The Scope of China’s Military Threat

The Scope of China’s Military Threat

The Defense Department’s most recent assessment of China’s military power presents it as a potential military rival of the United States. But some experts say China has no intention of challenging U.S. military dominance in Asia or anywhere else, and accuse the Pentagon of hyping the China threat to justify its own military spending.

June 2, 2006 9:36 am (EST)

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As the Pentagon tries to prepare the U.S. military for the future, military planners are looking to China as the next potential large-scale threat to the United States. The Defense Department’s most recent assessment of China’s power raises concerns about China’s military modernization and contends Beijing could one day try to dominate Asia or challenge U.S. hegemony. But some experts say China, while clearly spending large sums on defense, does not intend to challenge U.S. military dominance in Asia or anywhere else. They accuse the Pentagon of hyping the China threat to justify its own enormous budget.

What is the scope of the military threat presented by China?

The Defense Department’s 2006 assessment of China’s military power (PDF) cited long-term trends in China’s modernization of its strategic forces—including its nuclear capacity, land- and sea-based access denial capabilities, and precision-strike weapons—that "have the potential to pose credible threats to modern militaries operating in the region." The report, seen as a bellwether of the U.S.-China relationship, showcased the Pentagon’s view that China is the next big military threat to the United States. "There are some real concerns about China’s military modernization," says Adam Segal, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But some critics say the Pentagon is exaggerating the military threat from China, and accuse defense officials of "threat procurement," building up China as an enemy in order to justify massive military spending on new defense and weapons systems. "I’m not sure why the Pentagon always uses a worst-case scenario when assessing the military threat from China, but it does," says Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. Richard C. Bush III, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, says, "Most experts would define ’threat’ to mean a combination of capability and intentions. There’s no question that China is building up its capabilities, but China has displayed no intentions of using those capabilities against the United States."

How much does China spend on its military?

It depends whose figures you trust, experts say. China—starting from a relatively low level—has increased its military spending each year for the last fifteen years. Beijing’s official estimate of its military spending is currently between $30 billion and $35 billion dollars, which most experts say is lower than the actual figure. Many independent analysts put the real figure at $50 billion to $65 billion, including research and development. The Pentagon’s estimates, however, range from $70 billion to a high of $105 billion per year. "It’d be very hard to find an independent analyst who believes that [$105 billion] figure is even remotely accurate," Carpenter says.

In comparison, the U.S. defense budget for 2006 was about $420 billion (PDF), nearly half of the total global expenditure on defense, and roughly equal to the defense spending of the rest of the world combined. Given that neither China nor the United States is entirely sure of the motives of the other, experts say the military buildups are likely to continue. "In this situation, when China and the United States both have some uncertainty about the other’s long-term intentions, we will hedge against each other," Bush says. "We would both like the relationship to work out in the long term, but we can’t be sure."

How much of China’s military expansion is directed at Taiwan?

Experts say much of China’s recent military buying—including of long- and short-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, submarines, and advanced aircraft—is directed at Taiwan. “Most credible experts would agree that China’s capacity building is focused on a Taiwan contingency,” Bush says. “It’s primarily deterrence, persuading Taiwan not to do what China fears it will do: irreversibly and unilaterally change Taiwan’s legal status.”

Beijing currently has from 700 to 800 short-range missiles pointed across the Taiwan Strait. “China is worried about the functional equivalent of a [Taiwanese] Declaration of Independence,” Bush says. The Pentagon report “expresses concern that China’s capability is shading beyond deterrence into coercion, trying to force Taiwan to negotiate on China’s terms,” he says. And a good deal of China’s military expansion is also “designed to deter a U.S. response to a Taiwan Straits crisis,” Segal says. Over the last decade, China has also invested in a new class of amphibious assault ships that would be critical for any invasions by sea.

But the “de jure independence by constitutional revision China fears most is probably impossible under the current circumstances,” Bush says. Over time, China sees the situation going its way, experts say—particularly if Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou is elected president in 2008. Ma has been much more conciliatory towards China than Taiwan’s current president, Chen Shui-bian, an ardent nationalist and independence advocate. Bush says if Ma wins two terms, he would serve until 2016, and by then China’s “military threat may not be necessary.”

Is China seeking to dominate Asia militarily?

Some of Beijing’s military investments—including improved air and naval power, increased radar and surveillance abilities, and advanced missiles and weapons systems—could be "directed at expanding China’s military power in East Asia," Segal says. China also has been more aggressive about asserting its right to oil and gas resources in the Pacific. But some experts say Beijing’s leadership itself has not definitively answered this question. "I believe China has not made the strategic choice of whether it should challenge the United States for dominance in Asia," Bush says. In any case, he adds, "Those choices are decades away." Others agree, saying China’s economic growth is bringing an expansion of diplomatic and cultural influence—known as ’soft power’—that will preclude the need for Beijing to use force in Asia.

Are other Asian countries worried?

Japan is watching China’s developments with concern and building its military accordingly. Its military spending is estimated at about $40 billion to $50 billion annually, ranking it second globally behind the United States if China’s official figures are used. Experts say the parallel buildup of the militaries of China and Japan could be worrisome. "We’ve never had both a strong China and a strong Japan in the region at the same time," Segal says. He points out, "All the capabilities China is developing for Taiwan affect Japan." As nationalism rises in both countries and conservative politicians in Japan suggest amending the constitution to allow the country to remilitarize, tensions are growing between the traditional rivals.

However, some experts say the rest of Asia has not had the same reaction to China’s military might. "Other countries in the region have high hopes that China will be a positive player instead of an aggressive military power," Carpenter says.

Is China seeking to project military power outside Asia?

China’s weapons systems include intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and it is building its contingent of Russian jets and submarines, which could be used to project force outside Asia. But experts say it’s difficult to tell if that’s what China intends. "The case is much weaker that China seeks military power beyond the region," Carpenter says. "I wouldn’t rule it out, but at least at this point we have no definite evidence that their military ambitions go substantively beyond Taiwan." Other experts say that China, focused on a "peaceful rise" and sustaining economic growth, has no intention of picking a fight with anyone, least of all Washington. "China requires a good relationship with the United States for everything it wants to accomplish," Segal says. More pragmatically, most experts agree with the Pentagon’s assessment that China’s armed forces are not currently capable of projecting military force outside the region.

What is the impact of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization?

China, Russia, and several Central Asian countries formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to carry out joint military exercises and address security issues in the region. The group has drawn attention and concern from Washington, particularly after SCO member Uzbekistan evicted the United States from Karshi-Khanabad air base after a SCO meeting in 2005. While some U.S. observers are concerned that China and Russia are trying to build a new sphere of influence in the region, others say the two countries are reacting to U.S. efforts to encourage democracy in Central Asia, which are seen as threatening to both Moscow and Beijing. "It’s a mutually reinforcing process," says Carpenter. "The reactions of Russia and China are influenced by the U.S. presence in Central Asia and the U.S. hegemonic presence in the world. That, particularly, is drawing together two natural adversaries."

Is the Pentagon using the threat of China to justify its own spending?

Some experts say yes. "I think our military budget is excessive by almost any reasonable standard, for China as a long-term threat or the war on terror, which has become an excuse for all manner of security spending that has nothing to do with the war on terror," Carpenter says. "It’s hard to justify spending half a trillion dollars each year because China might emerge as a security challenge twenty or thirty years in the future." A war with the United States would threaten China’s two greatest policy priorities, continuing strong economic growth and maintaining internal social stability. On the other hand, Carpenter concedes, "The Pentagon’s job is to project threats into the future, and if they didn’t get it right, twenty or thirty years from now Congress would hold them accountable."

Are the United States and China encouraging an arms race?

Experts say each country is hedging its bets, unsure about the other’s intentions but building its military for fear that the other is doing the same. Washington is expanding its relationships with two of China’s main rivals, Japan and India, and is also sending U.S. bombers and fighter planes to Guam, Segal says. China is reaching out both to the West, through SCO, and to neighboring countries in East and Southeast Asia. "A hedging situation is very difficult to manage. Each side is trying to keep cooperative and competitive elements together," Bush says. He and other experts warn that politicians and diplomats must focus on the generally beneficial political and economic relations between the two countries, while keeping the military competition on the back burner. "Our Pentagon is in charge of seeing a threat and building against a threat. Unless political leadership is out in front, keeping the cooperative elements higher in priority and reassuring the other guys, the self-fulfilling prophecy is in danger of taking hold," he says. "As Joseph Nye says, if we treat China as the enemy, it will become the enemy because of how it perceives what we do."

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