All that time the United States provided the international good of securing the global commons. More recently, the US has secured Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan. In both cases Chinese companies have secured business contracts for energy and rare earth goodies in each locale respectively. Of course US intent was not aimed at that outcome specifically, but the Chinese nevertheless seized the opportunity.
All of this raises the point - if the Chinese were the superior long range thinkers that many analysts fear they are, GO v chess and all that pap, wouldn't it make more sense not to build an advanced military?
For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.
The PRC has not had to have a powerful military to rapidly get to #2. Haven't the Chinese already won the economic war with the US? Don't we already work for them? (OK that was a crass populist shot [or a shot at populists - you decide] and MIL INT is above that kind of thing, but you get my point). Surely if they look at both what the US gives them (secure sea lanes, market access, pressure on islamic extremists, pressure on NK, global counter-proliferation, its a long list) and the costs of providing those global goods, then why would they want to develop the capacity to do that for themselves? Wouldn't a long range strategic thinker who wants to avoid war and become the economic powerhouse of the world continue to let someone else bear the burden for providing their security? That's real GO/Sun Tzu thinking.
Perhaps the Clausewitzian passion of the Chinese people for nationalism (remember the Olympics) and the restoration of the Middle Kingdom, will outweigh their collective memory of Sun Tzu's maxims which have served them quite well until now. Equally, some will respond that the PRC are preparing for resource wars, but aren't resources traded on international markets? Don't the Chinese and their customers benefit when those markets are open - not closed - as would happen in a shooting war? Isn't that just more traditional western statecraft thinking rather than evidence of inscrutable suppleness of mind?
As has been discussed before on MIL INT there are many traps for analysts seeking to get as close to the truth as humanly possible. Cultural mirror imaging is one such problem. Americans always think mirror imaging is their unique problem but MIL INT thinks the PRC is doing it too. Look at the pattern of their military modernization - largely it is focused on major conventional platforms. That is a unique US strength, although a declining economy will necessitate a significant drawn down of US military power in Asia (something that allies and friends are deeply concerned about). Still US superiority in many areas will last for some time. The Chinese are also investing in advanced technology asymmetric capabilities (ASAT, ASBM, cyber etc) which are more problematic to counter and also reflects an interesting translation of Mao from land to maritime environments. There are no insurgencies at sea - even piracy can only be effectively countered on land. Yet overall, the PRC is mirroring US capabilities and that is a good thing given the advantages the US will continue to possess in that field for some time.
It seems that conventional western thinking, nationalism, power politics, the tools of hard power, is starting to overtake a very successful indigenous strategy of indirect global superiority through soft power means. As the utility of military forces appears potent against an ever smaller problem set within a rapidly expanding list of global challenges (see the growth of the NSC sub committee system for one simple indicator) perhaps the Chinese might want to stop and think for a moment about their new path.
The final point is the obvious one. Conflict is not inevitable. Far from it. The key will be leadership in Beijing, DC, and a few other key locales, and the choices those leaders all make now and into the future. MIL INT sees some similarities between Chinese and American strategic cultures: both are optimistic, forward looking, both would rather trade than shoot their way out of a problem, and yet both are proud. But then again, MIL INT might be mirroring.