Since the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, the United States has been the world's only true superpower. Some use the term hyperpower to describe America at this juncture in world history. A hyperpower is a country that is both economically and militarily vastly more powerful than any potential rival on the face of the Earth.
World history is replete with examples illustrating the rise and fall of hyperpowers. Alexander the Great (c. 330 BC) forged an empire that stretched from Greece to the river Indus in modern-day Pakistan. The Roman Empire (c. 100 AD) swallowed the entire coastline of the Mediterranean Sea extending to England, Egypt, and Turkey. The Mongol Empire (c. 1280) was the largest land empire in world history stretching from the Korean peninsula in the east to Poland in the west, and as far south as the Persian Gulf. While these hyperpowers lasted for hundreds of years eventually they disintegrated and gave rise to multipolar world orders.
The same must eventually happen to America's current position as world hyperpower. We don't know when this will occur, but there's increasing evidence that one country in particular will play an important role in bringing about the next major transformation in the world order: China.
The Pentagon released a study last week on the state of China's military as reported in the LA Times.
China's ongoing military buildup remains focused on preventing Taiwan's independence but is expanding to include other regional military goals, including securing the flow of oil from overseas, according to an annual Pentagon study issued Friday.
The 42-page report, required by Congress, found that Beijing's investment in offensive military capabilities along the Taiwan Strait has continued unabated. China has deployed more than 100 additional short-range missiles in the region over the last year, to bring its total aimed at Taiwan to about 900. China also has 400,000 of its 1.4 million soldiers based in the three military regions opposite Taiwan, the study said.
But Beijing's investment in military modernization -- which may have reached $125 billion last year, according to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, or nearly triple the official $45 billion declared by Beijing -- has produced military systems that enable China to project force well beyond its shores.
Of particular concern, the report said, was the increasing ability of the People's Liberation Army to strike at an adversary's forces in the Pacific Ocean, a clear reference to U.S. bases and naval forces in Asia that would rush to Taiwan if it were invaded by China.
"The PLA appears engaged in a sustained effort to develop the capability to interdict, at long ranges, aircraft carrier and expeditionary strike groups that might deploy into the western Pacific," the report stated.
China's spending on defense is still only about 20% of what the US spends but the trendlines are unmistakable. Given the country's rapid pace of economic growth and population that is more than four times greater than the US it is simply a matter of time before both the size of their economy and defense spending surpasses that of the US (assuming of course that the country does not disintegrate the way the Soviet Union did).
Note that the Pentagon report pays special attention to China's ability to project military power beyond its shores as if the US were the only country on Earth with this God-given right. We do not, of course, possess any sort of enforceable monopoly on power projection. At this point in time in world history, we happen to be the only country with the ability to fight sustained conflicts thousands of miles from our shores but this advantage cannot last forever. Either we will lose this ability or other countries will gain it; our hyperpower status will end and the world will become multipolar once again.
We can seek to delay this transition, but we cannot avoid it forever. China's development of offensive capability beyond her borders is a natural extension of her ever-expanding economic power and reliance on outside sources for natural resources. Rather than choosing a path of confrontation with China over her rising military power we should seize the opportunity to construct cooperative structures with China and enter into specific arms control agreements to avoid costly and unnecessary arms races specifically in outer space. China and the US have economies that are increasingly inter-dependent, and we both share similar geopolitical goals such as the continued unfettered flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. Hopefully, our political leadership will be wise enough to develop common ground with the Chinese, and avoid casting the two world powers onto a path where confrontation is inevitable.
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