4.18.2009

Pulse Check: The China Threat

The WSJ asks, in a must-read piece, "China, Friend or Foe?"

According to the Chinese government, the country's defense budget for 2008 was $60 billion, up nearly 18% from a year earlier. The Pentagon believes China's official figures substantially underestimate actual defense spending. It estimates that China spent $105 billion to $150 billion on military-related expenses last year, as its military transforms itself from a low-tech mass army designed to fight a war of attrition against invaders to a more sophisticated, agile force capable of projecting power beyond China's borders.

Thoughts? I remain concerned about China's military threat to American military supremacy for a number of reasons highlighted in the piece. For one, China's increase in strength is not fully transparent, and thus the U.S. should err on the side of caution. Second, China's increase in strength is shifting from one of sheer buildup to one of increasing ability to project power outside of its immediate environs. Third, and most important, China's growth at America's expense does not come interlaced with a worldview/conception of power I find preferable to the American one.

The article does a great job of outlining the Chinese moves towards greater bluewater naval strength - and considers detractors who claim it's largely hype. I don't think it's hype. The stealth wreathing most Chinese military developments should concern us. The nationalism driving militarization should concern us. And, even if China's ability to project military force is currently underdeveloped by its own insistence, its potential development should concern us. China's massive population, economic capacity, public sentiment, and government's ability to act even absent public support are like a giant boulder atop a hill, poised to be rolled down the slope, change into kinetic energy at any point in a massive rearmament process if necessary:

In China, a vocal public constituency is pressing for a more assertive military. Bai Jieming, who runs a shop in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen selling models of Chinese warships, says that replicas of one of the destroyers sent in December to patrol the Gulf of Aden against pirates, the "168," have sold out. He says that Chinese people long for an aircraft carrier. "I'd even donate money to help build it," says Mr. Bai.

I applaud the WSJ for shedding light on the serious implications and warning signs embedded in the Impeccable incident off Hainan Island. As I have been reiterating since 2002, I find the U.S. focus on "terrorism" has been excessive and detrimental in that it has distracts us from focusing on true, long-term threats to our global position. Any nation at the top of the heap that fails to recognize and address the up-and-coming challenger does so at its own risk.

While the massive economic entanglement of the U.S. and China should prevent conflict by most theories, I'm still wary (and the article notes the disconnect between bilateral economic and military relationships). Most theories would have seen China freeing up its political system even as its economic system became more free over several decades. And that theory has not held.