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Institute for Policy Studies

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  • Released February 6, 2008
Foreign Policy In Focus » Report

Is China a Threat?

When it comes to the putative Chinese military threat, the numbers simply donÂ’t add up.

China’s unprecedented industrial growth over the last two decades has raised the question of whether it now poses a threat to the security of the United States economically, militarily, or both. Economically, the extent to which China truly threatens the United States depends at least in part on the chauvinistic assumption that any potential challenge to absolute U.S. global economic dominance is threatening.

On the military question, the answer is much clearer. China is not a military threat to the United States. Only those who believe that Fu Manchu is alive and well in the Middle Kingdom and fulfilling his dreams of world domination through a large and aggressive army, air force, and navy still subscribe to a notion that China poses a global military threat. Several recent books on the Chinese military perpetuate this myth. Their titles reveal everything: Imagined Enemies: China Prepares for Uncertain War, for instance, or Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States.

These and numerous similar narratives share an alarmist tone combined with a dearth of relevant facts in support of their claims. These books suffer from such flaws for good reason. The facts belie the claims, especially when placed in comparative perspective. When it comes to the putative Chinese military threat, the numbers simply don’t add up.

Crunching the Numbers

Much has been made of the double-digit increase in Chinese defense spending over the last three years. China has indeed increased its spending. But much of the additional expenditures have been devoted to upgrading information, weapons, and communications systems. At the same, China has cut troop strength to almost half of what it was in 1990. Moreover, the estimate of military expenditures for 2006 is $35 billion. That is about 7% of the U.S. defense budget, once the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are factored in. Even before including these latter expenditures the U.S. military budget is now larger than the defense budgets of all other nations combined. Almost surely China’s actual military expenditures are larger than the 2006 estimate. But even if the military budget is twice as large, $70 billion is still less than 15% of the U.S. total and less than what was spent in Iraq and Afghanistan last year alone.

In terms of ground forces, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has an active duty component of 2.3 million personnel. That’s a lot of soldiers, but the United States has 1.4 million, with less than one-fourth of the population. True, the Chinese have reserve forces of another million plus. But they are responsible, among other things, for patrolling more than 8,000 miles of borders with India and Russia – not always the friendliest of neighbors in the past – functions the U.S. military does not perform at the Canadian and Mexican borders. Moreover, despite the supply breakdown scandal in Iraq, the 1.4 million U.S. troops are much better equipped overall than their Chinese counterparts, few of whom have state-of-the-art support materiel or personal safety equipment.

The PLA’s air force capabilities, meanwhile, are no match in quality for the United States either defensively or offensively. Many of China’s aircraft models are over 40 years old. Certainly the mainland forces pose a threat to Taiwan, but Taiwan’s own modern air force should not be underestimated. And with the recent electoral defeat of Chen Shui-bian’s Democratic Progressive Party by the pro-mainland Kuomintang, political and military tensions are likely to decrease markedly. Beijing can be very patient in waiting for a rapprochement with Taiwan.

At Sea

China’s weakest link is naval. It has no blue ocean navy, and it is difficult to imagine how it could dream of building one. Of the 21 large aircraft carriers operational in the world right now, 12 are American, with a total landing space of 75 acres. The carriers belonging to the rest of the world have 15 acres altogether. None of the other aircraft carriers belongs to China. So, the score is rather lopsided on the naval front: the United States 12, China 0.

The picture is similar for submarines. In a 2005 Atlantic Monthly article Robert Kaplan issued the dire warning that “The Middle East is just a blip. The American military contest with China in the Pacific will define the 21st century. And China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia ever was.” Kaplan cites as one important piece of “evidence” supporting his doom and gloom scenarios the fact that “ The Chinese are investing in both diesel-powered and nuclear-powered submarines – a clear signal that they intend not only to protect their coasts but also to expand their influence far out into the Pacific.” [italics added]

In the first place, the Chinese might have a hard time “expanding their influence far out into the Pacific” because so many U.S. soldiers, sailors, marines, and air force personnel are already stationed in the region. There are 18,000 troops stationed in Alaska, 60,000 in Hawai’i, 37,000 in Japan, 5,000 on Guam, and 30,000 in South Korea. Again, the Chinese number is zero. The United States has over 700 military installations outside its borders overall, while the Chinese have none at present.

Kaplan’s supposedly “clear signal” of expansion rests on the fact that the Chinese already have 55 submarines, and have a few more under construction. But 50 of these are diesel-powered and hence must surface or near-surface every few days to take in oxygen. This makes them more vulnerable to detection and destruction (by U.S. reconnaissance satellites and missile launchers) than nuclear submarines. Although formidable vessels, these diesel submarines are in the end not even a secure defense against the highly sophisticated technology of the world’s sole superpower, let alone a military threat to it. Strictly in terms of deterrence, then, it is unsurprising that the Chinese would like more nuclear-powered submarines than the five that are currently operational for protecting their shores.

On the other hand, the United States currently has 72 submarines, all of which are nuclear-powered. And more are on the way, including the Virginia-class attack submarine, not a vessel designed for defense. Perhaps most frightening for the Chinese are the U.S. underwater capabilities in the Pacific, where the Navy maintains two-thirds of its strategic submarine forces. “At least 2 of these submarines are kept on “hard alert” in the Pacific at all times, meaning they’re ready to fire within 15 minutes of a launch order,” write Keir Lieber and Daryl Press. “Since each submarine carries 24 nuclear-tipped missiles with an average of six warheads per missile, commanders have almost 300 warheads ready for immediate use. This is more than enough to assign multiple warheads to each of the 18 silos in which the Chinese have nuclear missiles capable of reaching the US. Chinese leaders would have little or no warning of the attack.”

Finally, China has 100-400 nuclear weapons. But only the 18 in the silos mentioned above are capable of striking the western continental United States and these cannot be launched quickly. Unless fired as a first-strike weapon, they could easily be destroyed. The United States, on the other hand, has almost 10,000 nuclear warheads and sufficient delivery capabilities to obliterate every Chinese city with a population of a half-million or more, and still have more than enough of a stockpile to hold the rest of the world at bay.

Who Fears Whom?

It should thus be clear that the Chinese have much better grounds for fearing the United States than the other way around, and this holds true not only in terms of actual military capabilities, but also in the readiness and willingness to use them. Unlike the United States, which has well over a quarter of a million troops stationed overseas with attendant army, naval, and air force weapons and delivery systems equal to the rest of the world together, the entire Chinese army, navy, and air force are based within its own borders, and shooting at no one.

Absent future U.S. provocation, the Chinese will not likely try to match the United States militarily as the former Soviet Union did. First, the costs would be prohibitive. Building a blue-ocean navy, for example, would require not only the construction and deployment of aircraft carriers, but escorts and supply ships for them, and other ships for other purposes. This new navy would have to be very large, as active in the Indian Ocean as in the Pacific in order to keep sea lanes secure for oil deliveries necessary for the economy. It would necessitate increasing significantly the number of airplanes built and deployed, fighters and bombers alike. And it would require large expenditures for standard operations at sea, and of course maintenance, plus the salaries and benefits of the much larger complement of personnel that such a build-up would require.

Even if the Chinese economy could absorb the costs of building and maintaining such an expanded navy, however, it would be fairly ineffective without many overseas bases to refuel and resupply the fleet(s), and the Chinese government would be extremely reluctant to seek such bases. In terms of physical size, demographics, and industrial output China dwarfs the Southeast Asian countries on or near its borders. It has been actively engaged since the beginning of the century in forming trade and other agreements with ASEAN not only to play down its Goliath image but also to develop markets closer to home in order to avoid dependency on the U.S. market, cut transportation costs, and reduce military expenditures. It is in the Middle Kingdom’s best interest to form closer ties with South Korea and Japan as well. This will clearly be easier if its military forces continue to be seen as fundamentally defensive in nature, with no bases abroad. The same applies to China’s relations with India. The two countries share a long border and have an equally strong interest in keeping the Indian Ocean open to the commerce necessary for both Asian giants to continue their economic development, as Prime Minister Singh’s recent state visit to Beijing underscored.

Head to Head?

A significant number of people profit greatly from the present U.S. defense budget. Since even people with little knowledge of military tactics realize that aircraft carriers and nuclear attack submarines are worthless for deterring ideologically driven young people from strapping IEDs to their waists, a more compelling threat must be conjured up is to justify increased Pentagon spending. Since the end of the Cold War, China has become the candidate of choice among illusionist hawks.

Confrontation with China is not, however, inevitable. Perhaps the best reason for China not to seek a blue-ocean navy comes from an initially most unlikely source: The U.S. Navy. Its former head, Admiral Michael Mullen proposed a “Thousand Ship Navy” (TSN) that would mark “a new chapter in cooperation as it emphasizes the management of shared security interests of all maritime nations.” China could become a significant component of this TSN, and thus keep its shipping lanes secure at relatively little cost beyond present expenditures. Given the fact that 90% of all world trade and almost 70% of all petroleum is transported by sea, it clearly behooves both countries to cooperate closely to keep the maritime commons free of pirates, terrorists, and drug traffickers. Cooperation at sea is equally needed for missions of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Unfortunately, the highly invasive foreign policies of the United States, combined with its overwhelming military superiority, provide the Chinese with very good reasons to continue distrusting U.S. motives (including the TSN). It is therefore the responsibility of the United States to take meaningful initiatives to build support for closer cooperation with the soon-to-be world’s second largest economic power. Some of those initiatives would deal directly with China, such as providing materiel and advanced training for the Chinese military to conduct search-and-rescue missions.

The United States could also foster far greater trust and cooperation specifically with the Chinese by clarifying the U.S. position toward Taiwan. Taipei should understand that the United States will come to its immediate aid in case of attack. But should Taipei seek independence and a seat at the UN, Washington will use all its diplomatic strength to insure that other nations do not recognize these claims.

The United States could also signal to China that it is willing to be a more cooperative international player. For instance, the United States could significantly reduce its nuclear stockpile and renounce the first-strike use of nuclear weapons, as China did long ago. It should also sign and ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as 155 nations have done (including China) since it was promulgated in 1982. Ending the brutal occupation of Iraq is another global measure, as would placing U.S. troops in Afghanistan under UN administration and signing a peace treaty with North Korea (55 years after the cease-fire). Holding out an olive branch to Iran, and stopping the one-sided U.S. support of the Israelis would also provide clear signals to the Chinese and the rest of the world of a major shift in U.S. foreign policy.

A reduction of U.S. threats to the world – from nuclear weapons, regional wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and potential conflicts with Iran and North Korea – would decrease the likelihood of confrontation with China as well as undercut any rationale for China’s own increased military spending. Such a shift in U.S. national security strategy would not only increase the security of China and the United States but the world as well.