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China as a Military Boogieman in the U.S. Policy Debate

Does China really pose a military threat to the United States?

December 13, 2006

Does China really pose a military threat to the United States?

Since 9/11, without much public debate, most Americans have — either enthusiastically or passively — supported a rather militaristic and ideologically domineering approach to managing our international relations.

If enforcing global military and ideological dominance is indeed what the United States of America is all about, it's not surprising that we should view China with apprehension. Two questions arise. Should we worry about China? If so, are we worried about the right or the wrong things?

With China returning to wealth and power, it does seem to be the only country that might have the ability, should it choose to do so, to dislodge us from our position as the greatest military and economic power.

The Chinese are thus our preferred cure for "enemy deprivation syndrome," the sickening feeling of disorientation we experience when our longstanding enemy irresponsibly drops dead. China, for its part, may be struggling to revive its millennial traditions of social humanism, but it remains at the same time committed to Leninist forms of political organization.

Its stubborn refusal to accept our human rights doctrines as its own makes it a significant holdout — and hence a threat — to our global ideological monopoly, even if it no longer has an ideology it can persuasively explain to its own people, still less an alternative to ours.

Given the national mood prevailing in the United States, at present no one should be the least surprised that most Americans see the rise of China as a zero-sum game. The Left in our country, such as it now is, whines that Chinese are stealing American jobs.

Meanwhile, the Right, which controls our government, growls about China as a military threat. And both appear to agree that the only approach that works with troublesome foreigners is coercion: sanctions followed up, when these fail — as they invariably do — by military assault.

The F-22 and Sea Wolf nuclear attack submarine, though conceived for use against a different enemy in a completely different geopolitical and military context, obviously need new targets. Where are such targets to be found, if not in China?

Threat analysis is the highest form of budget justification and China, faute de mieux, is the justification du jour. And, in the face of our huge and growing trade deficit with China, our Commerce Department is focused less on boosting Chinese imports of American products than on imposing new export controls on U.S. companies seeking to sell their products to China. Go figure.

We have clearly arrived at a national consensus that the main challenges we face from China are bilateral and either employment-related or military in nature — or both. For various reasons, I think these judgments are too facile.

China is less a bilateral problem than a long-term challenge to our global ascendancy in terms of its economic stature, scientific and technological achievement, and even political influence.

To meet these three challenges as well as others from a rapidly changing world, we need to get our national act better together. Let me start by demonstrating how we are misconstruing the problems, which the return of China to wealth and power presents.

First, declining employment in manufacturing here in the United States — however potent a tool of demagoguery it may furnish — is not, as is widely believed, a case of China gaining jobs at our expense. The fact is that China is also losing manufacturing jobs, and it's losing them both faster and on a much larger scale than we are.

Between 1995 and 2002, for example, two million factory jobs disappeared in the United States, while China lost 15 million. Moreover, the losses in both countries have been in the very same industrial sectors. Over that period, for example, we lost 202,000 textile jobs — while China lost 1.8 million.

What is happening is that technology and capital are everywhere rapidly replacing labor in the manufacturing sector, just as technology and capital earlier replaced labor in the agricultural sector.

A hundred years ago, 41% of our workforce was in agriculture — and now the figure is 1.9%. The transition was painful for farm families, but few claim that Americans as a whole are worse off as a result.

Between 1930 and 2000, even as farm employment fell dramatically, output quadrupled and farmers' incomes rose proportionately. Similarly, in 1980, about 20% of our workforce was in manufacturing. Today, the figure is less than 10% — but our industrial production has more than doubled.

Productivity gains, not foreign workers, are what are causing increasing numbers of Americans to leave the factory floor, much as their grandparents left the farm.

Cluelessly blaming this on the Chinese or the Indians or immigrants may be a good political tactic, but it is not a strategy to cope with our problems. It simply changes the subject, without offering anything whatsoever to ease the pain of American blue collar workers displaced by accelerating structural changes in our economy.

Second, while I appreciate the utility of inventing bogeymen to justify continuing investments in advanced weaponry and tactics, China is simply not up to the role of peer competitor we have assigned to it, even if it were interested in such a role — which it shows no sign of being. We need to keep China's large, but relatively backward and defensively deployed military in perspective.

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency rightly doubts that the Chinese defense budget is a full account of China's military spending. China's published defense budget is $35.1 billion. DIA's median estimate of actual Chinese military spending is $70 billion.

This includes spending on what we would call homeland security functions. These are relevant if one is thinking about attacking a place like China — as we might in response to Taiwan contingencies. DIA's high estimate of Chinese military spending is $105 billion.

DIA does not just make up these figures. It has a sophisticated methodology for extrapolating them. DIA takes the published Chinese defense budget and multiplies it by two to get its median estimate, and by three to get its high estimate.

Why? Because two is more than one and three is more than two, of course. This is the methodology by which we estimate the "Chinese threat," which is now the primary driver of our requirements for F-22s and other major weapons systems.

Let's assume that DIA's ballpark estimate is right, and that China is actually spending twice as much as its stated defense budget on its military — $70 billion, or around 2.8% of its GDP. Is this deception or duplicity or what? Before you jump to the obvious conclusion, reflect for a moment on our own defense budget and its relationship to our military spending.

This past fiscal year, the U.S. defense budget was about $441.5 billion (about $40 billion more than the previous year) and 3.7% of GDP. This doesn't, of course, include about $120 billion in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iran, which are provided outside the budget through "supplementals."

It does not include benefits for veterans, another $70 billion or so. Nor nuclear weapons, which are in the Department of Energy budget, or the Coast Guard and other homeland security programs — nor various military-related programs in space. And so forth and so on.

U.S. military spending now is not — as our media commonly state — $441.5 billion but more like $720 billion. That's about 6% of GDP, not the published 3.7%.

To put all this in further perspective, military spending has been rising as a percentage of the U.S. national budget — but falling as a percentage of China's. In absolute terms, the annual increases in our defense budget in recent years have been larger than the published Chinese defense budget.

Our intelligence budget, which we don't publish, is also considerably larger. Our annual expenditures on research and development of new weapons systems ($71 billion) and on acquisition of existing weapons ($86.5 billion) each exceed our estimates of total Chinese military spending, fast-growing as that is.

This, despite the fact that, by startling contrast with China, we have no great powers or traditional enemies on our borders, no territories in dispute with foreign powers and no enemy fleets or air forces probing our defenses.

Who is threatening whom? It is not as clear as many suppose. China has not designated us as its enemy and, in most respects, does not behave as if we were.

That's smart of the Chinese, because they just are not in our league militarily. They have yet to do much to suggest that they aspire to be.

One problem we face is branding China an enemy could prove to be a case of self-fulfilling paranoia. Another is that, much as some in our military-industrial complex would like to fight the Cold War all over again, we are not going to get to do this if we make an enemy of China.

China would be a vastly more formidable peer competitor than the late, unlamented USSR. War with China would likely be hot, rather than cold. It could involve many battles and last a very long time.

Living here in Washington, I realize that in this town facts are viewed as potential contaminants of the policy process. Armies of spin-doctors are paid to centrifuge them away and consign them to political slag heaps somewhere outside the Beltway.

As part of the national project to create a fact-free policy environment, there are a growing number of congressionally mandated commissions and reporting requirements devoted to documenting a military threat from China.

So, for purposes of our military-industrial complex, there now is such a threat — at least in the bubble universe defined by the Beltway. Going for fact-based rather than faith-based discussion in this environment is pretty much an exercise in futility. Still it never hurts to try.

In conclusion, China is not now and may never be a challenge to our global military preeminence. It ceased to emulate the Soviet Union almost half a century ago — and the failure and disappearance of the USSR has not stimulated it to reconsider this decision.

China is experiencing the same stresses we are from the processes of economic restructuring that are downsizing industrial employment. The solution to this and other global economic problems is more likely to be found in working with the Chinese than in attributing our problems to them.