The “rise of China” is one of those interesting boogie man issues which dominates the strategic debate. This sorry excuse for a concept
almost totally ignores all the logistics and geography involved and any rational debate of China’s actual military priorities. It’s one step away from the Yellow Peril as actual military thinking- dogmatic, insular, and entirely removed from actual military situations on the ground.
The US is blessed with endless fervent advocates of anything which increases military spending. This would be nice, except the actual spending is so inefficient and so huge that the net effect is a sort of food fight among contractors. The F35, a very straightforward, necessary new platform, has been dogged with so many extras that it’s turned into a Christmas tree. It’s a fifth generation fighter being designed by Home Beautiful in many ways.
Unfortunately this taste for luxury also extends to strategic policy. Threats are more common than facts. Endless digressions from basics add a sort of scattergun effect. China’s a case in point.
China, in fact, is barely even a theoretical threat, let alone an actual enemy at this point in time. Its military reach has extended, yes- About 30 years after the Cold War turned the world into one big nuclear target.
Is China a threat?
Try a few questions on this subject.
Does China have the capacity to conduct global offensive warfare?
No. It has some nuclear capacity and a military which can conduct local offensive actions.
Is China increasing its military budget?
Yes. It barely qualifies as one fifth of US spending, and a lot of it is devoted to modernization of 1970s-1980s museum pieces and development of relatively straightforward new home grown military hardware. This is modern hardware, hence the increased price tags.
Does China pose any sort of military risk to US interests?
Not really, and certainly not globally. In theory it might support North Korea against South Korea. In practice, the Chinese have no need to support an idiotic, arguably insane and utterly useless ally. They know the real value of North Korea, and have effectively been ignoring it even in trade talks. North Korea barely has a functional economy and its 1950s mindset is totally out of step with modern Chinese policies.
China is under no real compulsion to do anything about North Korea. They seem to have offloaded some redundant military hardware there, but that’s it. This situation is almost the only possible shot on the board for any direct confrontation between the US and China, and it’s absurd. Even as a pawn in a game of Chinese chess, North Korea doesn’t qualify as a meaningful ally.
Does China have any possible areas of conflict with regional allies of the US?
Just barely, and only a few islands. These issues are not likely to lead to much more than a few shots and much rhetoric. China does business with all of them, too, so the rhetoric is largely for home consumption in practice.
Does China have emerging technology which would seriously change the strategic situation?
Only in space and only in theory. Putting large amounts of military hardware into space takes time and incentives. Even the US only created its global network in response to an actual military need during the Cold War. The ability to shoot down a few satellites may be a nuisance, but would have to be context with an actual war, not posturing.
(Actually, the Chinese made a point of showing they were able to do that as a simple, cheap demonstration of capabilities. They achieved their objective and simply didn’t need to do anything else. That type of thinking is more relevant than the archaic Yellow Peril will ever be. Any expectation of old-style bluster is dangerously stupid when dealing with modern China.)
Does China have the type of military organisation able to invade other nations?
Only on land and only in the region. The logistics of any sort of major aggression are well beyond current Chinese military capacity. Limited local attacks are viable, anything bigger than that doesn’t have the support framework required. It would take years to create a force able to actually attack India, for example, simply because modern systems create these huge logistic issues. China has actually streamlined the PLA considerably and got rid of the old dogmas about offensive action.
Is it in China’s interests to follow a militaristic global policy?
No. It’s expensive. China has very little to gain and a lot to lose by this type of policy. The economics alone are truly lousy. Major military expansion diverts resources from a critical area, the planned expansion of the Chinese domestic economy, which is both economically necessary and desirable. Any military expansion would have to be at great cost, to achieve an undefined objective purely “on principle”, with no easily defined goal. It doesn’t even make sense.
The Chinese have also proven repeatedly that they know how to support their global interests by other means. Their economic expansion, in fact, is much more effective than any sort of Cold War political alignment ever was.
Where are US interests actually under credible threat?
The Middle East. Not China or the Chinese zone. This godforsaken graveyard of so many peace initiatives is a pest. Iran is a sort of second rate local and military threat. It is hostile, it does have the capability to cause a lot of trouble, but it’s hardly invulnerable and has very little actual defence against a serious attack.
Who can actually attack the US and do any real major damage?
Russia, with its Soviet era upgrades, mainly. Nobody else has anything like enough firepower. China certainly doesn’t, and isn’t developing systems of this type. The current generation of Long March rockets have much better uses than preparing for a war that doesn’t even exist as a realistic possibility.
As long as China doesn’t perceive itself to be under any kind of real threat, it won’t do anything at all. Why should it? There’s nothing to fight, let alone a reason to spend endless billions. Nor are the Chinese likely to get suckered in to an arms race, knowing the disastrous effects it had on Russia. Their research capacity is increasing dramatically in other areas, but not so much in military areas except cyber warfare.
(Cyber warfare is also comparatively cheap and easy to maintain within a structured military framework. For the cost of one big missile, you can get a regiment of cyber intelligence capacity which can stage multiple productive operations for a year. It’s a no-brainer.)
Can you see any issues so far which would justify much more than an rationalization and realignment of the old US military posture to meet the new situations? China isn’t even an issue, and yet what are all the strategic experts talking about? Chinese military spending. The fact is the Chinese have a home grown military, have to support it and they’re also facing cost rises for new systems and hardware like everybody else. Therefore they spend more. Mysterious, isn’t it?
If the US wants to achieve anything positive in the military sphere, it can start by cleaning up its own cluttered junkyard. It can start by establishing real priorities and enforcing contract efficiency. That’s likely to do more useful good for the nation and its long-suffering budgets than paying people to discuss non-existent scenarios.