For any Westerner observer struggling to understand Chinese military developments — and let’s be serious, that’s most of us — Andrew Erickson is an indispensable resource. A professor at the Naval War College, Erickson has edited an influential series of books about the People’s Liberation Army, each volume based on close scrutiny of Chinese-language journals and new sources. Erickson’s latest volume, Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles, takes a hard, sober look at Beijing’s growing air and missile forces and their effect on the Pacific balance of power.

In this interview with Breaking Defense, Erickson corrected what he views as widely-held misconceptions about China’s military, its strengths, limitations and purposes. Where many analysts fall into opposing camps — one inclined to inflate China’s military strength, the other inclined to downplay it — Erickson occupies a nuanced middle position. He argues that the PLA, specifically the PLA Air Force and PLA Navy, must be assessed through the lens of distance. Erickson says the most profound Chinese developments are aimed at securing Beijing’s “backyard,” while farther afield China remains relatively weak.

Breaking Defense: What is the biggest misconception inside the Pentagon regarding Chinese maritime power?

Andrew Erickson: I can’t speak to Pentagon assessments per se, but the most common source of error in Chinese and U.S. analyses of PLA(N) development is the conflation of two factors: scope and intensity. A stone dropped into the water forms waves that radiate outward, gradually dissipating in the process. Close to home, China’s military capabilities are rapidly reaching a very high level. However, they are making much slower progress, from a much lower baseline, farther away.

To call this a “tale of two navies” oversimplifies, since some platforms and weapon systems can contribute in both areas — but it captures the basic dynamic. Many vehicles and armaments are primarily relevant in one area or the other. Cherry-picking the characteristics of either of these “layers” or “levels” to characterize overall Chinese military/maritime power with a broad brush risks fundamentally misrepresenting its critical dynamics.

The most dangerous scenario is one in which Washington claims to maintain capabilities that Beijing believes it no longer has, thereby emboldening Beijing to challenge the status quo by force.

On one hand, it is a mistake to exaggerate the scope of intense build-up: China is simply not moving to develop a “blue water” power-projection navy at the same rate that it is deploying shorter-range platforms and weapon systems such as missiles — many on land, but also on air-, sea-, and undersea-based platforms. On the other hand, it is equally misguided to suggest that restraint and limitations in the “Far Seas” indicates restraint and limitations in the “Near Seas.”

“Counting all the beans” by treating side-by-side comparison of all Chinese and U.S. forces as the key metric, as sometimes done by those who would minimize the PLA(N)’s significance, is only relevant if one assumes that the relevant scenario is a Cold War-style Sino-American global conflict — a virtual impossibility, fortunately.

Rather, China is seeking to further its core interests by pursuing an asymmetric approach. As Tom Christensen wrote in International Security, this involves “Posing Problems Without Catching Up.”

Breaking Defense: So if we view China’s capabilities as “capability ripples” that diminish as they expand, how should the Pentagon shape its response? Does each ripple require a unique American approach?

Erickson: Each Chinese “capability ripple” does not require a unique American military approach, but there should be a corresponding continuum of responses. This suggests a clear set of force structure priorities — or “hard choices,” given Washington’s current budgetary difficulties.

As a rising great power, it is natural that China has increasing influence and responsibility in the international system. America must be judicious in disagreeing with China, but act firmly and credibly when it does. The most dangerous scenario is one in which Washington claims to maintain capabilities that Beijing believes it no longer has, thereby emboldening Beijing to challenge the status quo by force.

To avoid this destabilizing outcome, America must back up its rhetoric with enduring capabilities. Nowhere is this more important than on, above and under the Near Seas, where China is rapidly improving Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) capabilities by systematically targeting physics-based limitations in U.S. and allied military platforms.

To shape a force structure that is less vulnerable to asymmetric Chinese challenges, and thereby “reclaim the right end of physics,” Pentagon planners must follow these principles:

1. Shift to less-manned and unmanned systems, which – while they face limitations given current technologies – can already be smaller, cheaper and more disposable; enabling better persistence, maneuverability and tolerance of losses. Personnel costs absorb an ever greater proportion of the U.S. military budget, making it extremely important to limit reliance on manpower wherever feasible.

2. For a limited number of relevant applications, consider shifting at least some operations from large, tightly-grouped targets — e.g., a Carrier Strike Group — to smaller, dispersed, networked elements.

3. Move from the sea surface to the harder-to-access undersea – and in some cases air – realms. Space, by contrast, is expensive to enter, hard to sustain assets in, contains no defensive ground, and – barring energy-intensive maneuvering – forces assets into predictable orbits. Moreover, some of the most debilitating asymmetric tactics could be employed against space and cyberspace targets.

4. Substitute passive defenses — e.g., dispersion of assets, reinforced concrete — for active defenses such as missile defenses, in contexts in which this is cheaper and/or more effective.

Bottom line: U.S. Carrier Strike Groups and other platforms are increasingly threatened by A2/AD weapons like Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles and streaming cruise missiles. Regardless of how much the U.S. spends on Ballistic Missile Defense and other countermeasures — limits are already emerging — its CSGs may still face restrictions in future high-intensity combat operations. Beijing knows this and already appears to be seeking deterrent effects with its small but likely growing number of deployed ASBMs, whatever their precise level of capability at present.

Despite its dramatic progress in A2/AD, however, China has minimal missile-defense, Anti-Submarine Warfare and Mine Counter-Measure capabilities. U.S. investment in missiles, submarines and sea mines, therefore, can reverse the military equation in America’s favor.

The goal is not to attack or threaten China, but rather to deter it from using force or displays of military might to change the regional status quo unilaterally.

Breaking Defense: Cultural bias can result in serious misunderstandings between nations and armies. How does this play into Americans’ perception of China’s military rise, and China’s own perception of its place in world security? In other words, are the U.S. and China “talking past each other” in a military sense?

Erickson: Yes. Never before has the world witnessed the simultaneous presence of a powerful United States and a powerful China, let alone their interaction. Nearly as exceptional is the phenomenon of two great powers in the international system with two very different cultures, political systems, geographic regions and sets of national interests poised to avoid a great power war.

Most fundamentally, the U.S. fears that China seeks to, and is increasingly capable of, undermining the U.S.’ preeminent position in world affairs, achieved through its successful manner of governance and performance in World War II, subsequent construction of the postwar international system, and ongoing status as an indispensable provider of global public goods.

China, for its part, fears that the United States and other Western powers will never accommodate its return to its hard-won position as an autonomous, ideologically-ordered and powerful civilization with a preeminent regional role.

The fears and aspirations of the United States and China draw on powerful currents of national identity and experience. Consequently, they are easy to reinforce and difficult to moderate. In coming years, driving factors, such as their constant development of new high-end military capabilities, are likely to become more significant.

Lack of strategic transparency and understanding remains a major problem between the U.S. and China. Beijing has traditionally disclosed far less information about the most critical aspects of its military capabilities than has the U.S.; its strategists believe that as the weaker party it must use ambiguity to compensate for technological inferiority.

This has been exacerbated by ongoing efforts by China to use suspending military-military relations as a means of expressing umbrage at U.S. policy; this has happened twice in two years, in 2008 and 2010. While China’s rising military strength increasingly incentivizes the PLA to engage in “selective transparency” to attempt to impress its populace and deter its U.S. competitor with improved capabilities, this remains insufficient to reassure Washington.

Meanwhile, Beijing complains that Washington lacks “strategic transparency,” or credible explanations, regarding its own intentions. This issue raises the larger question as to what degree military-to-military activities will be subject to ever-shifting political winds and strategic disagreement; or rather, if there is any hope that they will not be the first casualty of such challenges in the future.

The yawning gulf between U.S. and Chinese strategic perceptions is readily apparent in the latest reports produced by their respective militaries. China’s latest Defense White Paper (2010) outlines a purely “defensive” national-defense policy of “active defense.” It vows that China will “never seek hegemony.”

Where the Chinese report focuses on intentions, policies and history and gives virtually no details on China’s current military capabilities, the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual report on China’s military power focuses on specific capabilities. The DoD engages in broad speculation about China’s intentions but emphasizes that the lack of transparency leaves significant uncertainty.

Beijing’s official spokespeople and media denounce each year’s DoD report, yet fail to offer specifics regarding which facts they consider wrong or what the correct information is. Xinhua’s response to the 2011 edition, just released this Wednesday, while more positive than in past years, states that since 2000 the Pentagon report has “drawn protest from China over its interfering nature, distortion of facts and baseless speculations.”

Not surprisingly, the reports’ differences are rooted in something much deeper than technical analyses. Several fundamental differences in viewpoint obscure U.S.-China security relations, posing major obstacles to mutual understanding, let alone cooperation. Their very different modern histories have produced a significant strategic cultural divide. Much work remains to be done for the two Pacific powers to achieve some form of “competitive coexistence.”

David Axe, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is a freelance war correspondent and author. His most recent book is a graphic novel, War is Boring.