The Power China Is Building

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By Gary Schmitt
Thursday, June 14, 2007

Last month's annual Pentagon report on the Chinese military took note of Beijing's sizable expansion of its capabilities -- as have all the reports since the Defense Department began producing them in 2000.

And, as in previous years, much of the commentary inside and outside of the government has focused on China's lack of transparency. We complain that we don't know exactly how much China is spending on its military and what exactly it is acquiring. Most important, we complain that we don't know the strategic "why" behind this buildup.

China's defense spending has been on the rise for more than 15 years. For the first few years, Western commentators dismissed its military modernization plans as insignificant. Initially they argued that the Chinese only wanted to modernize their forces for homeland defense, and once that was done we could expect a leveling-off. Then they argued that even if the Chinese continued their buildup, it would be decades before they presented a real problem to the United States or its allies in the region.

Then, when the pace and scope of the buildup continued beyond what most China watchers had expected, the argument was: China has a robust, growing economy; it's natural that it would use those additional resources to build a modern military capability.

And now, as China adds hundreds of advanced fighters; builds scores of new submarines, frigates and destroyers; modernizes and expands its strategic nuclear arsenal; and fields hundreds of new theater-range missiles, the argument is that China is bent on building up its military capabilities to unprecedented levels because it sees the United States spending more on its military than it has since World War II.

There is some truth in that point, but only some. The fact is that the Chinese military buildup really began after the demise of the Soviet Union -- that is, precisely when China had the least reason to worry about its defense needs. And the buildup continued during a period when the United States was cutting its own defense budget by significant amounts. Moreover, no other Asian regional power was putting forward double-digit defense increases. To the contrary, Taiwan -- presumably China's main military concern -- was slashing its defense budget. And Japan, the only possible regional "great power" competitor to China, was suffering from a decade of economic stagnation, with a static defense budget to match.

Of course, since Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. defense spending has skyrocketed. But the vast majority of that increase, as the Chinese well know, has gone toward fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If one strips away the defense supplemental appropriations for the wars and factors in the jump in personnel costs, America's defense burden as a percentage of gross domestic product is about what it was during the middle of President Bill Clinton's time in office. And if the Bush budget office has its way, defense spending will return to those levels or lower after the wars end.

To take but one example: Under current procurement and decommissioning plans, the U.S. Navy's attack submarine fleet will shrink to fewer than 30 boats by the late 2020s. China, meanwhile, has added more than 30 advanced submarines to its fleet over the past decade and has six new submarine programs underway.

Obviously, greater transparency by the Chinese would be helpful. But absent a significant shift toward political liberalization in China, there's no reason to expect that to happen. And anyway, after a decade and a half of military buildup, do we really need greater transparency to understand what China is up to?

The Chinese are a proud people and they want to be seen as a powerful, potentially dominant, state. And power, they understand, includes not only a strong economy but a powerful military. When the Chinese look at the world today, who gets in their way most of the time? It's certainly not the Europeans, who have economic strength but little hard power. It's the United States.

There is a tendency on the part of American Sinologists to think that China's "peaceful development" precludes it from craving what all rising powers before it have craved -- power and recognition. Yet the Chinese don't think the two are opposed at all. They view a growing economy as critical to solving their domestic problems, but they also know that it is critical to providing the resources for military modernization and expansion.

The lack of transparency is, if anything, a dodge we've used to avoid dealing with the real problem: China's ambitions to be as great a power as it can be. It's understandable, perhaps, that with all that is on America's plate at the moment, we're not inclined to add China. But that doesn't change the fact that Beijing believes the more military power it has, the more likely it is that those ambitions will be fulfilled.

The writer is director of the American Enterprise Institute's program on advanced strategic studies.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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