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China's Military 'Threat'

Prepared by: Esther Pan
June 2, 2006


The 2006 Defense Department report (PDF) on the military power of the People's Republic of China, issued May 23, says China's military expansion has moved beyond defensive capacity and has the potential to alter regional balances and threaten other militaries in the region. The warnings about China's military modernization echo those in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) report (PDF). The scope of the military threat presented by China is explored in this Backgrounder.

The QDR, a high-level review of America's military posture, naturally focuses far more on the U.S. armed forces than on China's. CFR fellow Stephen Biddle says in this roundtable discussion the QDR shows the Pentagon is avoiding making hard but necessary choices about what the U.S. military should be: a high-tech, capital-intensive force focused on major combat with peer armies, or a low-tech, labor-intensive force geared toward fighting low-intensity conflicts like the counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fred Kaplan of Slate agrees, saying Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has failed in his mission to reform the armed forces. Rumsfeld addresses the U.S.role in Asia's security structure at a conference in Singapore.  

Some critics say the Pentagon is using the threat of armed conflict with China to defend its ever-higher spending: $420 billion in 2006 (PDF). U.S. military spending makes up nearly half of the total global expenditure on defense, and is roughly equal to the defense spending of the rest of the world combined. William M. Arkin writes in his blog on the Washington Post website that "China is the 'peer competitor' the military craves for its existence." Kaplan says that without the China threat, there would be no justification for "all the big-ticket weapons systems" that make up nearly a quarter of the Defense Department budget.

Some commentators say China has neither the intention nor the capacity to dominate Asia or any other region militarily. Gregory Clark, a former career Australian diplomat, writes in the Japan Times that western diplomats have been inflating the China threat for more than half a century. Michael T. Klare writes in The Nation that "resisting the trend toward a harsher anti-Chinese military stance [is] essential...if we want to avert a costly and dangerous cold war in Asia." China recently cut 200,000 soldiers from its army, which is still—at 2.3 million—the largest standing army in the world (Asia Times).

Evan S. Medeiros describes in the Washington Quarterly how the United States and China are playing a complex hedging game for power and influence in East Asia (PDF). This exercise, he says, allows Beijing and Washington to preserve mutually beneficial economic ties with each other and the rest of Asia while remaining uncertain about the other's motives. And Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, writes that a war with China over Taiwan is possible in the next ten years in his book America's Coming War with China: A Collision Course over Taiwan.

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