Why the Pentagon keeps overestimating the Chinese army.

Military analysis.
May 26 2006 5:08 PM

The China Syndrome

Why the Pentagon keeps overestimating Beijing's military strength.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Every day and night, hundreds of Air Force generals and Navy admirals must thank their lucky stars for China. Without the specter of a rising Chinese military, there would be no rationale for such a large fleet of American nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, or for a new generation of stealth combat fighters—no rationale for about a quarter of the Pentagon's budget. In Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's Quadrennial Defense Review, released this past February, the looming Chinese threat is the explicit justification for all the big-ticket weapons systems that have nothing to do with fighting terrorists or insurgents.

But is the threat real? In each of the last four years, Congress has required the Defense Department to issue a report titled Military Power of the People's Republic of China. The latest edition, issued this week, starts out ominously, but as you read through its 50 double-columned pages, you gradually realize that claims of emerging Chinese superpower are way overblown.

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The Chinese are hardly sluggish when it comes to modernizing their military. According to the report, they've been boosting their military budget by double-digit percentages every year for the past decade. They've been expanding their arsenals of missiles, aircraft, air-defense weapons, surface ships, and submarines. They have expanded especially aggressively near the Taiwan Strait, to the point where the balance of forces with Taiwan is now "shifting in the mainland's favor." They're studying the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are shifting their doctrine to focus on joint operations, "network-centric warfare," and offensive maneuvers.

That's what you get from the first half of the report. In the second half, you see that it adds up to diddly.

Take the budget. China officially says it's spending $35 billion on its military, a 14.7 percent increase over last year's budget, amounting to 1.5 percent of its gross national product. (The U.S. military budget is nearly 15 times as large and amounts to 4 percent of our GNP; Japan's and South Korea's defense budgets are larger than China's, too.) The report says that China's growth "sustains a trend that has persisted since the 1990s of defense budget growth rates exceeding economic growth"—but read on—"although the growth of defense expenditures has lagged behind the growth in overall government expenditures over the same period of time." (Emphasis mine.)

In other words, by the report's admission, the military is not the Chinese government's No. 1 priority. (For more on the budget figures, click here.)

More to the point, let's look at what the Chinese have bought. It's a surprise to read that the balance of power with Taiwan is now "shifting in the mainland's favor." For decades, the widespread calculation has been that China could overwhelm Taiwan if it wanted to—just as the Soviet Union could have overwhelmed West Berlin or North Korea could have captured Seoul—but that it's been deterred from doing so out of a reluctance to spark a large-scale war.

The report states: "In the near term, China's military buildup appears focused on preparing for Taiwan Strait contingencies, including the possibility of U.S. intervention." It claims that in the long term, the Chinese aim to widen their area of military control throughout Asia. But the report later makes clear that the People's Liberation Army, as China's military is formally called, is doing nothing of the sort.

It states that "Chinese military theorists" are exploring "the role of information technology as a force multiplier, enabling PLA forces to conduct relatively limited military operations with precision at greater distances from China's borders. However, in practice," the report continues, "the PLA remains untested. The lack of operational experience hampers outside assessment." Military theorists are also thinking about "devising a robust 'out of area' offensive capability to provide effective support for joint operations." However, again in reality, the PLA "faces a persistent lack of inter-service cooperation and a lack of actual experience in joint operations." The language in its official studies of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan "suggest(s) China continues to be surprised at the rapid pace of change in military warfare." In other words, Chinese officers realize they're not playing in the big leagues.

Read as far as Page 30, and you see that not just China's capabilities but also its ambitions are far from expansive. "At present," the report states, "China's concept for sea-denial appears limited to sea-control in water surrounding Taiwan and its immediate periphery. If China were to shift to a broader 'sea-control' strategy"—in other words, if it were seeking a military presence farther away from its shores—"the principal indicators would include development of an aircraft carrier, development of robust, deep-water anti-submarine-warfare capabilities, development of a true area anti-aircraft warfare capability, acquisition of large numbers of nuclear attack submarines," etc., etc. The point is: The Chinese aren't doing—they're not even close to doing—any of those things.

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?"

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