Who's Afraid of the Chinese?

China as the new al-Qaeda.

Should we be still afraid of the writhing snake of al-Qaeda after its head has been cut off? asked Stephen Colbert. To which his guest Francis Fukuyama replied: “Be afraid of the Chinese, I mean, the Chinese shoot down satellites in space. They hack into people’s computers. The Osama bin Laden people can’t make their underwear blow up.

Indeed, we hear ever more about China’s growing power as that of the United States is said to decline. Among the recent headlines: China surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy; China has claimed sovereignty over massive chunks of its surrounding seas; China is undertaking an extensive military modernization campaign. And so joked Seth Meyers at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that his talk was vetted by “the man at the top”: Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Looking more closely, however, at that which is most feared about China raises questions. Many of China’s latest military acquisitions are either upgraded knock-offs of old Soviet equipment or purchased from the former USSR—hardly state-of-the-art technologies. Others are unlikely to achieve full operational capability for years to come, including the headline-grabbing Chinese stealth fighter, the J-20. And perhaps the greatest perceived Chinese military threat, anti-aircraft—a.k.a. “carrier-killer”—ballistic missiles, have yet to be publicly tested over water against a maneuvering target.

China’s yet-to-be-deployed first aircraft carrier was purchased from Ukraine in the ‘90s. (The U.S. has eleven.) China’s newest attack jet, the J-15, is an updated version of a Soviet one China dissected to learn its secrets. It carries less fuel than a U.S. model and, as a take-off method, requires flying off a ski-jump-style runway. When Russia refused to sell China nuclear submarines, China attempted to build its own and they turned out to be noisier than those built by the Soviets thirty years ago.

Whatever advancements China has made in its military, it is simply no match for the U.S. and will not be for decades. According to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, the U.S. spent six times more than China on its military in 2010. While the Chinese have built up their nuclear stockpile to a couple hundred, the U.S. will have 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads, even after the reductions required by the new START treaty. As Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution noted: “There is no serious military man in China or in the United States who thinks that China has any prayer of dominating the U.S. militarily in the coming three or four decades."

And all this assumes there will be a reason for the U.S. and China to come to blows. However, it’s far from clear that China has aggressive intentions, and even less so beyond its own region. Actually, China has plenty more to worry about at home than abroad. China’s military spending competes with its efforts to address its widening income inequality, environmental degradation, aging population, ethnic tensions, high levels of corruption—all threatening to burst Beijing’s bubble. China may be the world’s second-largest economy in overall terms, but in per capita terms, it’s on par with Algeria and El Salvador. It has four times more people than the U.S. to feed, clothe, house, and otherwise keep satisfied—and that is the true measure of a country’s economic well-being.

Like most people, we tend to look for an enemy. China may well not be one for decades to come, while al-Qaeda is far from gone.