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.