"Improved Chinese capabilities threaten U.S. forces in the (western Pacific) region," warned Peter Goss, the new director of the CIA, in testimony to Congress two weeks ago. "China continues to develop more robust, nuclear-armed missiles, as well as conventional capabilities for use in regional conflicts." Just like the U.S.A. does, in fact.
Given America's monopoly or huge technological lead in key areas such as stealth bombers, aircraft carriers, long-range sensors, satellite surveillance and even infantry body armor, Goss' warning is misleading and self-serving. China cannot project a serious military force even 200 miles from home, while American forces utterly dominate China's ocean frontiers, many thousands of miles from the U.S.A. But the drumbeat of warnings about China's "military build-up" continues.
Just the other week U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was worrying again about the expansion of the Chinese navy, which is finally building some amphibious landing ships half a century after Beijing's confrontation with the non-Communist regime on the island of Taiwan began. And Senator Richard Lugar, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned that if the European Union ended its embargo on arms sales to China, the U.S.A. would stop military technology sales to Europe.
It will come as no surprise, therefore, that the major U.S. defense review planned for this year will concentrate on the rising "threat" from China, or that for the first time the joint U.S.-Japanese defense policy statement named China as a "security concern," or that the Taiwan government urged the "military encirclement" of China to prevent any "foreign adventures" by Beijing. It comes as no surprise 's but it still makes no sense.
China's defense budget this year is 247.7 billion yuan: around $30 billion at the official exchange rate. There are those in Washington who will say that it's more like $60 billion in purchasing power, but then there used to be "experts" who annually produced hugely inflated and frightening estimates of the Soviet defense budget. Such people will always exist: to justify a big U.S. defence budget, you need a big threat.
It's true that 247.7 billion yuan buys an awful lot of warm bodies in military uniform in the low-wage Chinese economy, but it doesn't actually buy much in the way of high-tech military systems.
It's also true that the Chinese defense budget has grown by double-digit increases for the past 14 years: this year it's up by 12.6 percent. But that is not significantly faster than the Chinese economy as a whole, and it's about what you have to spend in order to convert what used to be a glorified peasant militia into a modern military force.
It would be astonishing if China chose not to modernize its armed forces as the rest of the economy modernizes, and the end result is not going to be a military machine that towers above all others. If you project the current growth rates of military spending in China and the United States into the future, China's defense budget catches up with the United States about the same time that its gross domestic product does, in the late 2030s or the early 2040s.
As to China's strategic intentions, the record of the past is reassuring in several respects. China has almost never been militarily expansionist beyond the traditional boundaries of the Middle Kingdom (which do include Tibet in the view of most Chinese). Its border clashes with India, the Soviet Union and Vietnam in the first decades of communist rule generally ended with a voluntary Chinese withdrawal from the disputed territories.
The same moderation has usually applied in nuclear matters. The CIA frets that China could have a hundred nuclear missiles targeted on the United States by 2015, but that is actually evidence of China's great restraint. The first Chinese nuclear weapon test was 40 years ago, and by now China could have thousands of nuclear warheads targeted at the United States if it wanted. (The United States does have thousands of nuclear warheads that can strike Chinese targets.)
The Beijing regime is obsessed with economic stability, because it fears that a severe downturn would trigger social and political upheaval. The last thing it wants is a military confrontation with its biggest trading partner, the United States. It will go on playing the nationalist card over Taiwan to curry domestic political favor, but there is no massive military build-up and no plausible threat of impending war in East Asia.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.