The China Syndrome
Why the Pentagon keeps overestimating Beijing's military strength.
The report notes that Chinese naval officers began to "discuss" aircraft carriers in the late 1970s. In 1998 and 2000, they bought two Soviet carriers. However, neither was turned into a weapons platform. Instead, they were used as (these are the report's words) "floating military theme parks." The report notes that some analysts think China might have a single aircraft carrier by 2015, but others think they won't until 2020 or later.
Finally, Page 40, the next-to-last page of text, contains an eye-opening sidebar that calls into question the report's very premise:
China does not yet possess the military capability to accomplish with confidence its political objectives on the island [Taiwan], particularly when confronted with outside intervention. Beijing is also deterred by the potential political and economic repercussions of any use of force against Taiwan. China's leaders recognize that a war could severely retard economic development. Taiwan is China's single largest source of foreign direct investment. An extended campaign would wreck Taiwan's economic infrastructure.
Nor, this sidebar states, does China seem physically able to pull off an invasion of Taiwan, even if it wanted: "According to the Intelligence Community, China would have difficulty protecting its vital sea lanes of communication while simultaneously supporting blockade or invasion operations." This is the case, quite apart from the "virtual certainty of U.S. intervention, and Japanese interests, in any conflict in the Taiwan Strait."
If you're worried about the independence of Taiwan, this report suggests that China's buildup is worth careful monitoring and a modest response. If you're worried that the Chinese military might dominate Asia, the report suggests you should relax.
It's an old, recurring story, this business of latching on to China as a rationale for big weapons or budgets that would otherwise be baseless. Back in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, to build some kind of anti-ballistic-missile system. McNamara was opposed to an ABM system. He'd recently ordered a study that concluded an ABM would be futile because the Soviets could counter our defensive missiles by just slightly increasing the number of their offensive missiles. But an order was an order, so McNamara gave a speech in which he outlined all the reasons an ABM was a bad idea—then concluded that we needed to build one anyway to defend against an attack by Red China.
Paul Warnke, at the time an assistant secretary of defense, walked into McNamara's office later that day and asked, "China bomb, Bob?" Warnke told me, many years later, that McNamara looked down at his desk, shuffled some papers, and muttered, "What else am I going to blame it on?"
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.