Andrew Meyer: Should We Be Worried About China's Growing Military Power?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[After living in mainland China and Taiwan for four years and in Japan for one year Andrew Meyer returned to the U.S. and earned a doctoral degree in Chinese history, which he teaches at the City University of New York.]

Speaking in Sydney, Australia on Friday, February 23, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney asserted that a recent anti-satellite missile test and China's general military buildup are"not consistent with China's stated goal of a peaceful rise." At a press conference concluding the latest session of the National People's Congress, PRC Premier Wen Jiabao deflected questions about the missile test and China's decision to increase military spending by 18 percent, asserting,"China’s position on the peaceful utilization of outer space remains unchanged." Inquiring minds no doubt want to know which of these leaders has got the story straight.

The incommensurability of Wen's and Cheney's remarks exemplifies a deep-seated clash of perspectives. For the Chinese, expressions of concern over China's presence on the"final frontier" smack of racism and 19th century propaganda about the"Yellow Peril." For Europeans and Americans, Cheney's ideas enjoy a long pedigree extending back to Napoleon's famous injunction,"Let China sleep, for when she awakens, she will shake the world." The Chinese view is undoubtedly well-founded. The idea that technology already possessed by other powers (say, the US) poses a unique threat in Chinese hands is a paternalistic one at the very least, especially in the wake of events like the most recent Gulf War. On the other hand the proposition that any nation of more than one billion people, whatever their race or creed, poses a distinct challenge to the international"balance of power" is not ridiculous.

While this latter principle may be true, it does not provide an easy calculus by which development of China's military strength may be judged inimical to peace. Pundits will always fret over the"balance of power," but such concern is only useful if it is done in full acknowledgment of the fact that the international"balance of power" is an infinitely more complex phenomena now than it was in the age of Napoleon or Metternich. Dick Cheney (and others) presumably singled out China's anti-satellite missile test because it involves a technology which (according to their view) presupposes a conflict between China and another sovereign power. Only a nation-state can maintain militarily useful satellites, so goes this reasoning, so if China is developing weapons to destroy satellites it must anticipate a conflict with another sovereign power.

It takes little examination of the facts of the 21st-century world to realize that this line of thinking is erroneous. An increasing number of private groups and corporations deploy satellites in space, it is not inconceivable that a nation state might someday view a privately owned satellite as a threat. One does not have to imagine a James Bond scenario in which a mad scientist controls a laser in space. For example, if terrorists hacked into the computers of a company whose satellites could acquire images of important economic or military targets, a sovereign government pursuing an"all options" strategy might be very relieved to have such a system as China tested at its disposal.

In similar ways many of the fears about China's military power are rooted in antiquated or distorted notions of how the international balance of power works today. China's size is always cited as the root of international concern, but such thinking discounts the ways in which size is a liability as much as an asset. Pundits too often assume that a nation's ability to project force is uniform throughout its territorial domain, thus China's capacity to take military action against Vietnam is greater than the U.S.'s ability to project force against Cuba. China's logistical"home court" advantage only begins diminishing as one moves away from its sovereign borders, thus Vietnam is poised to bear the full force of Chinese military power.

Yet the history of China well demonstrates that the internal coherence of a state fluctuates in inverse proportion to its size. The further one moves from Beijing, the less firm CCP political control becomes. Thus when a PRC military unit penetrates one kilometer into Vietnam the CCP has not, in essence, projected force one kilometer. That distance must be measured between the operational zone of the unit in question and Beijing itself. At one kilometer into Vietnam, the CCP has thus projected force more than two thousand kilometers.

Moreover, most pundits vastly overestimate the importance of China's population to the calculation of its effect on the balance of power. Warfare has evolved over the course of the late 20th and early 21st century to give far greater prominence to technology than manpower. The US military is a mere fraction of the size to which it grew over the course of WWII, yet the entire military of that era could not match the combat power of a single brigade or carrier group of today. The most recent Gulf War provided the empirical proof of this principle. Despite having one of the world's largest standing armies, Iraq was defeated with lightning speed due to the vast technological superiority of the US military. Until China possesses technology to match that of the US, the size of its population or armed forces does not really figure into a calculation of the balance of power.

Then should not the world be concerned about China's acquisition of space-age technology? Concern may be warranted, but not paranoia. Most experts would agree that China is decades from developing military technology to match that of the US, and in the decades it would take to develop that technology the US will remain a moving target. Even if and when the day came that China and the US were on a technological par, war would not be inevitable or even likely. Until some technology is discovered that negates the threat of nuclear ballistic missiles the deterrence of"mutually assured destruction" will continue to restrain the strategic options of all powers.

Even if a war between superpowers is averted, would not a technologically advanced China be more prone to aggression against its neighbors? Here the realities of China's own internal political coherence are not the only facts to bear in mind. Though the speedy defeat of Saddam Hussein demonstrated the power that advanced technology affords, the subsequent aftermath of that conflict has been an object lesson in the limits of that power. The world is a very different place than it was when Napoleon spoke his sage advice. Nationalism, capitalism, industrialization, telecommunications, and economic globalization have created a world in which even a technological superpower faces discrete constraints upon its potential to project force beyond its borders.

Unless profound changes occur to stabilize China's internal political dynamic it is difficult to contemplate the circumstances in which the PRC would enjoy more success projecting force than the US has experienced in Iraq, space-age technology or no. Certainly China's political institutions as they currently exist could not withstand the kind of strain that the Iraq war has placed upon those of the US. One can never predict all the contingencies that might prompt a government to war, and it would be foolish to declare outright that China (or any other nation, including the US) poses no threat to peace. But where historically the Chinese are no less prone to conflict than anyone else, they are also certainly no more so. Whether China will ever pose a threat to peace is in this sense an imponderable, but in real terms one can predict that no matter how much China spends or what type of technology it comes to possess, the PRC will not pose a threat to the global balance of power any time in the near future.

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Stephen Kislock - 3/30/2007

Mr. Wilson,
So you believe that the world deserves only One US of A Superpower, if it were not for a presidents like G.W. Bush, who by all accounts has No Understanding of the workings of World and gets all his Information from the Neo-Con's, I have to disagree with you.

How to achieve this Military Balance, is to go back to the "MAD" times, this kept the Zelots in Check...

Mr. Wilson, Your President and his advisories, Blamed Saddam for 911 and it's off to War, sneak Home the dead and wounded, see it's a Good War. The Bush White House "Support the Troops" in news briefings and Cut the Funds for the Vet at the same time.

United States Business Supports Wars, they are very Profitable.

Taiwan a Providences of China, you disagree, I assume? Iraq, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Alaska, Guam, Virgin Islands, and 770 US Military bases around the World, this is fine with You?

As US Attorney General Gonzales stated in a Congressional Hearing, "The Constitution does Not Say Everyone is Entitled to Habeas Corpus." Repressive Comments by the US AG, does not Help export Justice and the American way!

Yes the US Military-Industrial Complex, Needs a Boggy Man...

Joseph Mutik - 3/25/2007

During WWII the soviet army fought very well but the soviet soldiers ate quite a lot of American spam (the real one preserved in cans). Stalin had uncle Sam for help. From where is China going to get similar help when the money flow stops because of a war? Taiwan has very strong commercial ties with China. If I remember well almost 50% of Taiwan's commercial activity is with China and it helps China with a lot of technologically advanced projects. Can the Chinese communists with a capitalist program alienate this relation? My guess is that in the end China and Taiwan will find a Hong Kong way to solve the problem.

Jeff L. Wilson - 3/24/2007

George is trying to say that every nation develops contingency plans, and that if the nations of the region can't depend on the US to help them, they'll have to developed the ability to defend themselves, and that means a nuclear armed South Korea and Japan. Now Stephen, since you seem to be so cynically upset about American militarism, the question is, how will you feel when every other nation in the region feels the necessity to match China's build-up? You seem so upset by the American Military Industrial Complex, and our supposed need for enemies to justify it all. What about Chinas MIC, and it's need to foment war with Taiwan to justify it's existence? What about China's volatile demographic situation, and the notion that a war with a foreign outsider might just be the thing to unite their people and justify further CCP repression. Do you think the business leaders in Beijing will be able to stop it?

Jeff L. Wilson - 3/24/2007

Please, it's not about "Bogeymen". There are real reasons to wonder about a nation with a huge population of young single men with very little chance to find a bride and a normal life (the product of their One Child program), and how the CCP might decide to employ (distract) them. It's totally justified on our part to look at what the Chinese are doing and wonder what the perpetrators of the Tiananmen Square massacre might do in the future. And we are not the only ones who are looking. The nations on China's border wonder how long it will be before they suffer the same fate as Tibet. Chinese nationalists claim parts of many nations bordering China as their ancestral land.

The only consolation in all this comes from remembering the fact that China doesn't really have a stellar military record. "Human Wave" attacks in Korea didn't lead to much military success, but convinced the world that Chinese leaders would do anything, regardless of the human cost, to see that their objectives were won. The last time China used it's military against another nation, invading Vietnam in about 1979, they had their head handed to them. Still, burgeoning arms deliveries from Russia and blustering remarks by PLA generals about Taiwan can't help but ratchet up the concern in the west that China might try to use its economic power to force the west to stand by while they roll over their little island nemesis.

Stephen Kislock - 3/21/2007

Mr. Gaston,
A large country China spending 40+ Billion for defense and a Super Power United States of America spending 450+ for Offense and a C-I-C par excellence [G.W.B] as exhibited by the on going Victory in Iraq, Worry Not at All!

Once the Japanese, Shred their Constitution as WE in the US of A have done, yes it time to Nuke them again !

George Robert Gaston - 3/20/2007

It is the U.S. Military's job to consider (worry) about any potential change in any existing military balance.
For example, let's consider one possible result of China haveing the military power to deter a U.S. response to a forced a change of government in Taiwan, combined with a Nuclear North Korea.

How does a 300 ship Nuclear powered and and armed Japanese navy sound? The question is: Do we want to be forced to deal with that again?

Stephen Kislock - 3/19/2007

The US Government must have a "Bogyman" e.g. The Axis of Evil, Iraq-North Korea-Iran, that's yesterdays list, now remove Iraq and add China to Scare the Duct Tape and Plastic citizens of the US and expand the Military-Industrial Complex!

Joseph Mutik - 3/19/2007

I am an admirer of the model of our world proposed by the political scientist Thomas P.M. Barnett . One of the main ideas of this model is that a country strongly linked to the world economy is less likely to engage in wars.
China is one of these countries linked to the world economy. China sells to the world (USA being, probably, the biggest client) a lot of goods and the world buys Chinese goods in large quantities. All this trade helps the Chinese economy, which is in a steady growth, and also helps in improving the Chinese people standard of living. In the case of war the trade money will stop coming in and may cause great suffering to the population.
One other point, the Chinese government invested a lot of money in U.U. government bonds (hundreds of billions) servicing this way the U.S. budget debt. I don't believe that the U.S. debt is a good thing but in the case of war with the USA, the bonds owned by Chinese government may become useless pieces of paper.