China: "enemy" or "strategic competitor" to US?

As James Joyner notes, one high ranking American military official may have spoken a bit hastily this week when referring to our relationships in Asia.

In a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rear Admiral David L. Philman, the Navy’s director of warfare integration, said that China is what keeps him up at night, declaring, “The China scenario is first and foremost, I believe, because they seem to be more advanced and they have the capability out there right now, and their ships at sea and their other anti-access capabilities.”

But he went further: “[T]hey will catch up. They understand. They’re a smart and learning enemy, and if we don’t keep our edge, then we will be behind, or at least lose our advantage.”

That is a rather strange way to refer to China on a very public stage, no matter what you may be saying in the situation room. To be sure, it’s clear that there are tense international situations where China not only leans, but occasionally takes rather open glee in positioning themselves on the opposite side of the fence from us. It’s also no secret that where it comes to trade, our interests are frequently in conflict. But … “enemy?” As Joyner points out, this may be a bridge too far.

Indeed, even in the days when Ronald Reagan was referring to the Soviets as an “Evil Empire,” the military simply referred to them generically as “the threat.” China is much less than that. Then-candidate for president George W. Bush got it exactly right in 2000 when he termed them a “strategic competitor.” They’ve got zero interest in blowing us up or invading Europe; they simply want to expand their regional influence and become a major global economic power. They’re well on their way to both.

There’s one other factor which James doesn’t touch on here. Even if we were to assume that China harbored some secret military ambition towards taking us on, they still won’t do it. Why? Because we’re currently holding them hostage. All of our guns and nukes and ships and soldiers don’t hold a candle to the stack of our paper rotting away in China’s vaults. If they were to attack us we would default on our debt to them, bringing down both countries in a massive cesspool of red ink.

I understand if some of you might find the term “strategic competitor” right up there with, “time limited, scope limited, kinetic military action” in terms of raw ooomph. But in this case it’s not far off the mark. We’re still not in any sort of situation approaching a Red Dawn scenario. China truly is a competitor, and a fairly hostile one at times. But we should be keeping a bit more of a leash on our military spokespeople before they go tossing around the E word on the public stage.