Thursday, June 14, 2007

China wants military power = Duh...

I'm growing so tired of boring pieces on China's military modernization. The latest example: American Enterprise Institute scholar Gary Schmitt's real snoozer in the op-ed section of today's Post:

Obviously, greater transparency by the Chinese would be helpful. But absent a significant shift toward political liberalization in China, there's no reason to expect that to happen. And anyway, after a decade and a half of military buildup, do we really need greater transparency to understand what China is up to?

The Chinese are a proud people and they want to be seen as a powerful, potentially dominant, state. And power, they understand, includes not only a strong economy but a powerful military. When the Chinese look at the world today, who gets in their way most of the time? It's certainly not the Europeans, who have economic strength but little hard power. It's the United States.

There is a tendency on the part of American Sinologists to think that China's "peaceful development" precludes it from craving what all rising powers before it have craved -- power and recognition. Yet the Chinese don't think the two are opposed at all. They view a growing economy as critical to solving their domestic problems, but they also know that it is critical to providing the resources for military modernization and expansion.

The lack of transparency is, if anything, a dodge we've used to avoid dealing with the real problem: China's ambitions to be as great a power as it can be. It's understandable, perhaps, that with all that is on America's plate at the moment, we're not inclined to add China. But that doesn't change the fact that Beijing believes the more military power it has, the more likely it is that those ambitions will be fulfilled.

I'll be the first person to agree with Mr. Schmitt's point here. China's military build up is almost entirely based its desire to amass national power. Since the end of the Cold War and its opening to investment from the West, threats against China have declined precipitously. There is an argument that modernization can sometimes reduce a military's long-term cost, but it would be hard to quantify this argument without reliable information on the PLA's current operating costs.

The problem is that Mr. Schmitt's argument does not answer two questions that are far more important:

Is this actually a threat?: The reason why American Sinologists pour over Chinese policy documents and lament about the PLA's lack of transparency is that foreign military power itself is not a threat. After the U.S., the next largest military spenders are the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan -- all of which are U.S. allies. One could easily argue that their $233 billion will be used against us any time soon. China is more of a black box. Do they plan on using their military to support the current U.S.-backed status quo or will they attempt to revise it? If they do intend to revise the status quo, how far are they willing to go to meet their objectives? These questions will lead to highly divergent requirements for the U.S. military that come with different future forces and price tags.

What can we do about it?: The U.S.'s military capabilities currently dwarf those of China and this is likely to continue for decades. Even China comes close to catching up, what can we do about it? U.S. military spending is pretty close to its budgetary limits and the Chinese have the sovereign right to build a military within the limits of international law. What does Mr. Schmitt propose we do if China's capabilities begin to rival our own? Raise taxes and increase defense spending? Launch a pre-emptive strike on China's materiel factories? Attempt to stifle Chinese economic growth?

China's interest in amassing military power tells me nothing. At the same time, "American preeminence" is an end state, not a strategy. Mr. Schmitt should come back when he has something interesting to say.

1 comment:

dylan said...

Good points, but there is an element of wishfulness about the first. The reason why analysts focus on the capability side of the PRC's military modernisation is that, as you point out, we don't know for sure what it is for, and more importantly, we are not likely to know in the future either until it is too late (if the doomsayers are right). And even if those in charge today have the purest motives in the world, their sons and daughters (or immediate political replacements - read about how Germany's intent changed between the 1880s and 1890s through a new Kaiser) might have other ideas as circumstances and the balance of forces change. Continually saying "we don't know what it is for" , implying we shouldn't talk about it, is not a better option.

Equally, there is a natural reaction of "I told you so" on the part of those few voices in the late 1990s who argued then that much more attention should be paid to the early signs of significant PRC military modernisation. At the time those people were basically told to shut up - the prevailing wisdom was that the PLA had "short arms and short legs" and was not going anywhere fast. This stereotype of the PLA as some manpower-intensive behemoth relying on people's war defensive tactics is in fact very hard to shift from those seniors who do not follow the PLA in detail. No doubt those who do follow the PLA closely yawn and roll their eyes at being taught to suck eggs, but they are not the intended audience of such articles anyway.