Tuesday, May 30, 2006

That Chinese Juggernaut

Every now and then, I see a good article that dispels some bit of "conventional wisdom" that I had previous accepted as true by default. Today I came across this article by Fred Kaplan in Slate about the myth of Chinese military superiority:

The China Syndrome: Why the Pentagon keeps overestimating Beijing's military strength.

Some key graphs:

China officially says it's spending $35 billion on its military, a 14.7 percent increase over last year's budget, amounting to 1.5 percent of its gross national product. (The U.S. military budget is nearly 15 times as large and amounts to 4 percent of our GNP; Japan's and South Korea's defense budgets are larger than China's, too.) The report says that China's growth "sustains a trend that has persisted since the 1990s of defense budget growth rates exceeding economic growth"—but read on—"although the growth of defense expenditures has lagged behind the growth in overall government expenditures over the same period of time." (Emphasis mine.) In other words, by the report's admission, the military is not the Chinese government's No. 1 priority. [...]

Read as far as Page 30, and you see that not just China's capabilities but also its ambitions are far from expansive. "At present," the report states, "China's concept for sea-denial appears limited to sea-control in water surrounding Taiwan and its immediate periphery. If China were to shift to a broader 'sea-control' strategy"—in other words, if it were seeking a military presence farther away from its shores—"the principal indicators would include development of an aircraft carrier, development of robust, deep-water anti-submarine-warfare capabilities, development of a true area anti-aircraft warfare capability, acquisition of large numbers of nuclear attack submarines," etc., etc. The point is: The Chinese aren't doing—they're not even close to doing—any of those things.

I was floored to learn that China doesn't have a single functioning aircraft carrier. How do you become a superpower without one of those?

So the threat of the Chinese military is vastly overstated. Why does it matter? Well, Kaplan remarks that both now and in the past, this was how the Pentagon justified expensive hardware purchases that would otherwise have no use. And there's another, perhaps more insidious reason. There are political factions in this country that require an Enemy in order to sustain themselves. This is a telling post from Matt Yglesias that I'm sure I've linked to before:

During a BloggingHeads.tv appearance with Robert Wright, Fukuyama says of Bill Kristol and his circle at The Weekly Standard that during the 1990s "There was actually a deliberate search for an enemy because they felt that the Republican Party didn't do as well" when foreign policy wasn't on the issue agenda. The obvious candidates were either China or something relating to Islamic fundamentalism and, as Fukuyama notes, what they came up with was China. Then 9/11 changed things around, at least for a few years. I think this is very telling, and reveals a great deal about the mentality that's been guiding America's foreign policy during the Bush years.