Bogeyman China

7 March 2005

Bogeyman China

By Gwynne Dyer

“Improved Chinese capabilities threaten US forces in the (western Pacific) region,” warned Peter Goss, new director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, in testimony to Congress two weeks ago. “China continues to develop more robust…nuclear-armed missiles, as well as conventional capabilities for use in regional conflicts.” Just like the United States does, in fact.

Given America’s monopoly or huge technological lead in key areas like stealth bombers, aircraft carriers, long-range sensors, satellite surveillance and even infantry body armour, Goss’s warning is misleading and self-serving. China cannot project a serious military force even 200 miles (km) from home, while American forces utterly dominate China’s ocean frontiers, many thousands of miles (kilometres) from the United States. But the drumbeat of warnings about China’s “military build-up” continues.

Just the other week US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was worrying again about the expansion of the Chinese navy, which is finally building some amphibious landing ships half a century after Beijing’s confrontation with the non-Communist regime on the island of Taiwan began. And Senator Richard Lugar, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned that if the European Union ends its embargo on arms sales to China, the US would stop military technology sales to Europe.

It will come as no surprise, therefore, that the major US defence review planned for this year will concentrate on the rising “threat” from China, or that this year for the first time the joint US-Japanese defence policy statement named China as a “security concern”, or that the Taiwan government urged the “military encirclement” of China to prevent any “foreign adventures” by Beijing. It comes as no surprise — but it still makes no sense.

China’s defence budget this year is 247.7 billion yuan : around US$30 billion at the official exchange rate. There are those in Washington who will say that it’s more like $60 billion in purchasing power, but then there used to be “experts” who annually produced hugely inflated and frightening estimates of the Soviet defence budget. Such people will always exist: to justify a big US defence budget, you need a big threat.

It’s true that 247.7 billion yuan buys an awful lot of warm bodies in military uniform in the low-wage Chinese economy, but it doesn’t actually buy much more in the way of high-tech military systems.

It’s also true that the Chinese defence budget has grown by double-digit increases for the past fourteen years: this year it’s up by 12.6 percent. But that is not significantly faster than the Chinese economy as a whole is growing, and it’s about what you have to spend in order to convert what used to be a glorified peasant militia into a modern military force.

It would be astonishing if China chose NOT to modernise its armed forces as the rest of the economy modernises, and the end result is not going to be a military machine that towers above all others. If you project the current growth rates of military spending in China and the United States into the future, China’s defence budget catches up with the United States about the same time that its Gross Domestic Product does, in the late 2030s or the early 2040s.

It’s unlikely that either country’s military spending will continue to rise at the present rate for so long, and there is certainly no cause for panic. To the extent that the anxiety in Washington, Tokyo and Taipei is genuine and not merely a budgetary tactic, it reflects the dismay these governments feel as Chinese modernisation erodes their old absolute military superiority. The US Seventh Fleet can no longer sail right into the Strait of Taiwan with contemptuous confidence that China can do nothing about it, but in the long run that is probably not a bad thing for US-Chinese relations.

As to China’s strategic intentions, the record of the past is reassuring in several respects. China has almost never been militarily expansionist beyond the traditional boundaries of the Middle Kingdom (which do include Tibet in the view of most Chinese), and its border clashes with India, the Soviet Union and Vietnam in the first decades of Communist rule generally ended with a voluntary Chinese withdrawal from the disputed territories.

The same moderation has usually applied in nuclear matters. The CIA frets that China could have a hundred nuclear missiles targeted on the United States by 2015, but that is actually evidence of China’s great restraint. The first Chinese nuclear weapons test was forty years ago, and by now China could have thousands of nuclear warheads targeted on the US if it wanted. (The United States DOES have thousands of nuclear warheads that can strike Chinese targets.)

The recent spate of threats and counter-threats over Taiwan is linked to the political game being played in Taipei, where President Chen Sui-bian’s government regularly threatens to declare “independence” and drop the pretence that there is only one China, but neither side will let it end in war. Chen is just playing a familiar game of chicken in order to bolster his domestic political support, and always veers off at the last moment.

The Beijing regime is obsessed with economic stability, because it fears that a severe downturn would trigger social and political upheaval. The last thing it wants is a military confrontation with its biggest trading partner, the United States. It will go on playing the nationalist card over Taiwan to curry domestic political favour, but there is no massive military build-up and no plausible threat of impending war in East Asia.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“It’s unlikely…relations”; and “The recent…moment”)