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Why I’m Really Not Worried About a Growing Chinese Military Presence

by / 4 Comments / 24 View / April 22, 2015

Originally posted on February 19, 2015

I don’t write about subject matter related to the military all that often. Aside from how the military affects fiscal issues and has macro-effects on society, it really doesn’t pique my interest. However, I came across a report from the Rand Corporation entitled China’s Incomplete Military Transformation (Chase, Michael et al., 2015)and I was curious. Why the curiosity? Those who would like for the United States to have a more expansionary and interventionist military policy want to point out any potential threat to the United States, whether real or imaginary: territorial disputes in places such as the South China SeaChina’s double-digit increase in defense spending over the yearsnuclear capabilitiesnaval modernization. These are all reasons that proponents of the military are saying we should be worried about China’s increasing military presence and clout. However, going off the Rand Corporation report, as well as other points I can make, here is a list of why I am not particularly worried about China being a militaristic force majeure:

  1. Corruption and organizational structure. China is well-known for its culture of corruption. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is de jure a separate entity from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which means there is essentially no civilian oversight (Chase, Michael et al., p. 48), and essentially created a civil-military gap (p. 45). The PLA’s budget is approved without any real discussion as to what the budget entails (p. 47), so it is no surprise that the PLA is going to be riddled with inefficiencies. Corruption is effectively an indirect tax because it decreases the efficiency of spending. China’s significantly higher level of corruption means that it would need to spend a lot more money on the military than the United States to even become close to outpacing the United States military. Looking at the proceeding points, I find that to be highly improbable.
  2. Estimating military size. Because of its corruption, China lacks the transparency needed for good governance. This is evident in trying to estimate the size of China’s military because China’s government estimates are infamously unreliable. In spite of whatever grandstanding the Chinese government might be doing, they could very well be overestimating their numbers.
  3. Basic military strategy and geography. But let’s assume that the high range of the military’s budget of $132B is accurate, a figure that is less than a third of what the United States’ expenditures on military spending. China is still at a disadvantage. Why?
    • For one, the United States has much more actual experience in military operations. By extension, the United States has military posts throughout the world, and is able to be much more responsive with its extensive military network. This also means that China does not have the same military network to deploy troops and carry out operations that would greatly expand its military clout.
    • Even if China were to go on the offensive, it means that China would most probably be attacking a coastline (e.g., Taiwan, Japan). Defending a coastline is much easier than attacking it, and given that the coastline is going to have U.S. military force, it would be all more difficult for the PLA to succeed.
    • Nuclear deterrence can be a wonderful thing, which is something the United States has. Whether or not China has second-strike capabilities, the fear of mutually assured destruction (MAD) can be adequate to make sure China doesn’t agitate the United States.
    • Under the neorealist school of thought in international relations, balance of power theory states that national security is enhanced when one state is not so powerful that it dominates all the others. I don’t subscribe to this school of thought in its entirety, but if we’re so worried about balance of power, there are plenty of countries who have been historic rivals that would want to contain China’s growing influence on a regional level. To name a few: India, Japan, Russia, and Pakistan. Russia’s concern is going to be contingent upon its relationship with the United States, but it’s safe to say that China is going to have to contend with other countries in the region that would rather not see China become too powerful.
    • While we’re talking about borders, China borders three of some of the most unstable countries in the world: Afghanistan, North Korea, and Pakistan. China is surrounded by potential enemies and instability. The United States has two large oceans distancing it from any other country that could be remotely considered a world power.
    • In spite of qualms that some might have about the United States and its military reach, it still has a lot more military allies than China does. China’s main military ally is Russia, and even that has historically been tenuous.
  4. Insufficient education, training, and technology. China’s military is stymied by undertrained and inexperienced officers (p. 141) who are compensated with an amount less than those in the civilian economy (p. 49). The military exercises are also counterproductive because they do not provide real opportunities for Chinese soldiers to learn from their mistakes (p. 50). China also does not have the military technology to outflank United States submarines or aircraft. Just because China is spending more money doesn’t mean its spending is as well-targeted. China is woefully behind the United States on developing its military technology. For China to catch up, it would require a steep investment in new weapons and platforms, all of which are capital-intensive.
  5. Military size. The overall size of the PLA is about 2.3 million individuals. This is not only an issue from a budgetary standpoint. Economies of scale makes it difficult to manage an army of such a size because it takes such logistical and administrative oversight (p. 53). China is also dealing with a rapidly aging populace, which means that it cannot maintain the size of its military because it will have to increase its government expenditures on social welfare programs. This also assumes that manpower is the only prime factor in warfare. However, in modern-day warfare, you also need the equipment to carry out missions.
  6. Potential game changers. China’s overall trajectory has been quite difficult to predict, but we cannot assume that the status quo will remain in perpetuity. Most notably, China’s GDP cannot expand the way it has indefinitely, and is going to experience an economic slowdown at some point. If the slowdown is more abrupt, the Chinese government is going to have to make some major trade-offs with its military spending (p. 21). China also has some major potential for domestic instability. Although the CCP has been able to quash a good amount of social unrest, there is a real possibility that this might no longer be the case, which means the Chinese government would have to divert its resources elsewhere (p. 22). Also, China might antagonize its neighbors into military conflict. But China could also forge military alliances, which would reduce its propensity to expand upon its military.

Although the future is uncertain, if an educated guess had to be made, the best one is that China will have just enough muscle to make sure that the United States does not intervene in East Asia along China’s border. Yes, China’s military is growing, but to say that China’s military is going to be on par with the United States military is just another reason to increase defense spending in America. I hope the powers that be can see that China’s weaknesses are very real, and can pursue constructive relations with China instead of worrying about a bogeyman of worst-case scenario whose probability is next to nil.

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