A Dangerous Dance with China

Thank you, Secretary Gates:

Gates said a new annual Pentagon assessment of China's military, due to be released on Friday, depicts "a country that has steadily devoted increasing resources to their military, that is developing some very sophisticated capabilities. Some of the capablities that are being developed are of concern."

In the wake of the rather lackluster U.S.-China trade summit, it's good to see some signaling from a Defense Department embroiled in a number of major issues. With all of the U.S. military irons in the fire worldwide, attention to China's martial rise has been less than adequate, as I've long argued.

Media attention in advance of the summit focused largely, and not surprisingly, on economic and trade issues. The Economist's cover story and a related piece at TIME put China front and center. Taking a firm stand on enforcing WTO obligations while maintaining the Sino-U.S. free trade relationship - critical to U.S. consumers - comes off as a reasonable stance:

The simple truth is that no one is forced to trade with China. As Bo Xilai, the minister of commerce, noted in responding to U.S. protectionist threats, “If they [American businesses] could not make money doing business with China, they would not have been doing it.”

Yet the military "externalities" of China's rapid growth should be of greatest concern. While the U.S. is still the world's largest manufacturer, China's economic dynamism puts its government coffers in a strong position to develop a long range military capability - this longer-range frigate, for example - while the U.S. is engaged in Iraq and staring down Iran. Taiwan, as always, provides convenient cover.

China's government, paragon of freedom that it is, may preside over an increasingly market-based economy, but its long term aims of regional and, I believe ultimately, world hegemony, put it on a strange course with America.

Economically, the U.S. and China are dancing together more closely than ever. And yet the embrace allows for a dagger to be raised even as Uncle Sam looks distractedly out across the rest of the dance floor.

Kudos to Secretary Gates, who forces us to glance warily back at our partner in the red dress.