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Exaggerating the China Threat

By James H. Nolt

I am in Taiwan this week meeting with government officials and think tank experts to discuss China-Taiwan relations and economic circumstances in East Asia. China is now the world’s second largest economy. For decades it has been an impressive engine of economic growth, not only improving the living standard of hundreds of millions of Chinese people, but also providing the biggest market in the world for German and Japanese machinery, Boeing and Airbus airliners, Australian and Chilean raw minerals, Russian arms, Taiwanese and Korean semi-conductors, and even South Korean K-pop and TV series.

China’s outstanding economic success has provoked mixed responses abroad. On the one hand, many fear the “rise of China,” portending the creation of a potentially disruptive new superpower. People in this camp vigilantly scan the horizon for signs of a rising China threat. On the other hand, many others are concerned that China’s rapid economic growth is ultimately unsustainable and that when China does crash, the world economy will be profoundly affected. I lean more toward the second camp.

Being in Taiwan this week, I am struck, as I was during my last visit here in 2004, by the relatively lax attitude of Taiwanese authorities toward the purported military threat from mainland China, which exercises many Washington authorities, think tank pundits, and American politicians more than it does those here in Taiwan actually on the “front line.” Taiwanese military preparedness has been noticeably slackening in recent years, but at the same time, relations across the Taiwan Strait are, in the words of Taiwan’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, “Better than they have ever been.”

During the talks I am involved in this week, the “rise of China” has been a persistent theme, as it is in the world media. The “rise of China” implies the corresponding decline of U.S. power, since power is always relative. Although in economic terms China is rising relative to the U.S. in recent decades, China’s economy suffers from some significant weaknesses and vulnerabilities, which I will explore in more detail next week.

In a military sense, the “rise of China” has yet to occur. My argument is quite simple but contrary to what you will hear from nearly every other pundit. The U.S. has far from exhausted the massive increase in relative force it gained since the demise of the Soviet Bloc in 1991. During the Cold War, nearly the entire U.S. armed force and that of most of its allies, including Japan, was devoted to deterring the massive power of the Soviet Union, and thus little available to “contain China.” While it is true that since the end of the Cold War the forces of the U.S. (though not Japan or South Korea) have declined somewhat absolutely and relative to China, the removal of the Soviet Bloc from the balance of world power was such an enormous net gain for the U.S. in terms of its relative naval, air, and land power, that the modest military rise of China still has decades to go before it even begins to catch up with America’s large lead.

Furthermore, in a longer view, China is not rising militarily. China’s armed forces peaked in the early 1970s at about 5 million and have been declining in size ever since, with especially big cuts after the downfall of China’s Defense Minister Lin Biao in 1971 and the ascension of Deng Xiaoping as China’s foremost leader in 1979. Numerically, China’s armed forces today are less than half their early 1970s peak. On the other hand, India, a truly rising power, has more than doubled its armed forces from the 1960s until today. Qualitatively, the Indian forces have stayed ahead of China too.

China today has naval and air forces far inferior, qualitatively and quantitatively, to the Soviet forces of the 1980s that the U.S. successfully deterred right up to the end of the Cold War. The U.S. could have cut its armed forces much more drastically than it did in the aftermath of the Cold War and still gained significantly relative to China simply because the Soviet Union was no longer pinning down the bulk of U.S. forces. This large net gain of U.S. power is what enabled the U.S. to deploy the force necessary to defeat Iraq twice, force that would have been unavailable without the fall of the Soviet Bloc.

Relative to its GDP, China’s military effort is much less than was that of the heavily militarized Soviet Union, but also proportionately less than the U.S. Much like Japan, China since the 1970s has emphasized national economic development over militarization of the economy. China is not making a military effort commensurate with an aspiring superpower. If China really intended to overtake the U.S. in the near term, it would spend much more of its resources on military power than it currently does.

There has been media attention in recent weeks about Chinese efforts to extend certain reefs in the disputed South China Sea (SCS) into islets big enough to build military facilities, including airstrips. Few of the news articles trumpeting this Chinese expansionism have noted that China is merely playing catchup, since Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan, rival claimants for many of the same reefs, have built facilities and airstrips on various islets for decades.

My own view of this territorial dispute is that Americans are being bamboozled into considering it their business on the basis of the spurious claim the navigation rights in the heavily-travelled SCS are the issue. In fact, no matter whose claims prevail, nobody would interfere with navigation in peacetime. In the extremely unlikely event of a serious war in East Asia, the tiny SCS islets are indefensibly since they are easily isolated from supply, and their airstrips highly vulnerable, lacking even the routine safeguards of underground aircraft and fuel storage typical of most mainland military airfields.

The only real interest of the U.S. in the SCS is peaceful resolution of the dispute, since any armed conflict would have a large adverse effect on the economic health of the entire region, now so vital to the world economy. Peaceful resolution is ultimately likely, since the main resource in those seas is oil, which is not exploitable unless the property lines are clear. No private corporation is likely to invest the many billions of dollars required to develop offshore oil drilling rigs in the SCS as long as the region is still in dispute and thus a possible war zone. The risk is not manageable until the dispute is resolved. Peaceful settlement must precede development.

Certainly, China is trying to put down markers in the SCS that it believes will help substantiate its expansive claims there, but the issue is merely its ultimate share of the undersea oil, not strategic hegemony, which is beyond its grasp.



James H. Nolt is a senior fellow at World Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at New York University.

[Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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