Beijing and Moscow have criticised the US military’s move to put countering China and Russia at the centre of its latest national defence strategy, with China again hitting back at America’s “cold war and zero-sum game mindset”.
Presenting the new strategy – which will set priorities for the Pentagon for years to come – Defence Secretary Jim Mattis on Friday called China and Russia “revisionist powers” that “seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models”.
It marks a shift in US defence priorities after its focus for more than a decade-and-a-half on the fight against Islamist militants.
Shi Yinhong, director of American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, said it was another worrying sign for China-US relations.
“It is clear that conflicts between China and the US are heading in the direction of becoming more strategic, more serious ... and more comprehensive,” Shi said on Saturday.
The defence strategy is the latest indication of hardening resolve by President Donald Trump’s administration to address challenges from Russia and China, at the same time he is pushing for improved ties with Moscow and Beijing to rein in a nuclear North Korea.
“We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today, but great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national security,” Mattis said in a speech presenting the strategy document, the first of its kind since at least 2014.
China’s embassy in the United States criticised the strategy, saying Beijing sought “global partnership, not global dominance”.
“If some people look at the world through a cold war and zero-sum game mindset, they are destined to see only conflict and confrontation,” Xinhua quoted an embassy spokesman as saying. “With such a mindset, global peace and development are unattainable ideals.”
China blasted the US for its “cold war mentality” when Trump delivered his new security policy speech in December, in which he labelled China and Russia as strategic competitors.
Responding to the defence strategy, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking through an interpreter at a news conference at the United Nations, said the US was using a confrontational approach.
The unclassified, 11-page version of the document released by the Pentagon did not provide details of how the shift towards countering China and Russia would be carried out. The strategy sets priorities for the US Defence Department that are expected to be reflected in future defence spending requests.
China watchers also drew parallels with the cold war era.
“While the US sees China and Russia as becoming increasingly assertive, China and Russia have much the same view of the US ... so we’re seeing action, reaction and rising tension that is similar to [what happened] during the cold war,” Chinese academic Shi said.
Sow Keat Tok, who specialises in Sino-US relations at the University of Melbourne, said Mattis’ comment about the great power rivalry was a “throwback to the cold war era”.
“By identifying China as the possible enemy of the US, when the US plans for their military procurement and strategies in the future, they will take into account more of China’s capabilities before they decide on anything ... it is the intentional targeting of Chinese military capacity that is changing [in the latest strategy],” he said.
“This is very much like during the cold war time, when every military platform that the US or Soviet Union procured had a direct implication against the other’s capabilities, so [the US] is not so much about having a peacetime military any more but one that is to win a war against the Chinese and Russians.”
In sheer spending terms, the US military outlay per year is still far more than China and Russia. The United States is spending US$587.8 billion per year on its military, China US$161.7 billion and Russia US$44.6 billion.
But Shi noted that relations today between the US, China and Russia could not be compared to the decades following the second world war.
“Back then, the geographic front line of the cold war was very clear,” he said. “But now it is very ambiguous due to the growing ties countries have with each other, and the US allies in Asia are not as clear.”
Tok said the US defence strategy would have a negative impact on the US presence in the Asia-Pacific region. “By identifying China as a rival, they are forcing a lot of Asian countries to choose between the two powers,” Tok said. “For many Asia-Pacific states, China is a geographical reality that they have to deal with directly ...[this] is actually putting them in a very difficult position ... they might increasingly alienate themselves from the States.”
Additional reporting by Reuters
This article Beijing hits back at US defence strategy and ‘cold war mindset’ first appeared on South China Morning Post