daily on January 10, Luo Yuan opined that because of its economic troubles and impending budget cuts, "what the United States wants is one thing, whether or not it can do it is another".
Official responses from the ministries of National Defense and Foreign Affairs focused on transparency. The National Defense spokesman stated on January 9 that criticism of China in the new strategy was "completely groundless" because the strategic intentions motivating China's national-defense modernization were "consistent and clear" (China News Service). Similarly, on the same day a Foreign Affairs spokesman declared that China's strategic intentions were "clear, open and transparent" (Ministry of Foreign Affairs).
Rather than responding directly to the individual elements of the US strategic guidance, Chinese scholars and analysts tended to extrapolate on the potential results of its implementation. For example, many addressed what they portrayed as US "interference" aimed at creating problems and exploiting tensions between China and other countries in the region.
Yang Yi charged that the US was attempting to portray the Asia-Pacific security situation as a "mess" to intensify regional concerns about China and "pave the way" for America's "return to Asia". In addition, he cast the United States, rather than China, as the "troublemaker" that was responsible for recent regional instability (People's Daily, January 7). Other commentators also asserted that US "interference" had increased regional tensions (China Daily, January 9).
The potential increase of such "interference" initially motivated some Chinese observers to suggest Beijing would need to take a sober look at the US-China relationship. Along these lines, a Global Times editorial cautioned that Washington had firmly locked its strategic attention on China and Beijing should be "clear-headed" in dealing with the United States. Furthermore, the editorial suggested that, because Beijing is incapable of offsetting US concerns about China's rise, it must deal with the United States from a position of strength.
Such comments reflected the discussion and debate that immediately followed the release of the new US defense guidance - not only about the implications for the US-China relationship, but also about how China ought to respond to growing US involvement in the region.
Chinese sources highlighted a range of potential responses to the new US defense strategy. In the immediate wake of its release, comments from scholars and analysts were varied, with some recommending that China pursue a more muscular response. A characteristically strident Global Times editorial recommended using Iran to constrain Washington's behavior: "The US strategic adjustment should once again remind us of Iran's importance to China. Whether we like this country or not, its existence and its diplomatic strategy form a strong check against the United States."
|Consequently, according to the editorial, China should not allow US preferences to determine its approach to Iran. In addition, it recommended strengthening China's ability to deter the United States by further developing the Chinese military's long-range strike capabilities.|
Other analysts recommended a moderate, long-term policy that neither undermines the prospects for cooperation nor ignores the potential implications of a US strategic shift toward the region - in short, a hedging strategy. Major-General Luo Yuan suggested remaining "simultaneously vigilant and calm" (yi yao jingti, er yao danding) and indicated China should focus on developing its economic strength, enhancing its military power and maintaining a favorable external environment.
In addition, Luo suggested China should employ skillful diplomacy to outmaneuver the United States in the region. Peking University's Zhu Feng built on this concept of a balanced response, encouraging Chinese leaders to respond with a light touch, "by coupling strength and gentleness, and using softness to conquer strength" (gangrou bing ji, yi rou ke gang).
Official announcements clarified China's commitment to maintain a steady course in terms of its foreign policy. Officials reiterated the centrality of the US-China relationship and suggested that China would work to maintain stability in the face of recent challenges. Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, for example, emphasized the importance of maintaining the stable development of US-China ties.
In a speech last December, Assistant Foreign Minister Le Yucheng had underscored similar themes, urging confidence in response to China's diplomatic challenges:
Recently, the United States has adjusted its policies toward the Asia-Pacific and increased its input in this region. Some people are thus worried and doubt if China and the US can co-exist peacefully in the Asia-Pacific. Some even believe that China's surrounding environment has deteriorated.
These official comments suggest that while there may be uncertainty about the scope and significance of America's so-called pivot, Beijing will continue to chart a course that emphasizes continuing to develop its economic and military strength while at the same time attempting to assuage concerns about its growing power, to maintain an external environment conducive to its goals for domestic social stability and economic development.
The initial Chinese responses to the new US defense guidance reflected a range of concerns. Prickly responses to comments about transparency suggest continuing unwillingness to reveal information that is released fairly routinely by many countries. Beijing has repeatedly underscored that it is committed to developing a military capable of preventing Taiwan from moving toward independence and deterring US involvement in a cross-strait conflict, controlling or denying others' access to its near-seas if required, and protecting China's emerging interests globally.
Yet, in many areas, it still does not provide the kind of clarity that major powers normally do. For example, Chinese defense white papers have improved gradually over the years in terms of transparency, but they still lack the quality of information that many outside observers expect - including data that is often included in similar documents released by several other countries.  By responding to the US strategy with a simple restatement that Chinese intentions are clear, Beijing glosses over the need for the kind of transparency that could help reassure its neighbors and reduce the risks of miscalculation, which seemingly does not bode well for the sort of transparency or confidence-building measures that Washington seeks.
The initial responses to America's new defense strategy illustrate that the current environment in China tolerates debate over Beijing's foreign-policy challenges. The nuanced nature of some of the comments appears to reflect an evolving understanding of the regional security environment. Although US statements and actions may have exacerbated Chinese concerns about "containment", they also appear to have motivated Beijing to moderate its approach to dealing with its neighbors. Furthermore, Beijing clearly recognizes the importance of a constructive US-China relationship, particularly given its desire to ensure a stable environment for the upcoming leadership transition that will have unprecedented turnover in the senior-most ranks.
Despite criticizing US motivations for the "pivot" and questioning Washington's ability to execute a shift to Asia and the Pacific, Chinese analysts generally recommended that Beijing observe US actions and stay its existing course by continuing to focus on economic growth and enhancing its diplomacy and soft power while simultaneously improving its military capabilities - an approach they appear to believe will leave China well positioned to cope with America's new defense strategy and its "return" to Asia more broadly.
Along these lines, Peng Guangqian recommended that Beijing neither regard changes in US strategy with "indifference" nor "panic" unnecessarily about the likely consequences of the new defense guidance. According to Peng, as long as China continues building its economic strength and increasing its military power, "the sky will not fall".
The same themes were evident in a Study Times article in which military analyst Huang Yingxu cautioned that China should not entertain any illusions about the United States, but should nonetheless respond to the new defense strategy "calmly" and stick to its current path. Huang's reasoning is that because "time is on China's side", Beijing should remain patient and its position will continue to improve as US power declines.
This confidence in China's long-term prospects suggests that debates about the new US defense strategy and its strategic "pivot" are unlikely to result in major changes to the overall direction of Beijing's foreign and security policies. Nonetheless, observers should expect to see tactical adjustments in Beijing's approach as it grapples with the multifaceted challenges it sees as inherent in the US "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region.
1. US Department of Defense, "Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense" January 2012.
2. Ibid, pp 2, 4.
3. "The Rapid Development of China's Diplomacy in a Volatile World," address by Assistant Foreign Minister Le Yucheng at the Seminar on China's Diplomacy in 2011 and its Prospects, China Foreign Affairs University, Beijing, China, December 18, 2011.
4. Michael Kiselycznyk and Phillip C Saunders, "Assessing Chinese military transparency", China Strategic Perspectives, No 1, National Defense University, Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, June 2010.