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Does China's Rapid Military Buildup Threaten U.S. Interests In East Asia? NO

Author: Lawrence J. Korb, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
August 5, 2002
Insight Magazine Symposium


No longer aligned against a Soviet threat, both the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC) have increased military spending well above their Cold War averages. Since taking office, the Bush administration has increased the U.S. defense budget by 30 percent in order to transform the nation's armed forces, taking advantage of the revolution in military technology. But the U.S. response to President Jiang Zemin's campaign to modernize the Chinese military remains a matter of debate.

By announcing a 17.6-percent increase in defense spending in March, China now has raised its military budget by one-third over the course of the last two years. Included in this increase are substantial military acquisitions from Russia, including seventy-two SU-27 fighter/ground-attack aircraft, one hundred S-300 surface-to-air missiles, ten II-76 transport aircraft, four Kilo-class submarines and two Sovremenny-class destroyers, as well as weapons and radar equipment from Israel and South Africa. According to intelligence reports, the Russians are helping China build a nuclear-fueled ballistic-missile submarine that could be in service as early as 2010. Furthermore, China continues to modernize its nuclear forces, as well as upgrade its People's Liberation Army (PLA). Should these developments be a cause of alarm for the United States?

In deciding how the United States should respond to the Chinese military modernization, it is important to understand the primary motivation behind China's increased defense budget: namely that, after 20 years of putting other things first,China's weapons are aging and its military is vulnerable. As an emerging regional and potentially global actor, China knows it no longer can rely on a U.S. nuclear deterrent as it did during the Cold War. PLA modernization signals this mentality.

There is no denying that China is modernizing both its conventional and nuclear forces. It also is no secret that China hopes to regain its leadership role in Asia prioritizing economic development even as it augments its military capabilities.

And while the United States should not be complacent, it should understand that Beijing's ambition to build a powerful military to complement its growing economy and strategic positions in Asia is not necessarily to America's detriment. China remains and will remain too weak to challenge U.S. power even in its own neighborhood. Consider the gap between China's acknowledged $20 billion defense budget (or even the estimated $45 to $150 billion) and the U.S defense budget of about $400 billion. And this does not even take into account the immense and growing technological gap between the militaries of the two countries or the strength enjoyed by the United States because of its multiple alliances. China is not, and is extremely unlikely to be, a strategic military threat the way the Soviet Union once was.

The 2.5 million-member People's Liberation Army (PLA), the largest standing fighting force in the world, currently is handicapped by low pay, poor morale, corrupt leadership and a general difficulty in acquiring new weapons. In fact, the Chinese army has been described as afflicted with a "spiritual crisis." China's own state media reported the latest initiative to reduce obesity among the forces after an alarming number of PLA commanders were judged too fat for effective combat.

What naturally attracts the greatest attention is China's modernization of its strategic nuclear forces. However, China never tried to make enough nuclear weapons to enter the league of the United States or the Soviet Union. A modest nuclear force was considered adequate for credibly deterring an attack on the Chinese mainland, avoiding nuclear blackmail and raising the country's international stature. It currently has 24 liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), but it is unclear if any of these old and unsophisticated missiles are capable of hitting the U.S. mainland. Nor are they any match for the United States' 2,200 deployed (and more than 4,000 stored) warheads, which could destroy China. China historically has relied on a deterrence doctrine of "quantitative ambiguity" — as long as a potential aggressor is uncertain that it could destroy all of China's missiles in one attack, the aggressor would be deterred. With the United States abrogating the 1982 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty — increasing the pace of development of its missile-defense system and President George W. Bush's adoption of the pre-emptive strike doctrine — China is understandably concerned that its nuclear force would lose its second-strike capability unless it has more and better warheads and delivery vehicles.

Many Chinese strategists openly worry about what they regard as the "encirclement" of China by U.S. military might in the wake of Sept. 11. With the United States deploying troops in Afghanistan and Central Asia, selling sophisticated arms to Taiwan, helping modernize the Japanese military and enhancing military relations with the Philippines and Pakistan, China sees itself as geopolitically surrounded. China's sense of unease also has been heightened by Russia's overtures to, and new partnership with, NATO, although in public it is not critical — it values the pretense of its own "strategic partnership" with Russia too highly.

The most contentious issue to U.S.-Sino relations remains Taiwan. Eventual reunification with Taiwan is still an overriding objective for China. The PRC recently deployed a range of short-range ballistic missiles and an Israeli-made antiradar weapon on its shoreline facing Taiwan. The PLA also has been engaged in large-scale military exercises there during the last weeks of June.

But what does that mean?

China's participation in the global economy, its stake in regional stability and even its successful bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing are reasons enough for China to avoid confrontations with the United States over Taiwan, not to mention the fact that they would lose a military struggle. In the short term, in spite of all the aggressive blustering by Chinese and Taiwanese politicians, it appears that they both wish to maintain the status quo for the foreseeable future. The Bush administration also appears to be taking steps to defuse the tension: It has not yet delivered the advanced air-to-air missiles purchased by Taiwan for fears of upsetting the military balance in the region.

China, of course, does want to extend its sphere of influence even beyond Taiwan. But any such influence in the East China Sea is contingent on airpower, where China is handicapped by primitive machines, and must contend with both superior U.S. and Japanese aircraft in the region. China's recent acquisition of Soviet SU-27s, a late 1970s fighter jet, does not alter this reality. Similarly, the southern portions of the South China Sea are beyond the scope of China's land-based aircraft where Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia each possess more advanced U.S. or British aircraft.

If China did invest in aircraft carriers, it could have the minimum three-vessel fleet by 2020. Its forces, however, still would be trumped by those deployed by the maritime Southeast Asian countries, as well as the United States. Only the northern reaches of the South China Sea, which include waters east of Vietnam and the Paracel Islands, are within the range of Chinese land-based aircraft.

The Chinese leadership, however, apparently realizes that provoking the United States, given the new world order, will not assist in realizing its ambitions. Since Sept. 11, China largely has made all the right gestures toward the United States, including support for the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. Bush has visited China twice since September 2001 and, while personal warmth between Zemin and Bush was minimal, the scripted exchange was mutually reassuring. Bush also called Zemin after announcing withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, and offered to hold "high-level strategic talks" on the issue; China, on its part, did not openly criticize the U.S. decision to withdraw.

So, what should the United States be doing as it observes the military modernization and the allegedly quixotic intentions of the Chinese? Foremost, according to Robert S. Ross in a Foreign Affairs article, would be to recognize that "China is a revisionist power but, for the foreseeable future, it will seek to maintain the status quo — and so should the United States." Because Washington enjoys both economic and military superiority, it is in a position to acknowledge Chinese interests and negotiate solutions that accommodate both U.S. and Chinese objectives, rather than adopt a more assertive posture. Giving China the impression that it is a big threat to U.S. interests, when it really isn't, might just become a self-fulfilling and destructive prophecy.

The United States definitely should insist on greater transparency from China — for example, a ceiling for the anticipated buildup of its nuclear arsenal. In return, the United States should consider building only a limited ballistic-missile defense system incapable of negating the Chinese strategic nuclear deterrent. Deployment of a system which undermines the Chinese nuclear posture most likely would lead China to increase the pace and scope of its missile buildup, which would decrease U.S. security in the long term. This might even have a larger ripple effect of sparking an arms race in the region. Simultaneously, China needs to guarantee that it will not sell weapons or missile technology to rogue states.

The best hope for U.S. security lies in China successfully meeting its economic objectives. As China turns itself into the biggest manufacturing base in the global economic chain, it increasingly will need to rely on imported oil — by 2020, it could be importing as much as 60 percent of its needs. This may bring its perception of global security issues much closer to that of the United States.

In the short term, Chinese military modernization will not upset the strategic security balance in the region. But, the United States should have a game plan for the PRC's long-term goal of becoming the dominant military power in South East Asia. End-strategies aside, the question remains whether China, even considering its tenuous relations with Taiwan and Japan, faces its greatest set of challenges from its own demographic, economic and military dilemmas, from those of its neighbors, or from the United States.

Lawrence J. Korb is vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Under President Reagan he was an assistant secretary of defense from 1981-85. Sameen Gauhar, a research associate for national security at the Council on Foreign Relations, contributed to this article.