While China continues to insist its military expansion is purely defensive in nature, yesterday the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs expressed his doubts: “They are developing capabilities that are very maritime focused, maritime and air focused, and in many ways, very much focused on us.”

Even though China’s long-term intentions are still very much unknown, the Chairman’s clarity on China’s military capabilities is an encouraging development.

The Pentagon’s 2009 report on China’s military capabilities reflected Mullen’s concerns. Secretary Gates has also discussed the near-term challenge China poses due to the PLA’s ability to “deny the U.S. military freedom of movement and action while potentially threatening our primary means of projecting power: our bases, sea and air assets, and the networks that support them.” But the Secretary has also argued that the nation must be willing to accept greater strategic risk as it shifts its focus towards “the wars we are most likely to fight.” To do this, he has proposed canceling the F-22 and C-17, delaying a next-generation long-range bomber and Navy cruiser, and reducing the budget for missile defense.

If Secretary Gates’ strategic vision is implemented, it will help to generate the casual erosion of U.S. primacy. This development will have lasting international consequences. As Australia clearly articulated this week in their new defense White Paper, “the wider Asia-Pacific region has enjoyed an unprecedented era of peace and stability underwritten by US strategic primacy.” The retreat of American power will bring “escalating strategic competition” and greater risks and instability throughout the region.

Over the next year the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review process will generate a new document to help implement the strategic posture Secretary Gates’ has favored. To hedge against the prevailing opinions at the Pentagon, the Congress should mandate a National Defense Panel to conduct its own independent assessment.