The belief that China poses the most complex challenge to American interests since at least the Cold War is increasingly prevalent in U.S. policy and public discourse alike. There is disagreement and uncertainty, however, about how exactly and to what degree China may challenge U.S. national security.
In a chapter from a new Harvard University Press edited volume, The China Questions II: Critical Insights into U.S.-China Relations, Center Fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro addresses these questions. She examines the main points of contention between the two great powers, analyzes the types of threats that China poses to U.S. national security today, and assesses the degree to which they might be realized.
Over the course of the chapter, Mastro analyzes the likelihood of direct threats to the U.S. homeland and distinguishes between threats of conventional and unconventional means. Mastro contends that China does not pose any significant terrorist threat to the U.S., nor does it have the military capability or desire to invade and occupy U.S. territory with a conventional force. Due to its great power status and significant military buildup, “many casual observers may be surprised to hear that China has very limited ability to hold the United States at risk with conventional systems.”
This does not discount the fact that China has the means to disrupt U.S. domestic institutions and the ability to effectively reduce the freedom of action of the U.S. government, its citizens, and its corporations through significant offensive cyber and counter-space capabilities. Mastro cites a number of other non-conventional threats, including "hacking energy grids, disrupting cellular communications or using malware to steal sensitive data from U.S. companies."
Mastro proceeds to analyze direct threats to U.S. allies and regional presence. While China’s conventional military is still incapable of targeting the U.S. homeland, Mastro suggests that “China does pose a significant military threat to U.S. bases and assets in the region and to American regional allies and partners, which could bring the two countries into direct conflict.”
According to Mastro, while China does not present a significant conventional military threat to the U.S. homeland,“the same cannot be said of American bases and assets in Asia.” When accounting for the number of U.S. military personnel stationed across the region, their dependents, and defense civilians, “over a million Americans who live and work in Asia could find themselves in harm’s way if war broke out between China and other countries with which it has territorial disputes such as Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, North Korea and Singapore.”
In addition to conventional military threats, China has a number of nontraditional tools that it could use against U.S. allies and partners. Given that China has meddled in foreign elections, “spreading disinformation in the form of fake news stories, propaganda and more as part of an attempt to influence Taiwan’s recent elections,” its influence abroad can be viewed as a threat to the U.S. alliance system. The relationship between the U.S. and its allies is a key source of power and influence, and represents a means of protecting both national and global security.
Furthermore, the U.S. economy is dependent on free trade and the ability to efficiently access natural resources from around the world. According to Mastro, if China were to dominate Asia with its burgeoning political might, “Beijing would have immense power to hurt the U.S. economy, a vulnerability no U.S. president is willing to risk, especially given Beijing’s track record of using economic coercion when it has the upper hand.”
As with all assessments of foreign threats, much of what will actually transpire remains to be seen, and security analysts can only do so much to anticipate various challenges to U.S. security. Yet policymakers, as Mastro argues, would be wise to anticipate Chinese challenges to U.S. power, particularly through non-conventional means, or against U.S. bases and allies in the region, especially given the great power’s adversarial rhetoric of late.