American crisis, Chinese opportunity
Beijing hikes military spending as the U.S. cuts. At stake is no less than the liberal international order.

Mass Communication 1st Class Tiffini M. Jones/U.S. Navy

People's Liberation Army Navy sailors stand at attention during a visit by Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Gary Roughead aboard the People's Liberation Army Navy type 920 hospital ship Daishandao (AHH 866) on Apr. 20, 2009 in Qingdao, China.

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  • China's official military budget this year will top $100 billion, but observers believe real number is double that

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  • Does China's rise, America's weakness spell doom for the post-World War II global order? @michaelauslin

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  • China's military increase of at least 11% should rest any doubt that Beijing plans to supplant American supremacy in Asia

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Forget Mao, the Chinese are channeling Rahm Emmanuel. President Obama's first chief of staff popularized the dictum that "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste" back in 2008. And it has been taken to heart by China's leadership, which sees America's deficit crisis as a perfect opportunity to further shrink the military gap between Beijing and Washington.

For the first time, China's official military budget this year will top $100 billion, even though many observers believe that the real number is more than double that amount. China's increase of at least 11% at a time when America is cutting its own military budget by nearly $500 billion over the next decade should put to rest any doubt that Beijing plans to supplant American supremacy in Asia. Now the question is whether the combination of China's rise and America's weakness presages the breakdown of the post-World War II global order.

True, this year's increase in the military budget is less than in 2011, when it jumped 12.7%, but annual growth has been in the double digits for well over a decade. The Institute for International Strategic Studies now estimates that China accounts for more than 30% of all defense spending in Asia, and that Asia this year will spend more on its military than the West for the first time in centuries.

Some might argue that it's simply catching up from a very low base. Until the 1990s, China had a 1950s-style army, only a coastal navy and no real air force to speak of.

But those days are long gone. Despite some remaining weaknesses, the military is increasingly fielding sophisticated weapons systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines, advanced jet fighters and even modernized bombers. In addition, China appears to be trying to innovate in the military sphere. It's producing an anti-ship ballistic missile, developing its own stealth jet fighter and pursuing (it is suspected) cyberwarfare capabilities.

What remains unclear is why China is building the world's second-largest military. Beijing would argue that America has done the same thing over the past 70 years, only cloaked in hypocritical rhetoric about freedom and opportunity. Now, as America weakens, it is only natural that the world's fastest-growing economy begins to take its place in the sun, just as America supplanted Great Britain in the 20th century.

Yet there is a great gulf between China's vision of the world and America's. America's hegemony for the past three-quarters of a century has been strikingly benign, by historical standards. Indeed, it has sought to set a new norm for great powers, even while protecting its interests and upholding its commitments to allies and friends. It has further evolved Great Britain's uneven experiment in international liberalism.

The U.S. has extended this approach to China. For the past four decades, the United States has actively sought to bring China into the world community, and its Navy has protected the sea lanes used by China's export machine. Whether under Republican or Democratic administrations, Washington has largely hesitated to confront Beijing over its human rights abuses or bullying of neighboring nations. Beijing may worry about America's alliances in Asia, but all those long predate China's rise. The Obama administration's "pivot" now focuses on China only because of the country's dramatic military buildup, which began in the Clinton years.

There is little reason so far to believe that China shares any of these values or that it would act for the common global good in the same way. It openly bullies its neighbors. It chafes at the open trading system even as it benefits from it. And it routinely supports disruptive regimes such as North Korea, Iran and Sudan, while continuing to repress its own people. So it seems less likely to merge with global liberal trends and more interested in trying to reorder the international status quo in its favor.

Thus, the Obama administration, and whoever follows it, needs to reverse course on military cuts that speed up our decline in Asia and around the world. Those cuts do almost nothing to reduce America's deficit, but they will hamper the one role only we can play in the world. It's irrelevant that the U.S. spends more on its military than the next 10 nations combined—none of them have anything remotely like America's global responsibilities. Our aging planes and ships and overworked military personnel are now going to be asked to do more with less. Something has to give, and at this rate it likely will be America's ability to remain a credible global stabilizer.

The liberal international order has been the most beneficial one in recent history. If it weakens and cracks, the costs of avoiding war or containing aggression will be far greater than the billions of dollars we are trying to save now and which the Chinese are willing to spend.

Mr. Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for wsj.com.

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