China Building Military at Pace Last Seen in 1930s Germany

From ancient Rome’s destruction of Carthage to the Soviet Union of the late 1940s, nations’ rise to great power status has almost always been on a tide of war. China — both economically and militarily — is on the verge of regional superpower status and aiming at the global equivalent.

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Despite President Hu Jintao’s "peaceful rise" sloganeering, China is building its military at a pace last seen in 1930s Germany, arming itself with things such as anti-satellite weapons that have no defensive purpose. America faces two great challenges in this decade: to defeat the terrorists and to help shape China’s rise. No nation has managed the great power emergence of another. But we must. If we fail, we will be at war with China within the next decade.

America expects more of its military than does any other nation. We expect it to be able to fight and win. That it does, with incredible skill and courage. But we call on our troops to build schools in Iraq, to drill oil wells in Djibouti and do hundreds of other jobs that they don’t learn in basic training or in college. Whether or not they think it’s their job or smart for them to be doing it, they always answer, "can do."

But just as the military isn’t comfortable in some civilian roles — nation-building is one — civilians often don’t trust the military to do some of the things it does best. One issue in the fight over Gen. Michael Hayden’s nomination to head the CIA is whether the Pentagon should dominate the intelligence arena. (That issue is important only to those who are more concerned with bureaucratic turf wars than whether the best result obtains). That discomfort with the military has concealed, for hundreds of years, one of the military’s most important and least-used talents: diplomacy.

Military diplomacy is not an oxymoron. NATO didn’t become the most effective peacetime alliance in American history because the Foggy Bottom striped-pants crowd made it so. It was the result of decades of shared training and teamwork among the militaries that grew to know each other personally. Military diplomacy works just as well among adversaries as among friends. One reason the Cold War stayed cold is that the Soviets saw, first-hand, who comprised our military and much of what they were capable of. If we are diligent about employing this military talent, the emergence of China as a superpower can be a peaceful one.

We have to employ our military diplomats to accomplish gains with China’s neighbors as well as with China itself. With China, we already have two good examples to follow.

First was last year’s trip to China by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. There is a message we send when we announce that the Secretary of State is going to a nation, and an entirely different one when the Secretary of Defense is the chosen emissary. In an interview last November, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs Peter Rodman said that Rumsfeld spoke quite openly with the Chinese on a host of issues. Rodman said the lesson is that you can be firm with the Chinese and frank with the Chinese and yet have a very constructive relation with them. Adm. William Fallon’s visit to Beijing this week — his second since taking command of U.S. forces in the Pacific — is the other example.

According to a Washington Post report of the trip, Fallon said his goal was to push China for more contacts, "…to see more things and different things, and to be more open and transparent in military matters." Because China’s military buildup is being carried out in such secrecy that even its military budget is hidden whatever threat China may or may not pose is also hidden. This secrecy increases tensions enormously, especially among American allies and within the White House. Fallon, by pushing the Chinese for openness, is helping reduce that tension.

What Fallon is doing is paralleled by military diplomacy with China’s neighbors. These nations — Malaysia, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea to name only a few — are justly frightened by China’s growing strength and ambitions. The last time China built a "blue-water" navy was about the same time Christopher Columbus was sailing to the Americas. And when that Chinese fleet sailed, it was to demand tribute from nations as far away as Africa. Today’s China will demand the modern equivalent, the oil and gas its neighbors possess.

To China, we can show that openness pays and secrecy has a price. Among China’s neighbors, our military can gain trust at a personal level civilian diplomats can’t. We should send our defense officials, admirals and generals to visit them often to tell these nations that we will help them defend themselves while working with them to remain on peaceful — if often adversarial — terms with China.

The White House is overly anxious to avoid calling our policy toward China "containment." The administration fears being accused of reviving Cold War images and rhetoric. We will not be able to contain China as we did with the Soviet Union. But with effective deployment of our military diplomats, we may be able to make Hu Jintao’s "peaceful rise" less a slogan and more a fact.