Early in my time in China, I learned a useful lesson for daily life. In the summer of 2006, I saw a contingent of light-green-shirted People’s Liberation Army soldiers marching in formation down a sidewalk on Fuxing Lu in Shanghai, near the U.S. and Iranian consulates. They looked so crisp under the leafy plane trees of the city’s old colonial district that I pulled out a camera to take a picture of them—and, after pushing the button, had to spend the next 60 seconds running at full tilt away from the group’s leader, who pursued me yelling in English “Stop! No photo! Must stop!” Fortunately he gave up after scaring me off.
The practical lesson was to not point a camera toward uniformed groups of soldiers or police. The broader hint I took was to be more careful when asking about or discussing military matters than when asking about most other aspects of modern China’s development. I did keep asking people in China—carefully—about the potential military and strategic implications of their country’s growing strength. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and consequent disappearance of the U.S. military’s one superpower rival, Western defense strategists have speculated about China’s emergence as the next great military threat. (In 2005, this magazine published Robert Kaplan’s cover story “How We Would Fight China,” about such a possibility. Many of the international-affairs experts I interviewed in China were familiar with that story. I often had to explain that “would” did not mean “will” in the article’s headline.)
The cynical view of warnings about a mounting Chinese threat is that they are largely Pentagon budget-building ploys: if the U.S. military is “only” going to fight insurgents and terrorists in the future, it doesn’t really need the next generation of expensive fighter planes or attack submarines. Powerful evidence for this view—apart from familiarity with Pentagon budget debates over the years—is that many of the neoconservative thinkers who since 9/11 have concentrated on threats from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran were before that time writing worriedly about China. The most powerful counterargument is that China’s rise is so consequential and unprecedented in scale that it would be naive not to expect military ramifications. My instincts lie with the skeptical camp: as I’ve often written through the past three years, China has many more problems than most Americans can imagine, and its power is much less impressive up close. But on my return to America, I asked a variety of military, governmental, business, and academic officials about how the situation looks from their perspective. In most ways, their judgment was reassuringly soothing; unfortunately, it left me with a new problem to worry about.
Without meaning to sound flip, I think the strictly military aspects of U.S.-China relations appear to be something Americans can rest easy about for a long time to come. Hypercautious warnings to the contrary keep cropping up, especially in the annual reports on China’s strategic power produced since 2000 by the Pentagon each spring and by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission each fall. Yet when examined in detail, even these show the limits of the Chinese threat. To summarize:
• In overall spending, the United States puts between five and 10 times as much money into the military per year as China does, depending on different estimates of China’s budget. Spending does not equal effectiveness, but it suggests the difference in scale.
• In sophistication of equipment, Chinese forces are only now beginning to be brought up to speed. For instance, just one-quarter of its naval surface fleet is considered “modern” in electronics, engines, and weaponry.
• In certain categories of weaponry, the Chinese don’t even compete. For instance, the U.S. Navy has 11 nuclear-powered aircraft-carrier battle groups. The Chinese navy is only now moving toward construction of its very first carrier.
• In the unglamorous but crucial components of military effectiveness—logistics, training, readiness, evolving doctrine—the difference between Chinese and American standards is not a gap but a chasm. After a natural disaster anywhere in the world, the American military’s vast airlift and sealift capacity often brings rescue supplies. The Chinese military took days to reach survivors after the devastating Sichuan earthquake in May of 2008, because it has so few helicopters and emergency vehicles.
• For better and worse, in modern times, American forces are continually in combat somewhere in the world. This has its drawbacks, but it means that U.S. leaders, tactics, and doctrine are constantly refined by the realities of warfare. In contrast, vanishingly few members of the People’s Liberation Army have any combat experience whatsoever. The PLA’s last major engagement was during its border war with Vietnam in February and March of 1979, when somewhere between 7,000 of its soldiers (Chinese estimate) and 25,000 (foreign estimates) were killed within four weeks.
Beyond all this is a difference of military culture rarely included in American discussions of the Chinese threat—and surprising to those unfamiliar with the way China’s Communist government chose to fund its army. The post-Vietnam American military has been fanatically devoted to creating a “warrior” culture of military professionalism. The great struggle of the modern PLA has been containing the crony-capitalist culture that comes from its unashamed history of involvement in business. Especially under Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese military owned and operated factories, hotels and office buildings, shipping and trucking companies, and other businesses both legitimate and shady. In the late 1990s President Jiang Zemin led a major effort to peel the PLA’s military functions away from its business dealings, but by all accounts, corruption remains a major challenge in the Chinese military, rather than the episodic problem it is for most Western forces. One example: at a small airport in the center of the country, an airport manager told me about his regular schedule of hong bao deliveries—“red envelopes,” or discreet cash payoffs—to local air-force officers, to ensure airline passage through the sector of airspace they controlled. (Most U.S. airspace is controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration; nearly all of China’s, by the military.) A larger example is the widespread assumption that military officials control the vast Chinese traffic in pirated movie DVDs.
The Chinese military’s main and unconcealed ambition is to someday be strong enough to take Taiwan by force if it had to. But the details of the balance of power between mainland and Taiwanese forces, across the Straits of Taiwan, have been minutely scrutinized by all parties for decades, and shifts will not happen by surprise. The annual reports from the Pentagon and the Security Review Commission lay out other possible scenarios for conflict, but in my experience it is rare to hear U.S. military or diplomatic officials talk about war with China as a plausible threat. “My view is that the political leadership is principally focused on creating new jobs inside the country,” I was told by retired Admiral Mike McConnell, a former head of the National Security Agency and the director of national intelligence under George W. Bush. Another former U.S. official put it this way: “We tend to think of everything about China as being multiplied by 1.3 billion. The Chinese leadership has to think of everything as being divided by 1.3 billion”—jobs, houses, land. Russell Leigh Moses, who has lived in China for years and lectures at programs to train Chinese officials, notes that the Chinese military, like its counterparts everywhere, is “determined not to be neglected.” But “so many problems occupy the military itself—including learning how to play the political game—that there is no consensus to take on the U.S.”
Yes, circumstances could change, and someday there could be a consensus to “take on the U.S.” But the more you hear about the details, the harder it is to worry seriously about that now. So why should we worry? After conducting this round of interviews, I now lose sleep over something I’d generally ignored: the possibility of a “cyberwar” that could involve attacks from China—but, alarmingly, could also be launched by any number of other states and organizations.
The cyber threat is the idea that organizations or individuals may be spying on, tampering with, or preparing to inflict damage on America’s electronic networks. Google’s recent announcement of widespread spying “originating from China” brought attention to a problem many experts say is sure to grow. China has hundreds of millions of Internet users, mostly young. In any culture, this would mean a large hacker population; in China, where tight control and near chaos often coexist, it means an Internet with plenty of potential outlaws and with carefully directed government efforts, too. In a report for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission late last year, Northrop Grumman prepared a time line of electronic intrusions and disruptions coming from sites inside China since 1999. In most cases it was impossible to tell whether the activity was amateur or government-planned, the report said. But whatever their source, the disruptions were a problem. And in some instances, the “depth of resources” and the “extremely focused targeting of defense engineering data, US military operational information, and China-related policy information” suggested an effort that would be “difficult at best without some type of state-sponsorship.”
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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.
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