China: Getting the Questions Right

December 1, 2000 Topic: Security Regions: Asia Tags: AcademiaBusinessNew Left

China: Getting the Questions Right

Mini Teaser: The usual questions about the China threat are increasingly unproductive. The authors suggest some new ones of their own.

by Author(s): Richard K. BettsThomas J. Christensen

The challenge presented by a rising China is the principal issue
facing American foreign policy. This is not always obvious to most
Americans or even to many of our leaders. Since the end of the Cold
War, defense policy has been absorbed in second-order problems of
deterring or defeating mid-level powers such as Iraq, North Korea and
Serbia, and in third-order problems of peacekeeping and humanitarian
intervention. Over the long term, however, the first priority of a
serious foreign policy is to handle challenges from discontented,
nuclear-armed, major powers.

It is hardly inevitable that China will be a threat to American
interests, but the United States is much more likely to go to war
with China than it is with any other major power. Other current or
emerging great powers either are aligned with the United States (NATO
countries and Japan), are struggling against crippling decline
(Russia), or, while having a tense diplomatic relationship with
Washington, have no plausible occasion for war with America (India).
China, by contrast, is a rising power with high expectations,
unresolved grievances and an undemocratic government.

Debate about whether and how China might threaten U.S. security
interests has often been simplistically polarized. Views range from
alarmist to complacent: from those who see China emerging as a hefty
and dangerous superpower, to those who believe the country's
prospects are vastly overrated; and from those who see its economic
growth as an engine for building threatening military capabilities,
to those who see that growth as a welcome force for political
liberalization and international cooperation.

Most strategic debate about China still focuses on a few simple
questions. With respect to capabilities, these revolve mainly around
whether the Chinese armed forces will develop to the point that they
rival U.S. military power, and whether the economic surge--with its
implications for military transformation--will continue indefinitely
or stall. With regard to intentions, China watchers want to know how
thoroughly and how soon the country will integrate into a global
economy that allegedly constrains conflict; whether Beijing will
adopt aggressive aims as its power grows; and whether political
liberalization will occur as its wealth grows. Concern also zeroes in
on whether the People's Republic of China (PRC) has the ability to
take Taiwan by force.

These are relevant questions at the most basic level, but they are
the wrong ones to generate progress in a mature debate. The most
worrisome possibilities are those that lie beyond the answers to
these questions, and between alarmist and complacent viewpoints. The
truth is that China can pose a grave problem even if it does not
become a military power on the American model, does not intend to
commit aggression, integrates into a global economy, and liberalizes
politically. Similarly, the United States could face a dangerous
conflict over Taiwan even if it turns out that Beijing lacks the
capacity to conquer the island.

Will China's Military Power Rival America's?

There is little disagreement that the People's Liberation Army (PLA),
a generic designation for all the Chinese armed forces, remains a
threadbare force, well below Western standards. Pockets of excellence
notwithstanding, most personnel are poorly educated and trained.
Weapons systems are old, and even those acquired most recently are
inferior to those in Western arsenals. Many units spend a good deal
of time in non-military activities; staffs do not practice complex,
large-scale operations; exercises and training regimens are limited;
and equipment is not well maintained. Even according to the highest
estimates, defense spending per soldier is low by First World
standards, indicating the dominance of quantity over quality in the
Chinese forces.

The main disagreement among Western analysts of China's military is
about whether the PLA is poised to move out of its unimpressive
condition and into a new era of modernity, efficiency and
competitiveness, as anticipated economic reform and growth translate
into military improvement. Arguments to that effect are supported by
a number of PLA writings about a prospective Chinese "revolution in
military affairs" (RMA). The current backwardness of the PLA reflects
its low priority in the country's modernization efforts since the
1970s, and the diversion of the energy of the military into business
activities (which are now supposed to be curtailed). In this view,
the military potential of the PLA will be liberated when the
political leadership decides to give it significantly more of the
resources generated by economic development.

For China to develop a military on the model of the United States
would be a tremendous stretch. The main issue is not whether Beijing
will have high defense budgets or access to cutting-edge technology.
A rich China might well be able to acquire most types of advanced
weaponry. Deeply ingrained habits of threat assessment in the U.S.
defense community encourage focusing on these factors. Unfortunately,
however, basic "bean counts" of manpower and units and the quality of
weapons platforms are poor measures of truly modern military
capability. More fundamental to that assessment is whether the PLA
establishment is capable of using whatever increase in resources it
might receive to build the complex supporting infrastructure
necessary to make Chinese forces competitive in combat. The PLA's
current mediocrity--like that of many armed forces in the world--may
be rooted in a history, ideology and culture that are incompatible
with the patterns of organization and social interaction necessary to
rival the best First World militaries. This does not mean that the
PLA can never break out of this box. It does mean that it will not be
easy to do, and will not occur quickly.

Modern military effectiveness has become more a matter of quality
than of quantity, and less a matter of pure firepower than of the
capacity to coordinate complex systems. The essence of the American
RMA lies in the interweaving of capacities in organization, doctrine,
training, maintenance, support systems, weaponry and the overall
level of professionalism. These factors are harder to measure, but
they are what make it feasible to assimilate and apply
state-of-the-art weapons effectively. Those capacities require high
levels of education throughout a military force, a culture of
initiative and innovation, and an orientation toward operating
through skill networks as much as through traditional command and
obedience hierarchies. Few militaries have developed these
capabilities. Indeed, experience in the Persian Gulf and Kosovo
indicate that the United States is in a class by itself in these
respects. If the PLA has the resources to integrate complexity and a
willingness to delegate authority to overcome its mediocrity, it is a
well-kept secret. As yet it is not obvious that PLA effectiveness is
likely to be closer to that of the American military than to that of,
say, Iraq.

If the PLA remains second-rate, should the world breathe a sigh of
relief? Not entirely. First, American military power is not the only
relevant standard of comparison. Other armed forces in Asia that the
PLA could come up against are much closer to the Chinese standard
than to the American. (This is true even of Taiwan's technologically
sophisticated military, whose long isolation has eroded its quality.)
Second, the United States has global interests and often finds itself
distracted or pinned down in other regions. Third, the Chinese do not
need to match U.S. capabilities to cope with them. Rather than trying
to match an American revolution in military affairs, they might do
better to develop a counter-revolution by devising asymmetrical
strategic options on various parts of the technological spectrum that
can circumvent U.S. advantages.

One such example could be "cyberwar" attacks on the complex network
of information systems that stitches American military superiority
together. Another could be the use of new weapons like land attack
cruise missiles or lower tech weapons such as naval mines to impede
American access to the region. Still another could be the
modification of China's no first-use policy on nuclear weapons,
making an exception for repelling an invasion of Chinese territory.
Although it is almost unimaginable that China would use nuclear
weapons in an effort to gain political concessions from Taiwan, it
might threaten their use to deter U.S. military action on behalf of
the island. As Disarmament Ambassador Sha Zukang said in 1996, "As
far as Taiwan is concerned it is a province of China. . . . So the
policy of no-first-use does not apply." Even though the Foreign
Ministry subsequently repudiated the statement, nothing makes a
future adaptation of doctrine in that direction unthinkable.

Pundits on defense policy commonly observe that China lacks power
projection capabilities--the ability to send and sustain combat
forces far from home. By U.S. standards this is true. Talk about
obtaining aircraft carriers has produced nothing deployable, the navy
and air forces lack the requisite assets for "lift" (transporting and
supplying large units for operations abroad), and Chinese forces have
negligible logistical capacity as we know it. For those worried about
facing a Chinese force on the American model, these are all good
grounds for optimism. Indeed, there is general agreement that Beijing
lacks the capability at present to invade Taiwan and that it could
take decades to overcome the obstacles. But China does not need to
match American standards to reshape the Asian strategic environment.
This becomes especially clear when one considers where power
projection will be an issue.

Essay Types: Essay