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.