1) China possesses a rapidly improving military that, in certain local or regional engagements, could match – and even defeat – U.S. forces in battle.
2) In military terms, China is a paper dragon that, despite its apparent strength, is powerless to intervene in world events far from its shores.
Seeing the distinction between these two ideas is the key to understanding China’s strategic aims, its military means and the threat, if any, that the country poses to its neighbors, the United States and the existing world order.
Beijing’s goals include “securing China’s status as a great power and, ultimately, reacquiring regional preeminence,” according to the 2015 edition of the U.S. Defense Department’s annual report on Chinese military power.
China is not a global military power. In fact, right now it doesn’t even want to be one.
But that doesn’t mean the world’s most populous country doesn’t pose a threat to the planet’s wealthiest and most powerful one. Yes, the United States and China are at odds, mostly as a result of China’s expanding definition of what comprises its territory in the western Pacific, and how that expansion threatens U.S. allies and the postwar economic order Washington was instrumental in creating.