The Debate

Overstating the China Threat?

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The Debate

Overstating the China Threat?

Calls for substantial new investments in U.S. military hardware seem a little hasty.

Overstating the China Threat?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of Washington’s leading members of Congress, J. Randy Forbes, and a brilliant analyst, Elbridge Colby, sound the alarm. They believe that China has made precipitous gains against the United States’ military power and that the U.S. must urgently increase its defense efforts to maintain its superiority.

Forbes and Colby assert that “the balance of military power in the Asia-Pacific writ large is under serious and growing pressure from China’s military-modernization efforts,” and the U.S. “edge in technology … is eroding.” They caution that China’s military buildup poses “critical” challenges “to achieving U.S. political-military objectives in the areas that have traditionally been part of our defense umbrella,” namely “challenges to [the United States’] military superiority in the crucial air, sea, space, and cyberspace domains.” Most alarming, Forbes and Colby hold that failure to act could have “tremendous strategic consequences” for the United States and its allies.

To support these claims, Forbes and Colby provide no new details (or old ones, for that matter) about China’s military buildup, instead quoting prominent officials. Their “evidence” consists of Commander of U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Samuel Locklear’s statement that “our historic dominance … is diminishing;” Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Frank Kendall’s assertion that the United States’ technological superiority in defense “is being challenged in ways … not seen for decades, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region;” and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey’s claim that “our technology edge [is eroding].” Forbes and Colby seem not to mind that the job of these officials is to cry wolf whenever they see any creature moving, lest they be charged with having ignored a menace if said wolf does materialize. Forbes and Colby also ignore that the military budget and the generals’ command depend on finding a new enemy now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down. And they do not take into account the military’s long record of overestimating the dangers posed by America’s enemies, as notably occurred in the case of the former Soviet Union.

A careful reader notes that the two leading analysts do recognize that China’s A2/AD defenses are full of holes, akin—in their words—to “a block of Swiss cheese,” and it is incredibly difficult to protect a “huge territory”. Forbes and Colby should have to added that Chinese submarines are noisy and pose little threat; China’s single aircraft carrier  offers scant opportunity to project power against the diminished but still-vast American fleet; and that China’s military buildup is dramatic only if one ignores that it started the “race” from far behind. It is easy to achieve double-digit percent increases in military spending when one’s baseline budget was $30 billion in 2000 and had scraped $160 billion in 2012. By contrast, the United States’ defense budget in 2012 was more than 400 percent larger—about $682 billion— than China’s and remained $30 billion greater than the defense budgets of China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy and Brazil combined.

Forbes and Colby’s military shopping list includes:

  • Additional Virginia-class submarines and unspecified new technologies designed to “sustain our undersea-warfare advantage.”
  • Unspecified future aircraft with a host of novel capabilities designed to meet “emerging threat environments in the Western Pacific.”
  • Additional long-range bombers that would improve on the B-2.
  • New, unspecified “credible kinetic and nonkinetic means to deter potential adversaries from extending a conflict into space.”
  • “[A] new generation of offensive munitions.”
  • Greater spending, generally speaking, on “cutting-edge and next-generation technologies.”

Mark Gunzinger, who shares the same concerns, co-authored a document with Jan Van Tol, Andrew Krepinevich, and Jim Thomas on the Air-Sea Battle concept in which the authors recommended a host of military expenditures, including several technological and material developments and increases. These include:

  • Unspecified “long-range penetrating and stand-off EA-capable platforms (manned and/or unmanned).”
  • “Quantity obscurants, decoys, and false target generators for both offensive and defensive [electronic warfare] missions.”
  • Developing alternatives to GPS navigation and reducing United States’ reliance on GPS for its “precision guided weapons.”
  • Directed-energy weapons (DEW)
  • Additional unmanned undersea vehicles for intelligence purposes.
  • Developing new mobile mines “deployable by submarines and stealthy Air Force bombers.”
  • “Stockpiling” precision-guided weapons.
  • Additional air tankers.

One wonders what good these kinds of extra hardware would do in light of the fact that China is engaging in a low-key strategy of salami tactics that relies on enforcing its disputed maritime claims with mainly non-military assets. These include using civilian patrol vessels, which are “armed” with nothing more than water cannons and grappling hooks, and cutting the cables of exploration vessels belonging to other countries. Most important, do these analysts really presume that the United States should threaten China with war if it persists in claiming that several piles of uninhabited rocks and the waters around them are within China’s exclusive economic zone or air defense identification zone?

More needs to be heard about China’s actual intentions and interests before it is appropriate to conclude that the U.S. government should invest large sums in technologies that have strategic value only in outright war. Why would China seek to “eat our lunch,” as Pentagon officials are fond of saying, or replace the United States as a global power? It has no ideology that calls for bringing its regime’s ideals to the rest of the world. And it is under enormous pressure to attend to a host of serious domestic concerns, including an aging population, persistent environmental challenges, and an economic slowdown. Speaking of domestic challenges—won’t the United States be stronger in the longer term if it chooses to invest more of its military spending, on fixing its aging infrastructure, creating jobs, and revitalizing its educational system?

Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. He served as a senior adviser to the Carter White House and taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.