It's the last great "communist menace", but China's threat to American global military superiority has been greatly exaggerated by Pentagon planners desperate to justify billions on big-ticket development of new warplanes, ships and weapon systems. Newsweek's Andrew Moravcsik breaks down the figures:
As always with China, the numbers look scary. So it wasn't surprising that, when Beijing announced its new military-spending figures earlier this month, the Pentagon reacted with alarm. China announced a 17.6 percent increase in its 2008 defense budget, up to $58.8 billion. This followed a 17.8 percent increase last year, for a country that already has a 2.3 million-person military—the world's largest.Admitted, China has done some amazingly reprehesible stuff - such as the recent crackdown in Tibet - but it's all part of a mainly domestic and entirely regional focus on preserving its own status as the biggest fish in the local pond rather than a threat to American national security. Hyping the threat is partly about a "need to justify R&D and procurement" and thus just yet another example of propaganda in support of corporate welfare schemes. Of course, it's also about a conservative need to keep fearmongering, both for political purposes and to assuage their own psychologically disturbed sense of "threatened tribalism".
The U.S. Defense Department, in its annual report to Congress on China's military power on March 3, cast the news in the darkest of ways. The Pentagon painted a portrait of a secretive society seeking to become a superpower by the "acquisition of advanced foreign weapons," "high rates of investment in defense, science and technology," "improved nuclear and missile technologies" and rapid "military transformation"—Pentagon speak for the adoption of U.S.-style high-tech warfare. The report described Chinese cyberterrorism and Beijing blowing satellites out of the sky. And it warned ominously that, while China is needlessly, perhaps deliberately, ambiguous about its strategic goals, its growing capabilities "have implications beyond the Asia-Pacific region."
But hold on. Look more closely at the numbers, and China—while hardly benign—starts to look a lot less sinister. The fact is that China's military modernization is not accelerating; it's been slowing for decades. China's military means are not excessive; they're appropriate to its geopolitical situation. And Beijing's intentions are relatively clear.
Start with its total defense budget. Beijing's new tally, $58.8 billion, is high—but it pales in comparison with the U.S. total, which is $515 billion, or about half of the world's military spending. Even if, as many experts think, China (like the United States) actually spends more than its official stats indicate, it's still far behind America. And Washington has been spending like this for generations—which is why the U.S. aircraft carriers and submarines can sail right up to the Chinese coast, while the Chinese can't come close to the United States. At best, China is generations away from catching up with America—if it ever can.
As for Beijing's intentions, the best way to gauge them is to measure China's military spending as a percentage of national income. This year's increase may look high, but with China's economy growing at about 10 percent and inflation at close to 8 percent, the 17.7 percent hike is barely enough to keep the share of defense spending constant. And this share has fallen over the years, from more than 6 percent during the Cultural Revolution to 2.3 percent during the 1980s, to 1.4 percent in the 1990s, to near 1 percent at the beginning of this decade. It's since gone up a few tenths of a percent, yet even if China's true budget is twice what it says, Beijing's expenditures are still well below the 4 percent of GDP spent by the United States.
Nor is the quality of China's military impressive or threatening. The DoD report speaks of the "accelerating" quality of Chinese weapons systems, pointing to high-tech purchases from abroad. But Singapore-based defense analyst Richard Bitzinger argues that China's acquisitions are actually mundane: "Forget transformation or leap-frogging," he writes; "the Chinese are simply engaged in a frantic game of 'catch-up'." According to the DoD's own stats, 70 percent of China's Army vehicles, 60 percent of its submarines and 80 percent of its fighters are old. There is little evidence it has a pre-emptive strike capability based on aircraft carriers and advanced fighters (despite past DoD predictions that China was acquiring one). Arms purchases from Russia have actually declined tenfold over the past few years, and large naval acquisitions seem to have stalled.
China also has legitimate reasons for spending what it does—a judgment shared by no less an authority than Mike McConnell, the U.S. director of National Intelligence, who recently told Congress that China's military buildup is appropriate to its circumstances (he also reportedly tried to block publication of the Pentagon's alarmist summary). To the dismay of conservatives, McConnell said that "any Chinese regime, even a democratic one, would have similar goals."
What matters is that there be some scary, malicious group about to harm them and America. The identity of the particular scary group at any given moment is really secondary.