We face a rising China, rather than a declining one, for the first time in centuries. If China’s rise is uneven—and most likely long term—it will be palpable, unfamiliar, and disturbing. China watchers see a nuclear power with a dynamic economy, a country that occupies more than two-thirds of the East Asian land mass, and is home to two-thirds of East Asia’s people. China has at least some territorial differences with most of its neighbors. More than 60% of China’s territory, primarily its border regions, contains only 6% of its population. That 6% is largely non-Chinese with related peoples living in the territories of China’s neighbors. China’s maritime circumscription is also disputed. Two of China’s maritime claims, Taiwan and the Spratly Island group, frequently generate opportunities for conflict. And although China reportedly has been helpful in dampening the 1994 Korean nuclear crisis, its role in any resolution of that confrontation is no longer predictable.
With rising prosperity and no obvious immediate external threats, China has bought some new military equipment and announced (and partially implemented) changes in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) force structure, doctrine, strategy, and concept of operations. Unless examined in detail, these changes in combination suggest a defense establishment moving rapidly toward capabilities unmatched by any other Asian military, one that could in the not too distant future give pause to any potential adversary.' The impression of China as modem military threat appears frequently in public discourse. Beijing finds its neighbors’ perceptions of China’s allegedly growing military power convenient when it wants to influence some neighbor’s behavior. Recent efforts to influence Taiwanese elections through missile tests and large naval exercises near Taiwan are prime examples, although the election results indicate that Chinese strong-arm tactics backfired.
Much of the U.S. press now can be counted on to keep the impression of rapidly growing Chinese military power alive, and to project future Chinese intentions and capabilities that soon become threats. These threats, in turn, become useful in justifying continuity of funding for particular American warfare communities.2 Obviously it is the job of the military to fear the worst and to prepare for it. But funding decisions—especially when funds are increasingly scarce—should bear some relationship to what is actually going on to the extent that can be determined, rather than justify a search for enemies. That search, when open and public, shrill, and long lasting, can help ensure that we will have enemies. In the case of China, it can help ensure our having a singularly large, powerful, and nasty enemy. If the intelligence community is required to identify threats, writers for authoritative service journals should stop exaggerating them, even for some ostensibly worthy though narrow purpose, such as justifying funds for a declining mission area.
Evidence normally cited supports allegations of rapid Chinese armament and modernization, and often is followed by extrapolations into predictions of Chinese hegemonial intentions (against which we must prepare, for some reason). Such evidence often includes:
- Comparative military expenditure rates
- Foreign (largely Russian) weapon acquisitions
- Announced intended modernization in PLA practice and organization
- Display of Chinese forces in connection with some Chinese purpose with which we—or one of China’s neighbors—disagrees
Such purposes, like attempting to ensure the return of Taiwan, sustaining claims to the Spratlys, holding on to Tibet, or gaining good will and foreign exchange from the sale of sensitive weapons technology in the Middle East and South Asia, would irritate us whether or not China remains communist.
To get a clearer picture, it is necessary to separate the evidence for claims about China’s rapid military growth from the policy differences that draw attention to it. These policy differences have more to do with the nature of concern about China’s forces than the nature of the forces themselves. Policy differences inspire and by inference justify negative conclusions about China’s longer- term purposes. For example, the United States does not welcome and normally resists overt threats against Taiwan. The fact that China postures fiercely opposite Taiwan in an attempt to intimidate the Taiwanese electorate into forestalling an independence vote, draws attention to China’s forces. Such posturing does not, however, warrant a conclusion that those same forces can perform the tasks that drive their conspicuous military exercises.
The first useful question about defense expenditures is how significant they are as an indicator of military capability and intentions. On a worldwide comparative basis, China’s expenditures are not large.
The United States and its allies account for 75-80% of world military expenditure. The United States spends six times what the next highest spender (Japan) does, and about ten times what China spends ($265-270 billion compared to about $26 billion).3
The rates of growth in China’s defense expenditure provide another yardstick. For the ten years beginning in 1986, official Chinese figures show that the defense budget itself increased, the percentage of increase rose, and the proportion of defense in the state budget also rose. On the other hand, so did inflation, while the proportion of defense expenditures to GNP declined. Because China’s sui generis military accounting is badly understood, these changes cannot be interpreted with precision or confidence. The figures themselves are very soft, and the accounting even more so.
For example, the CIA contends that if the methodology used in reporting the U.S. defense budget were used in evaluating China’s military expenditures, the totals would be at least twice those published in China’s official defense budget. On the other hand, China’s armed forces are heavily engaged in non-military enterprises designed to return a profit, and they need to retain educated officers and technicians in competition with the attractive private economy. Both these activities suggest growing expenditures on the quality of military life in an inflationary period, and are hard to translate into military capabilities. The most that can be said in conclusion seems to be that defense expenditures are apparently growing a little faster than inflation, without any clear indication as to what that difference actually is or what it portends for force growth or force improvement. Although the apparent size of China’s military expenditures may place it in the same category as France, the United Kingdom, and Japan, the comparison tends to stop there—because of the limited development of China’s industrial, science, and technology base.4
The ambiguity about what China’s defense expenditures actually consist of and what they portend is a good reason for greater transparency in China’s defense program, at least from the point of view of China’s neighbors, and from ours. Its proponents argue that greater transparency would allay regional concerns about China’s purposes and thus enhance regional stability, while diminishing incentives for regional arms competition. External pressures have resulted in China’s publishing a form of defense White Paper.5 Nevertheless, from China’s own perspective, greater transparency reduces the opportunity to conceal weakness—or rather, to exaggerate its strength and determination in ways calculated to influence others. Therefore, ambiguity about what China’s forces can do has been useful in pursuit of its maritime claims, notably with regard to Taiwan and the South China Sea. One could speculate, for example, that the seizure of Mischief Reef in 1994, the missile deployment opposite Taiwan, and announcements of invasion maneuvers would have been far less effective if the prospective target populations for these moves had been informed more clearly about what China actually had available to execute its implicit threats. In this sense. General Shalikashvili’s 15 February 1995 public estimate, that a blockade of Taiwan was possible but an invasion was not, was undoubtedly heard and presumably welcomed in Taipei; it probably was not as welcome in Beijing.
Three distortions encumber most assessments of the structure of China’s future forces and how quickly they will grow. The first is the assumption that if resources are available to support a particular military program they will invariably be employed for that purpose—rather than for competing goals such as modernization of infrastructure or other aspects of the civil economy. It is useful to recall that among China’s four modernizations, military modernization comes last, and among military priorities, the navy comes after the strategic nuclear forces (the “second artillery”). It is also worth noting that with more than half of the national territory sparsely inhabited by non-Chinese, security on land requires continuing attention and investment, in competition with the needs of China’s sea frontiers.
The second distortion lies in confusing inventory with capability. The fact that a ship or aircraft gets built, or a piece of equipment is bought or leaves the assembly line is not the same as its being deployed. Thus, equipment performance characteristics multiplied by the number of inventory pieces becomes a military capability only when the crews to serve it, the transport to move and sustain it, and the ancillary units to protect it are actually available for a specific mission. Usually, a fair amount of time elapses between the moment a hull slides down the ways and when it comes alive as a ship of war, with the qualities ascribed to it by observers. Recall that although the Soviets were credited with carrier capabilities in the 1970s, their first actual carrier finally went to sea in 1992, still without a catapult.
Finally, the reported acquisition of one or more pieces of modem equipment—or rumor of an intended acquisition—is not the same as actually having it. Nor is a report or rumor necessarily a harbinger of the existence of such items in the national inventory or as general issue with the deployed forces. Thus, some long-heralded Chinese items, such as the F-10 fighter, still have to make their appearance in other than prototype form. Nevertheless, news or rumors of intended carrier acquisitions, naval expansion plans, and selective purchases of Russian submarines and aircraft echo promptly around the Pacific once they surface, thus feeding China’s reputation as an important military power. Some news items actually turn out to be true. However, there is a considerable difference between the acquisition of a few Su-27s and the transformation of China’s huge 1950/60s-vintage air force into a modern one.
China does not have a blue-water navy, nor is it likely to acquire one by 2010 or even 2020. Buying such a fleet off the shelf is inconsistent with China’s usual practice of wanting to design and build its own war materiel, though admittedly basing it largely on foreign technology. Such an expensive acquisition also is beyond China’s economic capacity, even if its economy maintains an average 8% growth rate.
Furthermore, reverse engineering and domestic design, China’s historically preferred route, take a very long time to accomplish correctly. Even if China could build a prototype of virtually anything it chooses to build, achieving efficient series production of the countless system components required for follow-on production of the elements of a modern fleet will be beyond China’s capacity for some decades to come.6 Those who see China as bent on modernizing its naval forces, reaching for force projection capabilities and toward defending some hypothetical strategic maritime defense line out beyond Japan,7 need to explain why the number of China’s navy oilers is declining, and why its limited construction program continues to launch frigates of elderly design.8 However, if one ascribes more modest aspiration to China, such as sustaining claims to particular islands or island groups like the Spratlys, China’s voluminous, largely superannuated and slowly modernizing naval assets may be more than adequate to impress China’s southern neighbors—e.g., Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. None of these has comparable forces; all may hope that an outside power somehow will bring on a peaceful resolution of these disputes, consistent with their interests.
The only available outside power is the United States, whose most visible symbol is the presence of the Navy. Yet when examined in detail, U.S. interests overlap those of the alternative claimants only in part. The United States has no position on the merits of the territorial claims themselves (China’s claims to the Spratlys seem to be the best of a bad lot), and our declared concern about non-interference with freedom of navigation has been publicly accepted by the Chinese, who at least rhetorically abjure any intentions of interference. The largest Spratly islet, held by Taiwan, is not actively contested by China because it views Taiwan’s claim as its own. To complicate matters further, the two geographically related oil claims—one in Vietnam’s claimed circumscription—both involve U.S. oil companies. Finally, China’s seizure of Mischief Reef is outside the area covered by the mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, and thus involves no U.S. obligations to defend it.
What is involved, then, is the appearance of things, whether the United States will act in support of states with whom it has friendly relations (Philippines) or entertains hopes for better relations (Vietnam and Malaysia). Not to do so can be taken further afield (Thailand, Korea, and Japan), as evidence of U.S. irrelevance to the region’s security as the nations of the region would define it.
This complicated web of perceptions juxtaposes our authority as a major security factor in East Asia with our interest in establishing and maintaining mutually beneficial relations with China. In this, the U.S. Navy’s presence as an instrument of policy is an important factor, but not the only one. The most desirable outcome is an orderly process of negotiation among the claimants, instead of the coercion of one or more of the parties through the exercise or demonstration of force. It is therefore important that United States and its Navy not become a visible partisan of any claim or group of claimants, and that we refrain from the appearance of partisanship. That includes avoiding such steamy public hyperbole as accusations of aggression and of hegemonial aspirations. In a region historically familiar with both, such rhetoric rings hollow where the issues at stake—long-term claims to oil on the continental shelf—are implicit, and the most likely victims of aggression are gooney birds.
How much China’s mostly aged but massive forces will intimidate Taiwan is a more complicated matter. In rational terms, invasion seems implausible when considering what an actual cross-strait amphibious assault would involve. Available sealift could transport only the soldiers of one Chinese division. Even if one could posit that a single division would be enough to establish a feasible invasion beachhead, no one can imagine what would carry that division’s concurrently required heavy equipment, plus ammunition and other consumables; deliver the follow-on forces once the beachhead has been established; or specify what would supply and sustain the air cover for the invasion force. For that matter, is it even possible to locate a landing site—given the evident shortage of suitable beaches on the western coast of Taiwan? Some observers have suggested that China’s deployment of rockets and modern Russian aircraft—before the arrival in Taiwan of the F-16s promised by the Bush administration—represents evidence of Chinese intent to take advantage of a Taiwanese window of vulnerability. In such speculative scenarios, missiles and aircraft would attack targets in Taiwan, with the rockets delivering gas on the airfields, thereby preventing Taiwan’s air force from stopping the invasion. Attractive as this scenario may be for advocates of faster F-16 delivery or acceleration of anti- ballistic-missile programs, it fails to identify just what would invade Taiwan, how that force would be sustained across the strait, where it would land and consolidate, or what the United States would or should do while all this air and missile-delivered mayhem was in progress. China could perhaps do something a bit more modest, like attacking one of the near-shore coastal islands.
A blockade is easier to imagine, being largely a matter of declaration and demonstration of intent, perhaps by damaging one or more vessels. Aside from risk and higher rates, shippers would face a choice of offending China by ignoring the blockade, or offending Taiwan by canceling deliveries or pickups. China would lose external confidence, regional goodwill, and probably a great deal of business in the short term. China certainly would frighten several of its neighbors. In the long run, however, it might gain. The loser would be the United States.
We might have to choose between having the Navy intervene somehow to protect Taiwan and its commerce, or being seen to remain passive. Intervening means challenging China on a fundamental issue; doing nothing would be courting irrelevance. Either course would strain our relations with Japan and Korea, both of which depend on a stable regional environment and count on the United States to provide it. Therefore, it is in our best interest that this issue never arise, and that uncertainty about what the United States would do in the event of blockade—coupled with understanding of what our Navy could do—serves to deter Beijing from overt acts. That uncertainty should be matched by clarity in dialogue with Taiwan about our interest in not stimulating those same responses.
Human rights and trade balance aside, arms sales are perhaps the greatest bilateral irritant in our relations with China. CIA Director John Deutch confirmed 22 February 1996 that China continues to export “inappropriate” nuclear technology to Pakistan. This is the latest reaction to Chinese sales and suspected Chinese sales of nuclear or missile-related equipment in South Asia. Some transfers were reportedly made in violation of understandings enshrined in the Missile Technology Control Regime, although China asserts that the United States holds it responsible for undertakings added after China’s conditional accession to those understandings. Whatever the merits of its position, China is less than fully cooperative with expressed U.S. wishes and announced policy in the arms and technology transfer area. That is, however, a rather different matter from the intemperate assertions by journalists and politicians that China violates U.S. law—assertions usually followed by demands for prompt punishment of an unspecified nature. As a sovereign state, China is not subject to U.S. law—only to its consequences, to whatever extent the U.S. government chooses to apply them. This is not simply a matter of punishing evildoers, but a policy question, because there are costs in applying sanctions to a large, increasingly rich, important state.
Secretary of Defense William Perry made a good start toward articulating a strategic framework to define U.S.-China relations for the post-Cold War period with his announced policy of engagement. In Secretary Perry’s concept, engagement is better than confrontation at influencing China on the spread of nuclear weapons, on Taiwan and South China Sea questions, on regional stability, and for promoting openness and transparency in military affairs.9 Beijing, in the apparently continuous throes of internal change, has yet to articulate a framework that defines our bilateral relations. Yet both governments apparently realize that peace in the region requires non-confrontational—and to the extent possible—cooperative relations. Chinese cooperation on Korean nuclear issues and on Cambodia shows this is at least possible, in circumstances where both states have some degree of overlapping interests. But a strategy of engagement begins with attempts to create enough confidence to proceed on issues where we disagree. That in turn requires both governments to concentrate on long-term interests rather than worst-case scenarios, and to strive to narrow specific differences—especially insignificant ones—in order to sustain beneficial relations overall.
The U.S. Navy is an instrument of this policy. Therefore, the Navy has a responsibility not to damage prospects for the success of engagement with China. The Navy also has the more traditional obligation of being ready for war. Friendly relations with China require equal attention to both. So does the stability of the entire region.
1 Paul H.B. Godwin, “The PLA Towards 2000,” Paper presented to the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, 13-15 July 1995, p.2.
2 Cdr., Frank C. Borik, USN, “Sub Tsu and the Art of Submarine Warfare,” Proceedings, November 1995, pp 66-72.
3 CIA estimates, rather than China official figures, cited in Henry H. Gaffney, Jr., Worldwide Defense Expenditures (excluding the United States), Central Intelligence Memorandum 423/June 1995, Center for Naval Analyses, p. 2.
4 Paul H.B. Godwin and Alfred D. Wilhelm, “Assessing China’s Military Potential: The Importance of Transparency,” The Atlantic Council of the United States, Bulletin Vol. VI, No. 4, 1 May 1995.
5 “China: Arms and Disarmament.” Information Office of State Council, Beijing 1995.
6 Christopher D. Yung, “People’s War at Sea: Chinese Naval Power in the Twenty- First Century,” Center for Naval Analyses Research Memorandum 95-214.09, pp. 4-6.
7 Naval Intelligence Symposium, Russian and Chinese Maritime Policies in the 21st Century P. 6, Office of Naval Intelligence, Proceedings, Sept. 1995.
8 See discussion of Jiangwei frigates and PLAN replenishment and transport oilers. The Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World, 1997 (forthcoming), ed., A.D. Baker III.
9 William Perry, U.S. China Policy, Neither Containment nor Appeasement, Seattle Washington 30 October 1995, PacNet No.4, January 26, 1996, Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Thomas Hirschfeld is a senior analyst for the Center for Naval Analyses. He is a former senior foreign service officer and member of the Secretary of State’s foreign policy staff.