Going Overboard on China

China hawks argue that if Washington doesn’t radically increase its military spending, America will soon be overtaken by Beijing. But it doesn’t make sense to start an arms race that benefits no one.

The U.S. reigns supreme. America accounts for roughly half of the world's military spending, enjoys the largest and most productive economy, plays a leading role in every international organization, is allied with every major industrialized state save China and Russia, and faces a pitiful few enemies. The world can-and inevitably will-change, but Washington will control its own destiny for many more years.

You wouldn't know that, however, listening to the Bush administration and its Greek chorus of hawkish activists and pundits. In their view America is weak and isolated, a giant threatened by evildoers around the globe. There are terrorists, such as al-Qaeda, potential nuclear proliferators, like Iran and North Korea, brutal dictatorships, as in Burma and Cuba, a revived Russia, and, most worrisome of all, a rising China.

China is on the move, warns the Claremont Institute's Mark Helprin, combining economic and military challenges. Beijing is building up its military while the American "story is evident without relief throughout our diminished air echelons, shrinking fleets, damaged and depleted stocks, and ground forces turned from preparation for heavy battle to the work of a gendarmerie."

He is not the only person to fear the rise of the East. Books have been written pointing to China as an inevitable enemy, a country that wants war and intends to attack America. Lev Navrozov of NewsMax recently warned that "China's war with the United States will be won" before Americans understand "what is going on." Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center points to a new Chinese naval base on Hainan Island as highlighting Beijing's "growing interest in projecting power into waters far from the Taiwan Strait."

Earlier this year the Pentagon published its latest assessment of Chinese military capabilities. The Defense Department reported:

China's nuclear force modernization, as evidenced by the fielding of the new DF-31 and DF-31A intercontinental missiles, is enhancing China's strategic strike capabilities. China's emergent anti-access/area denial capabilities-as exemplified by its continued development of advanced cruise missiles, medium-range ballistic missiles, anti-ship missiles designed to strike ships at sea, including aircraft carriers, and the January 2007 successful test of a direct-ascent, anti-satellite weapon-are expanding from the land, air, and sea dimensions of the traditional battlefield into the space and cyber-space domains.

The warning that the Chinese are ten feet tall mirrors similar claims regarding the Soviet Union. Economists and the CIA alike announced that the Soviet economy was large and growing. Politicians of left and right talked about missile gaps and windows of vulnerability. Guides were put out analyzing supposedly overwhelming Soviet military power.

Looking back, of course, it's hard not to laugh at the erroneous predictions of Soviet power. That doesn't mean estimates regarding Beijing will prove false, but the People's Republic of China faces a multitude of economic, political and social challenges. Today's gerontocracy could even find itself destroyed by the nationalism that the regime tries to alternatively manipulate and suppress.

Indeed, for all of the PRC's economic progress, the country remains poor, with a per capita GDP of around $2,100. The result is still a large economy, especially when based on purchasing power parity, but China is not poised to overtake America any time soon. Even if the PRC fulfills the prediction that it will match total U.S. output in twenty years, China's per-capita GDP will remain far behind. Beijing is ill positioned to win an arms race.

Nevertheless, assume the worst. How should Washington respond to the potential Chinese colossus? There are many advocates of a significant military buildup, including most of the Republican presidential contenders, as well as William Kristol, Robert Kagan and the usual neoconservative posse. The bidding starts with four percent of GDP by the Heritage Foundation and rises sharply from there.

One of the most extreme is Helprin: "Were we to allot the average of 5.7% of GNP that we devoted annually to defense in peacetime from 1940-2000, we would have as a matter of course $800 billion each year with which to develop and sustain armies and fleets." In that case America would police the world "not with 280 ships but a thousand; not eleven carriers, or nine, but 40, not 183 F-22s, but a thousand; and so on. That is, the levels of military potential that traditional peacetime expenditures of GNP have provided, without strain, throughout most of our lives."

Calling the period from 1940 to 2000 "peacetime" ignores two very hot wars, Korea and Vietnam, as well as the cold war, which reflected continual confrontation with a hostile hegemonic power. How the potential threat posed by China matches these challenges is hard to fathom. The Soviet Union, backed by a worldwide collection of allies, waged an ideological war against the United States. Moscow was capable of destroying the American homeland, overrunning America's most important allies and contesting control of the world's oceans.

China ain't there. It isn't even close. Just consider the numbers eleven and zero. Those are the number of carriers possessed by America and the PRC, respectively. No doubt the Chinese could-and likely eventually will-acquire maritime air power. But matching the United States will be no mean feat. Threatening to overpower America with dozens of carrier groups … well, Beijing has a lot of other obstacles to overcome first.