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Does China Pose a Military Threat?

Discussants: Richard Halloran, and John J. Tkacik Jr.
Updated March 26, 2007


In early March, China announced it will increase military spending by nearly 18 percent in 2007, to more than $45 billion. Experts say Beijing understates its defense budget by more than half but the proposed 2008 U.S. military budget of $481 billion still dwarfs China's. Yet the spending increase, which comes less than two months after Beijing conducted an anti-satellite test, raises concern about China's growing military might and the associated challenge posed to the United States.

Richard Halloran, a Honolulu-based freelance writer who specializes in Asian security issues and was formerly with the New York Times as a correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington, debates John J. Tkacik, Jr., a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center, about whether China poses a military threat to the United States.

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John J. TkacikMost Recent

March 26, 2007

John J. Tkacik, Jr.

I agree with Richard that the United States has not had a real China policy since 1989. But Richard’s “Four Rudiments,” thoughtful as they are, are still simply “process” without a desired “outcome.”

As the Cheshire Cat tells Alice in Through the Looking Glass, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. The “Four Rudiments” don’t tell us where we’re going. In Beyond Tiananmen, Bob Suettinger recounts that during the Clinton Administration, “the notion that American policy is directly driven by strategic considerations, or that explanations can be found for specific American policies in theoretical speculation about the actions of nation-states in certain circumstances, is grossly inaccurate.”

It’s still so. Washington’s OCD on Iraq means there’s no thought given to what kind of an Asia we want to see in the twenty-first century. Consequently, we have no roadmap for achieving it. China-Taiwan policy is an example of an ingrained American preference of “process” over “outcome”: For example, the United States “takes no position” on Taiwan-China differences, that “our only concern is that they be resolved peacefully.”

I suggest “Four Outcomes” of China strategy to go with Richard’s “Four Rudiments”:

  • First, admit that the United States does indeed have a position on differences between despotism and freedom, that we indeed have a stake in the outcome in Asia; in the survival and success of Asian democracy; in ensuring that Asia’s democracies are not bullied into relationships with China that they do not want.
  • America is committed to an Asian rules-based trade/economic structure. State-mercantilist China now flouts the rules with impunity because there are no consequences. It must be a principle of our strategy that if rules are violated, the United States will sanction them, jointly with our Pacific partners, or unilaterally if we must.
  • As the preeminent global maritime power, the United States will not permit America’s lifelines to the Pacific—“Island Asia”—to fall into the hands of “Mainland Asia.” This was true in 1950, and it is true today. This means that America must have a renewed commitment to Japan, Taiwan, ASEAN, our ANZUS allies, and the Pacific.
  • Finally, we seek a democratic China. President Truman declared in 1945, a “strong, united and democratic China” is in “the most vital interests of the United States.” But two out of three isn’t good enough. We now have a “strong and united” China which supports tyranny, nuclear proliferation, and lawless mercantilism. This undemocratic China is a greater challenge than a weak, disunited China. Because the vast majority of Chinese now acquiesce in the regime’s domestic repression at the price of economic prosperity and national power (as was true in 1930s Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union—though without the prosperity) there is no possibility that China can democratize by itself. American leaders therefore must not legitimize the regime. As President Reagan did during his visits to the Soviet Union, future U.S. leaders must insist on meeting with voices for freedom—the Chen Guangchengs and the Jiang Yanyongs—in visits to China.

Richard HalloranMarch 22, 2007

Richard Halloran

John writes: “If basic changes aren't made in U.S. policies, the twenty-first century will be the “Chinese Century” for Asia.” I would differ only in nuance. What the United States needs is not so much a change in policy as the forging of a policy. We haven't had a real policy toward China, one that recognizes the surging power of the Middle Kingdom, for many decades.

As the Chinese like to number things, herewith in Chinese fashion is a suggestion that might be called the Four Rudiments of China Policy, with American Characteristics:

1. Strategic Clarity: Several administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, have proclaimed a policy of strategic ambiguity that did little but confuse the Chinese, American diplomats and military officers, and, most important, the American people. Rather, we should state clearly that the United States, a Pacific nation, intends to remain a power along the littoral of Asia and will defend its interests, allies, and friends, including Taiwan, with all its national power.

2. Tactical Ambiguity: The United States will choose the means, whether political, economic, or military, and the time and place to promote its interests or to respond to Chinese threats. Those means will be hidden until the appropriate time to reveal them.

3. Realistic Reciprocity: Americans must persuade the Chinese that we are not barbarians to be kept waiting at the gates but a civilized nation due respect, a respect we will be pleased to return. Both sides should strive to learn about the other in the deepest cultural and political sense. We must persuade the Chinese to become more open (transparent is the buzz word) about their military intentions, strategy, and strength.

4. Firm Deterrence: The United States, which is well ahead of China in military power today, must maintain an armed force that would, without doubt, prevail in any hostile confrontation with China. That means finding a way not to be distracted by the turmoil in Iraq, the nuclear prospects of North Korea and Iran, or a half-dozen current issues. We should learn from the Chinese to take a long view.

Several years ago, Admiral Dennis Blair, then in charge of the Pacific Command in its headquarters on a hill overlooking Pearl Harbor, told a Congressional committee that he and his staff did not sit around planning to attack China, and wanted the Chinese to know that. He cautioned, however, that the Chinese must take a critical lesson aboard: “Don’t mess with us.”

John J. TkacikMarch 21, 2007

John J. Tkacik, Jr.

Richard and I don't have a fundamental disagreement about where China is going: If basic changes aren't made in U.S. policies, the twenty-first century will be the “Chinese Century” for Asia.

Perhaps where we differ is on what the Chinese Century holds for Asia and whether China will pursue a Chinese Century with military force.

Beijing may never need to use force in the Taiwan Strait. That conundrum may resolve itself if/when Taiwan's “Blue” pro-China forces win legislative and presidential elections over the next year. Blues have already blocked efforts to upgrade Taiwan's missile and submarine defenses; they have blocked this year's defense budget altogether. James Soong (nearly elected Taiwan's president in 2000, and more nearly elected vice president in 2004) believes Taiwan need not spend on defenses because China's leader personally assured him “there is no question of military action against Taiwan” so long as “Taiwan does not move toward independence.” So, if the “Blues” continue to win elections in Taiwan, Beijing will likely assume responsibility for Taiwan's problem solved.

But confrontations are brewing elsewhere. Beijing claims territory in India, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea. In a “Chinese Century,” all will be resolved in Beijing's favor with or without arms.

Beijing refuses to engage Tokyo on East China Sea demarcations, specifically in the gas fields north of Japan's Senkaku Islands. The logical demarcation line (as opposed to Beijing's line which encompasses the entire area) runs through the middle of the field, and hence it should be “jointly developed.” China is already siphoning gas off the field via an undersea pipeline ironically financed with Japanese aid funds. In September 2005, China sent a naval fleet to the Senkakus and menaced approaching Japan Self Defense Force ships and aircraft and still patrol the area. Since then, U.S. and Japanese navies have held joint maneuvers in the region.

Today’s newspapers say Japan's Diet will soon pass a “basic law” giving legal (and naval) protection to Japanese oil companies drilling in the area.

Washington says the Senkaku Islands are covered by the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, but what about Japan's “exclusive economic zone”? What happens if the navy of the People’s Liberation Army confronts the Japanese Navy in those waters? Are the Senkaku Gas Fields just one “miscalculation” away from a shoot-out?

Condoleezza Rice observed in Foreign Affairs back in 2000, that China is a “non-status quo power,” and history is replete with rising “non-status quo powers” clashing with “status quo powers” as they reach the general vicinity of military parity. The Chinese “miscalculation” that Richard rightly worries about will erupt if Beijing prematurely assesses that it is ready to take on U.S. forces in the Pacific.

I just have a bad feeling about it.

Richard HalloranMarch 20, 2007

Richard Halloran

When assessing Chinese intentions, one word springs to mind: “Miscalculation.”

My experience with Chinese, either in China or with visitors to the United States, is that they are monumentally ignorant of U.S. capabilities and intentions. In Harbin several months ago, a Chinese general turned to Admiral William Fallon, then commander of the Pacific Command, and said: “You are the first American I have ever met.”  The implications of that are staggering. Many U.S. commanders in recent years have quietly, out of the public eye, cautioned the Chinese not to misjudge the United States.

U.S. military exchanges with China, underway sporadically for fifteen years as a form of deterrence, have been essential in showing the Chinese what U.S. forces can do. Admiral Timothy Keating, who is to take charge of the Pacific Command this month, told Congress he intended to pursue “robust  engagement” with China for this reason.

Chinese intentions can be divided into two: Taiwan and the rest of the world.

Let no one doubt that China means to conquer Taiwan, whether by peaceful or military means. That is demanded by Chinese nationalism, Taiwan’s strategic position astride the sea-lanes between the South China Sea and Northeast Asia, Taiwan’s emerging democracy that Chinese see as subversive, and total economic integration.

Whither China in Asia and the world, four possibilities:

1. Aggressive China—in which China’s forces seek to dominate Asia and drive the United States from the western Pacific. In America’s Coming War with China, Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute in Washington, asserts that conflict is almost inevitable. Conservatives Jed Babbin and Edward Timperlake contend in Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States that China ’s “buildup is aimed at defeating the U.S.”

2. Benign China—in which China becomes democratic. Bruce Gilley, formerly with the Far Eastern Economic Review, argues that this will be peaceful and inevitable. Ross Terrill, an old China hand at Harvard, contends that most change in China over the centuries has been violent and the coming of democracy will be no different.

3. Revival of the Middle Kingdom—in which China will seek to acquire enough political, economic, diplomatic, and military power to dominate Asia without its armies crossing borders. In a new version of the dynastic eras, China will insist that no major decision will be made in any Asian capital without the approval of Beijing.

4. Fractured China—in which provincial forces become so strong, as in the past, that China breaks into warring kingdoms. Uneven economic development, vast unemployment and under-employment, political corruption, and rising dissidence make possible what once seemed impossible, given the iron hand of the Communist Party.

My guess, and it is only a guess, is that Option Three will prevail.

John J. TkacikMarch 19, 2007

John J. Tkacik, Jr.

On March 4, China’s National People’s Congress announced a 17.8 percent increase in the country’s 2007 military budget—$45 billion, the biggest ever annual increase in China’s military spending.

In “purchasing power parity” (ppp) terms, however, China’s effective military spending is far greater than $45 billion (or the $105 billion that the Pentagon suggests). It is closer to $450 billion, or 4.5% of China’s “ppp” GDP of $10 trillion, if the CIA’s estimates are to be credited. Having worked on these numbers 13 years ago, I am inclined to believe them. The “ppp” figure simply reflects the reality that a billion bucks buys a lot more “bang” in China than in the United States. Beijing’s 2006 Defense White Paper reports that for 2005 and earlier, the size of China’s “defense-related science, technology and industry increased by 24.3 percent, 20.7 percent, and 21.6 percent, respectively, over the previous year.” These are sectors not included in China’s published military budget.

Within a few years, China will be America’s only global peer competitor for military and strategic influence. But don’t just take my word for it.

Director of National Intelligence, Michael McConnell said last month that the Chinese are “building their military, in my view, to reach some state of parity with the United States,” adding “they’re a threat today, they would become an increasing threat over time.” McConnell’s predecessor, John Negroponte, noted last year that “China is a rapidly rising power with steadily expanding global reach that may become a peer competitor to the United States at some point.” In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described China as a budding “military superpower.”

Last October 26, one did not need Basil Fawlty’s “doctorate in the bleedin’ obvious” to understand China’s message when a high-tech PLA submarine surfaced within torpedo range of the USS Kitty Hawk. The capability to kill a U.S. carrier was clear. A month later, the PRC [People’s Republic of China] press said the sub was skippered by Admiral Ding Yiping, China’s top submariner, not by a lowly PLA Navy commander. Ding’s engraved calling card said “this operation was planned at the highest levels.”

China’s direct ascent “kinetic kill vehicle” test on January 12 could have only one possible target: U.S. space assets. If we Americans don’t allow ourselves to infer China’s “intentions” from that “capability” then we’re simply making excuses to think only happy thoughts about China.

Do you want evidence of Beijing’s “intentions”? Read what the regime publishes. In 1971, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai told the New York Times’s James Reston that China’s four strategic aims in Asia were Taiwan liberation, removal of the U.S. as a military power in Asia, removal of the massive Soviet troop presence on China’s borders and prevention of Japan’s rise as a military power. Last December, China’s “Defense White Paper” listed the same set of concerns with the understandable exception of the Soviet one. In short, an anschluss with Taiwan, predominance over Japan and the removal of the U.S. presence in the western Pacific is at the heart of Beijing’s “intentions.” The question is: What are we going to do about it?

Richard HalloranMarch 19, 2007

Richard Halloran

When I was a lieutenant in the infantry a long time ago (I was not at Valley Forge but became a soldier shortly after), I was taught that gauging a threat included two elements, capability and intention. With good intelligence, capabilities can be measured. Intentions are much harder to discern.

On the ground, China has a big army that an American intelligence officer once said could project power as far as it could walk. Since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) defeated the Chinese Nationalist, or Kuomintang, army in 1949, it has not done well. It was held off by a smaller U.S. force in the Korean War and took a shellacking from the experienced Vietnamese army in 1979. That is changing today, but slowly.

The PLA, which includes naval and air components, is building a deep-water navy with ships and submarines constructed at home or bought from Russia. The same is true in the air, with China just having produced its first fighter plane built at home. Even so, Admiral Timothy Keating, who is about to assume command of the Pacific Command in Hawaii, told Congress the other day: “They are well behind us technologically. We enjoy significant advantages across the spectrum of defensive and offensive systems—in particular, undersea warfare.”

In nuclear forces, China ’s Second Artillery has missiles that could reach American bases and ships in the Western Pacific, my home state of Hawaii, and large parts of the U.S. mainland. To do so, however, would be to commit nuclear suicide as the overwhelming U.S. retaliatory force could set China back for many decades. Similarly, a Chinese anti-satellite assault would draw a devastating U.S. response. A former commander of the Pacific Command, retired Admiral Dennis Blair, was quoted recently: “The Chinese will find that a nation has to work very hard to protect its space assets from its adversaries. It needs to develop the capability to protect its own satellites as well as to degrade its adversaries' space assets. The Chinese effectively are entering into competition with the United States—and they are quite far behind.”

China ’s new military budget of $45 billion is deceptive in two ways. Most U.S. analysts estimate that, because of Chinese secrecy, it is at least twice as much. Moreover, in military budgets, what you buy is more important than what you spend. Chinese manpower and procurement costs are far less than those of the United States so China, as the cliché would hold, gets more bang for the renminbi.

In sum, the PLA could attack U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan, including Okinawa, and U.S. ships in the Western Pacific. Those U.S. forces, however, have not been depleted by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Admiral Blair said: “The United States draws primarily on maritime and air power to support its interests in Asia. In the Middle East and Afghanistan , we have committed primarily ground power. The U.S. air and naval forces deployed in the Pacific are strong enough to provide effective deterrence.”

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