The China Syndrome

Beijing won’t be able to threaten the American homeland anytime soon. So why is everyone panicking about China’s military buildup?

When President Barack Obama visits the People's Republic of China (PRC) next month, he hopes to expand the military relationship between the two nations. The PRC recently celebrated its sixtieth anniversary, marking the amazing transformation of a once impoverished agrarian society which is fast becoming an industrial giant. But it is not economics that most worries many U.S. policy makers. It is military security.

For most of the twentieth century, China was an international nullity. The sordid remains of a once proud imperial court were pushed overboard by a nationalist revolution, but the result was divided warlord rule rather than a modern democratic state. Decades of conflict ensued among the murderous Japanese invaders, incompetent and corrupt nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek, and brutal Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cadres, headed by Mao Zedong. The new regime's international influence was limited. Mao's bizarre economic theories and bitter political feuds convulsed party, state, and people. Once Beijing fell out with the Soviet Union, China's foreign reach shrank even further.

But the PRC's potential remained. The nation possessed the world's largest population and its people were entrepreneurial successes around the world. China boasted an ancient and proud civilization which once had dominated East Asia. All that was necessary was to release China's people from the strictures of totalitarian communism. Mao's death more than thirty years ago began that process.

Today the PRC is a dramatically different country. Hundreds of millions of people have moved out of immiserating poverty. Private businesses have proliferated. An independent sector has arisen. Although the authorities maintain the CCP's political monopoly, other aspects of the once totalitarian system have weakened: even religious liberty has expanded, despite continuing persecution.

But Beijing's growth poses a significant challenge. The economic benefits of China's integration into the international trading system have been enormous. However, the PRC is presenting an alternative authoritarian model rather than joining the democratic West. And Beijing increasingly is asserting itself-and building a military to match.

The Pentagon annually issues a report on Chinese military outlays. Although the Department of Defense has eschewed alarmism, its latest publication noted: "much uncertainty surrounds China's future course, particularly regarding how its expanding military power might be used." The latest National Intelligence Strategy warned that China's "increasing natural resource-focused diplomacy and military modernization are among the facts making it a complex challenge."

Yet however impressive the PRC's recent military parade-involving 8,000 personnel and 151 planes-Beijing remains far behind the United States. Washington starts at a much higher base. The American armed forces are the most capable on earth. U.S. ground forces are better trained, equipped, and prepared than those of China.

Washington's nuclear arsenal is far larger and more sophisticated. U.S. air power is without peer. America possesses eleven carrier groups compared to none for Beijing.

Nor will it be easy for China to catch up. Especially since PRC military outlays remain far behind those of America. U.S. defense spending in 2009 (the fiscal year ended September 30) ran roughly $700 billion. That's about seven times estimated Chinese expenditures. Subtract war outlays and the U.S. government still devotes roughly five times as much to the military as does Beijing. Even if the latter accelerates its military modernization, it will take years if not decades to match  America's outlays, let alone move into the lead.

Thus, to talk about China as a security threat in the near- to mid-term verges on the bizarre. That doesn't mean Beijing poses no challenge to the U.S. government. The PRC will soon threaten American domination of East Asia.

The real issue is America's ability to attack the PRC. Observes former-Pentagon official Chas Freeman, the Chinese "have no intentions of fighting a war in the United States, but we have done a lot of planning about fighting them on their territory."

But possessing the ability to attack China at will is not the same as the ability to defend America against all comers. The latter is the military's central mission. The former is convenient, not essential, and mostly benefits America's friends and allies rather than America. As Washington's post-Cold War dominance ebbs, it will be much harder for the United States to intervene on behalf of other nations.

Today America's security guarantees appear to offer a free lunch. Washington need merely threaten to go to war, and any potential adversary is expected to back off. But China is creating a military that can deter U.S. intervention.

Beijing doesn't have to be able to defeat America. The former doesn't even have to match the U.S. military. China merely need create sufficient risk to prevent Washington from using its superior forces. There has, for instance, been near hysteria in some circles about the possibility that Beijing might equip one carrier. Notes Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution: "the military dynamic in the Pacific is changing. But it is not because the Chinese may one day gain a small number of their own, far-worse aircraft carriers. It is what they are planning to do to overcome our own aircraft carriers and other traditional strengths."