China could be a far more formidable US rival than the Soviet Union ever was

china militaryJon Woo/Reuters

  • A new report written by former senior Pentagon officials argues that China is targeting the US with a "deliberate, patient, and robustly resourced military-technical offset strategy."
  • The authors make the case that China may be a more formidable challenge for the US than the Soviet Union because of its economic might and rapidly improving technological capabilities, many of which are being delivered to the military.
  • The report by the Center for a New American Security argues that the US will not be able to outspend China as it did the Soviets, but instead, it must learn to "out-innovate" the Chinese if it hopes to remain competitive as China pushes closer to technological parity and eventually dominance.
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China appears to be playing the same game against the US that American leaders once used against the Soviet Union, a new report explains, making the case that China appears to be a more formidable challenge for the US than its Cold War rival.

The US countered the Soviet Union by offsetting their conventional Soviet military might through economic power and technological advancement. A new study authored by former deputy US defense secretary Robert Work and his former colleague at the Department of Defense Greg Grant argues that Beijing has both the will and ability to do the same to the US, which will need to change its game plan if it hopes to remain competitive.

"The Soviets were never able to match, much less overcome, America's technological superiority," the authors explained in their report released by the Center for New American Security. "The same may not be true for China."

They assert that the US, as China pursues military and technological parity and eventually dominance, may fall victim to a "deliberate, patient, and robustly resourced military-technical offset strategy."

The US has not faced a competitor with a gross domestic product greater than 40 percent of its own in well over a century. China's GDP is currently around 63 percent that of the US, and China is projected to have the largest economy in the world within the next decade or so.

"The United States will be unlikely to be able to spend its way out of the Chinese technological challenge" as it did with the Soviet Union, their report read, stressing that the US will, instead, "need to out-innovate and out-offset the Chinese."

The US is locked in an escalating trade war with China, which Washington has accused of building its economic power by taking advantage of the US, and a new tech cold war is underway as the US attempts to curb China's rising technological power.

At the Pentagon, Work was involved in a project known as the "Third Offset Strategy," a strategic move to not only restore but also preserve key US advantages over great power rivals, specifically China.

This approach, much like the Pacific pivot, never really received the support it needed under the Obama administration, which worried about igniting an arms race or a new cold war.

In a recent interview, Work was critical of the previous administration's hesitation. "I would have tried to inject a more heightened sense of urgency that we cannot afford to wait any more. Every day we wait, we fall farther and farther behind," he recently told The Washington Post.

Read more: The US has been getting 'its ass handed to it' in war games simulating fights against Russia and China

A report to Congress last year evaluating the Trump administration's National Defense Strategy, which warns of new challenges posed by America's great power rivals, called attention to the erosion of America's edge as rival powers China and Russia learn to counter advanced US capabilities while developing high-end warfighting capabilities previously possessed only by the US.

"Put bluntly, the US military could lose the next state-versus-state war it fights," the report from the National Defense Strategy Commission said in its report.

Read more: The US could face a 'decisive military defeat' in a war with China or Russia today, an alarming new report warns

At the beginning of this year, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley wrote a letter accompanying a report on China's growing military capabilities stating that China is "on the verge of fielding some of the most modern weapon systems in the world."

He further explained that "China is building a robust, lethal force with capabilities spanning the air, maritime, space and information domains."

Read more: China is developing cutting-edge weapons, and the greatest danger is that they may soon have the confidence to use them, the Pentagon warns

Indeed, the Chinese People's Liberation Army is evolving as it modernizes in an effort to become a world-class fighting force able to fight and win wars, a priority of the Chinese leadership. In particular, the PLA has been watching and learning from the US military.

"The PLA has been patiently stalking the US military for two decades," Work and Grant assert in their report, adding, "It has studied the preferred American way of war and devised a strategy to exploit its weaknesses and offset its strengths."

The authors of the new CNAS report explain that Chinese military become a more effective force through industrial and technical espionage, the development of "system destruction warfare" capabilities to exploit US network vulnerabilities, the stockpiling of missiles, the development of surprise "black" capabilities, and the integration of next-level technologies.

Work and Grant conclude that the US military "has a demonstrated ability to question the status quo, to take risks and experiment, and adopt new technologically enabled operational concepts that confound its opponents," adding that if "it hopes to upset the Chinese offset, it will need to do so again."

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