Monday, January 31, 2011

Fear of China's Shadow: The Elephant and the Mouse

Chairman Mao held that China should not fear America’s military and technological capabilities because China has more people than America has atom bombs and bullets. After watching America’s underequipped, underfunded, and undertrained post-WWII military cave beneath waves of North Korean and Chinese troops during the Korean War, it is no wonder he felt that way. If Mao could witness America’s military might today, however, he might have to change his thinking.

Twenty years ago this year, the United States vanquished the fourth largest military in the world during the Persian Gulf War. Iraq was heavily equipped with Warsaw Pact weaponry similar to China’s, yet our military put theirs down in under one hundred hours. This year also marks a decade in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq. These wars have been undeniably controversial, yet they have also reaffirmed America’s military dominance. The difficulties we have faced during these more recent conflicts have not been due to a lack in military capability, but rather to the ineffective application of these capabilities. And although biannual combat deployments have taken a toll on our servicemembers, America hasn’t had a more combat-hardened generation of troopers since WWII.

During the last thirty years, the U.S. has sent troops into combat on five continents. China, on the other hand, has not been involved in external military conflicts since the 1970s. Most of its conflicts, such as uprisings regarding democracy, Tibet, Taiwan, and its Uigurs, are internal affairs. Combat technology is a force multiplier, but there is no substitute for boots-on-the-ground experience. The United States has the power to deploy its technologically superior and combat-experienced military anywhere in the world, but China is still stuck at home. It isn’t hard to see why America’s military clout would draw a response from Chinese commanders.

China, usually prone to extreme secrecy about its military capabilities and intents, has been uncharacteristically candid – even boastful – about its new stealth fighter. However, the jet’s unveiling during Secretary Gates’ recent visit seemed to catch President Hu and other Chinese leaders by surprise, betraying a case where one hand doesn’t always know what the other is doing. And this won’t be the last unveiling, either; there is talk that China will soon begin testing its first aircraft carrier.

Despite China’s well-publicized advances in military technology, President Hu again asserted during his visit to Washington last week that China is not a threat to the U.S. or its allies. In fact, he pushed for closer economic cooperation with the U.S. as China “peacefully rises.” It has become the conventional wisdom that the U.S. and China are so closely tied that for one to attack the other would be economic suicide. China owes its ability to fund its growing military to its relations with the United States.

A closer look suggests that China flexes its military muscle only when it perceives outside interference in its internal affairs. For example, Chinese naval maneuvers are often a reaction to U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan. Although we may perceive China’s stance regarding the Pacific as offensive, the Chinese see this as a domestic issue. Perhaps we should suspend our panic until, heaven forbid, China’s military threatens Africa, the Middle East, or other lands far from its borders.

The U.S. military is still far ahead of the Chinese military, both in technology and in human capital. China lacks our worldwide troop presence, our ability to project power anywhere on the globe, and our extensive web of defense agreements and military alliances. I don’t question the commitment of the Chinese soldier, but a dressed-up regiment goose-stepping before the international press does not measure up to our all-volunteer, highly disciplined, and battle-hardened military.

Although China’s increased military spending, aggressive military posturing, and extreme secrecy about its military affairs are concerning, the truth remains that we are light years ahead of China in terms of military strength. Just as important, we must keep in mind that China’s ability to finance its military spending is directly correlated to its business dealings with the United States. Having witnessed America’s military in action, it is understandable that the Chinese military would want to bolster its defense at home. With their economy growing faster than their military spending, they can afford it. But, for now, China has more to gain from peace with America than from war.