China’s Impending Military Might: A Cause for Concern?

It’s been a terrifying couple of months for Americans.  Always suspicious of China’s intentions, things have reached a fever pitch in the last few weeks after grainy pictures surfaced from Chinese bloggers that the Chinese air force was building a stealth fighter.  Shortly after the rumors came out, we had videos of the mysterious plane taking off.  What some experts had thought would be years away from production was here.  Now.  Ruining Christmas, and just in time for New Years.This came right on the heels of an announcement from China that they were building an aircraft carrier that is part of Beijing’s plan to “build itself up as a maritime power.”  Yikes!

I enjoy hyperbole, and I’m obviously writing in a bit of a sarcastic tone, but it’s been unbelievable to witness the collective meltdown that the American news media is having over China.  Hu Jintao’s recent visit is gasoline on the fire, and we have pundits accusing China of stealing our technology, all-but declaring war against other countries, and kicking off an arms race with the United States.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)

However, these feelings simply don’t correspond with the facts.  Lets talk about the carrier for a minute.  For a little context, you can see a list of all known semi-active aircraft carriers in the world, broken down by country here.  The list is as follows:

  • Brazil (1)
  • France (1)
  • India (1)
  • Italy (2)
  • Russia (1)
  • Spain (2)
  • Thailand (1)
  • United Kingdom (1)
  • United States (11)

It’s important to note that all eleven of the US carriers are in fact supercarriers, which at 70,000 tons, and considerably larger than the 40,000 ton carriers that some countries have, with the vast majority of the carriers operated by other nations falling into the 20,000 ton light carrier class.  In other words, all US carriers are almost four times larger than competing offerings.Carriers are important to the American objectives of being able to project power.

Current US war doctrine assumes air superiority as a prerequisite for military success, and when you’re separated from everyone else by two oceans, you’ve got to be able to move planes around in order to move troops around to win wars. Carriers are astronomically expensive to operate, build, and deploy.  It should be noted that of the list of carrier wielding countries, a couple have trouble keeping them deployed (most notably Thailand).  Due to the challenging nature of conducting carrier operations, consistent deployment patterns are a must.  It takes years for navies and countries to get to the point where they’ve got enough in-house experience to operate a carrier effectively, and it takes even longer to be able to do it in combat, under pressure.

China’s plans for a carrier are interwoven with its plans to develop a blue water navy (one capability of operating beyond territorial waters).  Only Russia, France, the UK and US are considered to have blue water navies.  Ironically, China is very familiar with the efficacy of carriers as Qingdao, one of its main naval bases, (under German control at the time) was involved in the first naval-launched air raid during World War One when Japanese planes flew in and bombarded the German command post.

In the current context, it is almost laughable (a feeling shared by the Navy’s top officer) that the US should feel even remotely threatened by China’s current and future naval plans (there are plans for China to develop a nuclear carrier by 2020, compared to the conventional ship currently under construction).  If we’re afraid of China why not be scared or India, Italy, or Thailand?

It’s no mystery that China’s sabre rattling whenever Taiwan pisses them off is just that: sabre rattling.  The US typically moves a carrier group into the Taiwan straight and that’s that.  China has no ability to invade Taiwan, mainly due to its lack of a credible Navy.  The PLA’s main attempt to advance against Taiwan forces as a spearhead towards island invasion operations in 1949 was crushed in part by a lack of troop landing vessels and this lesson has certainly stuck with PLA leadership.

The Stealth Fighter – Credible Threat?

The stealth fighter or bomber or whatever it actually will end up being is also in the category of “who cares”.  Its engine, like most of China’s engines, is produced by Russia, which means a vulnerable and non-domestic supply chain during wartime.  It’s large and can’t super-cruise, which means it’s short range.  This narrows its effective targets to Taiwan and maybe India, which are essentially China’s main military and geopolitical priorities.  A more realistic perspective would be to put both the carrier and stealth fighter into the “interesting research project” category.

Chinese Defense Spending

Finally, lets look at the defense spending of both countries.  The United States spends over 600 billion dollars per year on its military (this doesn’t include wartime expenses for our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan).  China spends 98 billion per year.  The United States spends more than twice as much as a percentage of its GDP than China does.  Amazingly, America spends forty percent of the entire world’s defense expenditures.  We’re spending more than the next seventeen highest spending countries combined.  It’s an astronomical amount of money compared to China.

Relative economic costs don’t factor in as much when you consider that premier weapons are almost uniformly constructed from parts or materials found outside of China.Lets close this entry with a hypothetical.  As my buddy Erik put it, if China were operating carriers off our coast, and flying a spy plane loaded with surveillance gear seventy miles off of Hawaii, Alaska, or even California, we would freak out. As in, absolutely lose it.  Probably declare war or nuke something, just to show how serious we are.  And yet, this is exactly what the United State did to China off the coast of Hainan island in 2001.  The United States routinely sails carrier groups and other naval units into the Straight of Taiwan, which is only one hundred and twenty miles wide.  If China routinely sailed battle groups into the Gulf of Mexico to underscore ongoing political objectives, we would freak out.

Is America’s obsession with China and its military little more than a national reluctance to accept the idea that for the rest of history, we may not retain number one status in all areas?  Are we really completely bought into the idea of global manifest destiny maintained by an indomitable military force?  Considering that we spend ten times as much as China and seem to relish the idea that we can do what we want, where we want, when we want, I’d say that maybe we’re just going to have to wake up and accept the fact that there’s room for the most populous country in the world to have a carrier.  Does this mean we fall asleep and not spend on our national defense?  Of course not.  But it does mean we can learn a thing or two and face facts. China spent many centuries as the world’s most advanced civilization.  The United States has spent fifty years there, and could easily spend fifty more, at least from a military perspective.  Already reports have surfaced that simply retrofitting F-15 Eagles with upgraded electronics gear will help our military easily defeat China’s first stealth offering.

The Bottom Line

Just as the Soviets faced off with the United States when designing units, tactics, and weapons systems, expect the same pattern to emerge between China and the United States.  Is this cause for alarm?  No, but it is cause for vigilance and realistic assessment of the situation.  Panic, hyperbole, and a crazed commentary on these issues helps nobody.

Update Feb 4, 2011

As originally mentioned above, our behavior towards China is nothing new and in fact continues a history of imposing double standards when military conduct is concerned.  The Cuban Missile Crisis is a great example of this: the U.S. puts 100 Thor ICBMs in Turkey that are capable of striking Moscow in 1958, then almost goes to war over the Soviets placing a similar arsenal close to American territory.  Right or wrong, good strategy or bad, we consistently insist on the implementation of a double standard in military matters.

The North Korean State of Mind


The Wife and I watched a 2004 documentary over the weekend titled “A State of Mind” that was incredibly enthralling.  I’ve never been to North Korea, but I’ve known many South Koreans, and I’ve seen a few collections of photographs from various travelers that have managed to make it to the country over the last ten years, and I’m always interested in any kind of media that manages to claw it’s way out of that country.One reason for my intrigue is that the pictures I’ve seen are the closest to my memories of what it looked like when I arrived in China in 1984.  China was just a few years into it’s experiment of opening to the West, and it’s very difficult to describe what it was like to see a thoroughly communist country wading tepidly into the waters of capitalism.”A State of Mind” follows two young North Korean gymnasts through their training regimen to participate in the “Mass Games” which are held more or less every year to demonstrate the power of the North Korean state, the singular mind of its people, and the Communist ideal of the group overpowering the individual.  These games are elaborate gymnastic, visual, and auditory productions designed to shock and awe the North Korean population to even higher levels of devotion to “The General”, Kim Il-Sung.I previously mentioned how the wholesale lifting of hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty has to be one of the greatest miracles in history, and nowhere is this point driven home more than the contrast between China and the North Korea of today.  North Korea has barely progressed since 1950, while China is challenging for world economic supremacy.  South Korea, likewise is a beacon of economic progress, and it’s all eerily driven home by the gymnasts and their families who confess to the camera that performing for the Great Leader is and will always be the highlight of their life.  Electricity blackouts, food shortages, and the lack of any progress over the last fifty years are all the fault of the Imperialist Americans.  North Korea has truly succeeded in a total religious education of its population on the virtues of communism, and it’s almost like you’re watching a farcical episode of Monty Python mocking the heady days of communism in the 50s and 60s when you see otherwise intelligent, driven people in total worship of their deranged leader.The ultimate shame is that the North Korean people, like the Chinese, Burmese, Vietnamese, a host of nations in Africa, South America, and Central Asia, are completely stifled.  But nowhere is it as bad as North Korea, and as someone who remembers the flood of refugees flooding North China during the late nineties as millions starved, I was left with a genuine feeling of total frustration.  This film is important to remind people that it’s all been tried and failed before, right down to the 1984-esque state radio in every North Korean kitchen that broadcasts propaganda and cannot be turned off.  While it’s easy to criticize the evils of capitalism, and decry abuses of greed, it’s hard to see a corollary anywhere in world history where capitalism has produced a wasteland of human potential.Communism works, and it works well.  It is the greatest engine of equality the world has ever seen as it swiftly ensures that everyone is equally poor.  Watch this film for the cautionary tale that it is, and watch it to be amazed at the talent and devotion of the North Korean people.

Book Review: When China Rules the World


Reading is one of my favorite things to do, and it’s become harder and harder to make time for books over the last few years.  However, over Christmas I was given Martin Jacques’ book  “When China Rules the World” and I read most of it on the six flights we took over the holidays.This is an extremely important book, in that I feel Martin accurately distills and describes a few integral pieces of China and the Chinese mindset that are almost universally missed by Western commentators.  These pieces, when placed in the proper context can often combine to explain the more (to Western eyes) puzzling questions about China, events that happen within China, and China’s reactions to external pressures.One of the reasons why I enjoyed this book is that the author is a master at providing historical context and to illustrate and reinforce his ideas.  With a history as long as China’s this isn’t a small task, but he accurately makes the point that few nations are as cognizant of their history and traditions as China.  Ignoring thousands of years of constant cultural development leads to gross misunderstanding, and is something that is all too easy to do from a Western perspective that’s driven by the acceptance of a Western order that is really only three centuries old.Jacques begins his book with the relevant facts of how China will most likely overtake the US as the largest economy in the world by 2027, and focuses on the central question of the book: What will a modern world dominated by China look like?  The prevailing thought of most attention paid to China is that capitalism, free markets, and Western style economies inevitably echo Western values of freedom, human rights, democracy, and culture.  In other words, free trade begets free societies.  Not necessarily so in China.This misguided belief that a swing towards Western style freedom and government is inevitable is a key miscalculation that negatively affects US foreign policy and undermines true understanding of China and the rest of East Asia.Reasons for China not following the Western model of modernism coalesce around different set of values.  In China, unity and stability is a key value that is reinforced by the strong, hierarchical family unit, the universal acceptance of Confucian thought, and the reality that China is a civilization-state, not a nation state.  The Chinese desire of unity explains the tolerance of the “one state, two systems” approach to Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, and even within the numerous special economic zones found within the country.  This type of duality is almost inconceivable to the West.  Stability is valued highly due to China’s  experiences with turmoil during its history (estimations of 25 million dead during Manchu invasion, 50 million dead during Taiping rebellion, and as many as another 50 million dead during World War II and the ensuing Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution), and it’s long experience with a strong central government and its emphasis on a Confucian trained and tested government bureaucracy.  Stability, therefore, is enough of a priority that the Chinese are content with a system that values the group over the individual.History teaches us that the Chinese civilization has never wavered in it’s attitude of superiority towards outsiders.  Indeed, even when conquered by external invaders, which happened often throughout history, the invading groups (Mongols, Manchus) forsook their own identities and adopted Chinese customs, dress, and language while moving their capitals and governments to China.  Today there is an overwhelming sense among the Chinese that China is finally regaining it’s rightful place in the world as the Middle Kingdom.  Most forget that in the 1800s, the Chinese standard of living was slightly higher per capita than that of Europe.  England had a strong navy and easy access to coal close to its urban centers, China did not.  A crippled and weak end of the Qing dynasty, the Japanese invasion, World War II and the disastrous effects of Communism contributed to a net decrease in China’s GDP between 1820 and 1950.The idea that modernism must revolve around the Western model is rejected by the examination of how little modernity has affected Chinese politics.  China has always had a strong central government that was paternalistic in nature and was bound to the collective well being of society.  This is unlike Western governments, which have evolved to the point where they exist as a utilitarian entity in exchange for popular support.Jacques also spends significant time exploring the reasons behind the current Chinese policies towards trade, it’s own citizen’s freedom, and it’s long term goals.  In the light of the many historical and political contributing factors, it’s much easier to understand China’s currency peg (which hurts China more than it hurts the US), it’s continuing support for US debt, and it’s aggressive stance towards opening its own markets.  According to Deng Xiaoping, two things must remain for China to lift its population from poverty: domestic stability and international peace.  Seventy-five percent of China’s economy is accounted for by international trade of some sort, and while this may decrease as China continues to diversify, this is an unprecedented level for a country that is so large.  This precarious balance between its economy and the implicit social bargain (like all Confucian states have) to its citizenry for future standard of living improvement are the key drivers to China’s behavior.This book isn’t without its faults.  Jacques, like the good Marxist he is, glosses over the disastrous effects of Communism for China’s people and its economy.  Like many intelligentsia (Thomas Friedman and almost any other environmentalist) , he finds himself almost in awe of the incredible power that the Chinese Communist Party has to command policies that he wishes or wants to see implemented.  His exploration of China’s tributary system and it’s possible resurgence in the future is incomplete as it doesn’t resonate well with the Western reader.  Some of the book’s information is outdated or at least could have been updated, and some of the statistics feel as though they’ve been cherry picked.  There also doesn’t seem to be enough credit given to the remarkable lever of capitalism: lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in just thirty years is nothing short of a miracle.While the overall message of the book is that China will not become the US or a prototypical Western nation-state, this doesn’t mean that the China of today will exactly mirror the China of tomorrow.  It does mean that we shouldn’t prescribe the Western template to China, and should remain mindful of the powerful historical currents that remain in full force for China.