Jul 25 2010

Two views on China’s danger to the USA

Category: China,national securityharmonicminer @ 8:59 am

Here are two views of our possible future in regard to China’s ambitions and intent to expand its influence to control all of Asia, and then possibly to exert influence in the Americas.  I apologize in advance for the length of this…  if you’re not interested in whether or not the US will have to fight a war with China in the next twenty years, find something else to do for the next few minutes.  But this is essential background to understand my comments that complete this post.

First up, Mark Helprin’s piece from the Claremont Review of Books.

Farewell to the China Station

By Mark Helprin

If two locomotives are running at each other on the same track, it is possible that one will derail before impact or an earthquake will disalign their paths, but more likely—here is what is going to happen in the Western Pacific as the United States and China converge on a collision course.

Far sooner than once anticipated, China will achieve effective military parity in Asia, general conventional parity, and nuclear parity. Then the short road to superiority will be impossible for it to ignore, as it is already on its way thanks to a brilliant policy borrowed from Japan and Israel (and which I have described more fully in “East Wind,” National Review, March 20, 2000). Briefly, since Deng Xiaoping, China has understood that, without catastrophic social dislocation, it can leverage its spectacular economic growth into X increases in per-capita GDP but many-times-X increases in military spending. To wit, between 1988 and 2007, a ten-fold increase in per-capita GDP ($256 to $ 2,539) but a twenty-one-fold purchasing power parity (PPP) increase in military expenditures (PPP $5.78 billion to PPP $122 billion). The major constraint has been that an ever increasing rate of technical advance can only be absorbed so fast even by a rapidly modernizing military.

Meanwhile, in good times and in bad, under Republicans and under Democrats, with defense spending insufficient across the board, the United States has slowed, frozen, or reversed the development especially of the kind of war-fighting assets that China rallies forward (nuclear weapons, fighter planes, surface combatants, submarines, space surveillance) and those (anti-submarine warfare capacity, carrier battle groups, and fleet missile defense) that China does not yet need to counter us but that we need to counter it.

We have provided as many rationales for neglect as our neglect has created dangers that we rationalize. Never again will we fight two major adversaries simultaneously, although in recent memory this is precisely what our fathers did. Conventional war is a thing of the past, despite the growth and modernization of large conventional forces throughout the world. Appeasement and compromise will turn enemies into friends, if groveling and self-abasement do not first drive friends into the enemy camp. A truly strong country is one in which people are happy and have a lot of things, though at one time, as Gibbon described it, “so rapid were the motions of the Persian cavalry” that the prosperous and relaxed citizens of Antioch were surprised while at the theater, and slaughtered as their city burned around them. And the costs of more reliable defence and deterrence are impossible to bear in this economy, even if in far worse times America made itself into the greatest arsenal the world has ever known, while, not coincidentally, breaking the back of the Great Depression.

China is on the cusp of being able to use conventional satellites, swarms of miniature satellites, and networked surface, undersea, and aerial cuing for real-time terminal guidance with which to direct its 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles to the five or six aircraft carriers the United States (after ceding control of the Panama Canal and reducing its carrier fleet by one third since 1987) could dispatch to meet an invasion of Taiwan. In combination with anti-ship weapons launched from surface vessels, submarines, and aircraft, the missile barrage is designed to keep carrier battle groups beyond effective range. Had we built more carriers, provided them with sufficient missile defence, not neglected anti-submarine warfare, and dared consider suppression of enemy satellites and protections for our own, this would not be so.

Had we not stopped production of the F-22 at a third of the original requirement (see “The Fate of the Raptor,” CRB, Winter 2009/10), its 2,000-mile range and definitive superiority may have allowed us to dominate the air over Taiwan nonetheless, but no longer. Nor can we “lillypad” fighters to Taiwan if its airfields are destroyed by Chinese missiles, against which we have no adequate defence.

* * *

With the Western Pacific cleared of American naval and air forces sufficient to defend or deter an invasion, Taiwan—without war but because of the threat of war—will capitulate and accept China’s dominion, just as Hong Kong did when the evolving correlation of forces meant that Britain had no practical say in the matter. If this occurs, as likely it will, America’s alliances in the Pacific will collapse. Japan, Korea, and countries in Southeast Asia and even Australasia (when China’s power projection forces mature) will strike a bargain so as to avoid pro forma vassalage, and their chief contribution to the new arrangement will be to rid themselves of American bases.

Now far along in building a blue-water navy, once it dominates its extended home waters China will move to the center of the Pacific and then east, with its primary diplomatic focus the acquisition of bases in South and Central America. As at one time we had the China Station, eventually China will have the Americas Station, for this is how nations behave in the international system, independently of their declarations and beliefs as often as not. What awaits us if we do not awake is potentially devastating, and those who think the subtle, indirect pressures of domination inconsequential might inquire of the Chinese their opinion of the experience.

In the military, economic, and social trajectories of the two principals, the shape of the future comes clear. In 2007, a Chinese admiral suggested to Admiral Timothy J. Keating, chief of U.S. Pacific Command, that China and the United States divide the Pacific into two spheres of influence. Though the American admiral firmly declined the invitation, as things go now his successors will not have the means to honor his resolution, and by then the offer may seem generous. None of this was ever a historical inevitability. Rather, it is the fault of the American people and the governments they have freely chosen. Perhaps five or ten years remain in which to accomplish a restoration, but only with a miracle of leadership, clarity, and will.

In a tongue in cheek title, theorist Thomas P.M. Barnett titles his response to Helprin this way:
China’s rise must be stopped! In fact, our entire military should be shaped to this end!

Here’s a projection from the National Intelligence Council’s 2020 look-ahead report. If you go with the high-estimate line (always a safe bet with such a secretive government), then you come up with a number in the same range as Helprin’s ($115-120B). By 2025, then, we’re looking at a PLA that spends about a quarter-trillion dollars a year.

For comparison, check out US spending over the past decade, by way of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

My point here: our baseline spending grew almost as much as China’s total budget should be in 2025: $220B. Our top-line budget grew $373B, but you have to consider the war-spending as more subtractive than additive, even as it means our military now has a long recent combat experience base while the PLA really hasn’t fought a conflict of any length since the early 1950s, or almost six decades ago.

What are we likely to spend in 2025? Probably in the range of a trillion a year, or still 4X China’s total.

Now, if you follow the great projections on China, you would likely have their defense budget catch ours sometime before 2050, but that stuff gets awfully iffy, because it assumes that China will keep up the build-up despite the stunning aging of their population–to wit, in 2050, we’ll have a relatively young total population of 400m and China will have 400m-plus over the age of 60.

That’s just the background. Now, on to Helprin’s scare-mongering piece.

He says we rationalize our growing weakness relative to China’s growing strength, telling ourselves that we’ll never fight two major adversaries at the same time (our dream of a WWII-redux). Okay, who else are we going to fight at the same time as China? He doesn’t say.

Helprin says we delude ourselves by thinking conventional war is a thing of the past, citing “the growth and modernization of large conventional forces throughout the world.” That line is just pure bullshit based on nothing.

Here’s the SIPRI numbers:

Note two things: 1) It took the world 20 years to get back to the peak spending at the end of the Cold War, and that was across a time period in which wars declined dramatically while numerous great powers rose, a trend that historically results in greater defense spending; and 2) the great growth from the trough of the late 90s to now is about $400B. Well, guess who did most of that additional spending? Duh! The United States. No one is modernizing like we are or racking up huge operational experience at the bleeding edge.

Helprin goes on to say that “appeasement and compromise” isn’t turning our enemies into friends. Really? Seems like we just went through a rerun of the start of the Great Depression and what kind of cooperation did we get from all our “enemies” around the world? Actually, pretty damn nice.

Then we get the usual decline-of-the-Roman-empire stuff. Impressive.

So we’re told that we’ve ceded the Western Pacific to the Chinese, meaning, at the very least, we’re supposed to hold it ad infinitum. Why? Taiwan could be absorbed by China militarily. And if that happens, “America’s alliances in the Pacific will collapse.”

Brilliant logic there. China forcibly invades a country it’s trying to sign a free trade deal with it and you expect the rest of Asia to suddenly want nothing to do with America. Is this guy high?

From that domination of the Western Pac, China will soon begin to dominate all of Latin America, says Helprin–our China station replaced by China’s America station.

Why will China make this supreme effort? I have no idea. China doesn’t seem to have any problem buying whatever it wants from Latin America, but apparently the Chinese people will want this more than environmental cleanups or old age pensions. They will go along with any government push to propel China into constant military standoffs with the US on the other side of the Pacific, because Chinese history is so full of such examples.

Me? I see China logically building a naval presence and power-projection capability in the direction of its energy supplies–i.e., the Persian Gulf. I don’t see them wasting time and money on regions that are stable suppliers. Of course, if China pushes its way into the Gulf military, pretty soon they’ll find themselves involved in all the same Leviathan-SysAdmin work we do there now. And frankly, that would make some sense, given that Asia takes out the bulk of the oil the Gulf provides, while the US can get along without it easily (the PG ranks behind Africa, Latin America, Mexico and Canada, and the US itself as our 5th most important supplier of oil).

And how threatening will a China be that bears this incredible burden? How many costly wars will the Chinese people support in distant lands? Hmm. We shall see.

But this is all silly conjecture on my part. Clearly, the Chinese will do whatever it takes to drive us completely out of the Pacific. Helprin says, we have “perhaps five or ten years” in which we can accomplish a “restoration.”

Get used to this logic. Gates is working hard to get the Pentagon and Congress realistic about what we can and cannot afford in the future. We can either pull out of the world and stockpile our brilliant, uber-expensive Leviathan weaponry in anticipation of getting it on with China or we can be more realistic about our Leviathan hedge given our SysAdmin workload. Mr. Helprin believes we can have it all and do it all, and I think that’s truly nutty.

But again, the quickest way to bog down the Chinese would be to abandon the Middle East and let them manage it on their own. Any takers on that score?

The Chinese give every indication of wanting to secure their trade networks with the world and no indication of being willing to fight for anything beyond that. Hell, they don’t give any indication of wanting even to fight for their trade networks. All they really give as an indication is that they will not tolerate Taiwan declaring independence–their own, whacked-out mania.

We are deep into an age in which our old friends will spend less on their militaries and rising new competitors will spend more on theirs. We can either seek cooperation with these rising powers on mutual economic interests or we can try to hedge against them all, demanding that only America can decide such things.

The fixation with China is convenient for US military hawks, because the Chinese Communist Party will rule in a single-party state, with no serious challengers, for the next two decades or so. Of the other rising great powers, we don’t really fear any of them, because they’re close enough in their political pluralism–save demographically collapsing Russia–to avoid such suspicions on our part. Now, we can pretend that this crew of rising great powers will prefer a world run predominately by the PLA over one more dominated by the US military, but I think that’s a paranoid assumption. I think the alleged Beijing consensus only works so long as China stays out of wars, which is why I’d love to see them sucked into a few.

Mr. Helprin sees a clear and clean route to the top of global military domination for the Chinese. I don’t. I see a surfeit of hidden domestic debts and a public with no stomach for military adventure. I also see a single-party state that could not politically survive a single military defeat, and hence it will risk none. China cannot free-ride its way to the top and then dominate with no resulting exposure to draining wars. To believe in such a trajectory is, in my mind, truly ahistoric.

Helprin likewise sees China’s defense rise as a pure zero-sum—as in, they gain and we lose. I do not. I see the Chinese arriving just in time.

We will either convince the Chinese to cooperate with us on global security or we will cede the burden to them. Either way, China is going to get dramatically bogged down by all its burgeoning global network connectivity. To believe otherwise is sheer fantasy.

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. We’ve never gotten one, and neither will the Chinese.

I hope that Thomas P.M. Barnett is right in downplaying the Chinese threat. But I fear he is not. Here’s why.

Barnett’s comparions of overall military spending comparisons between the USA and China aren’t very comforting, for a simple reason. The Chinese are spending most of their money preparing to fight the USA for Asian and Pacific dominance (or to intimidate the USA into not fighting them, which amounts to the same thing).  The USA has global responsibilities, but it is spending that way ONLY in the sense that it spreads its budget around, and NOT enough to truly service those global responsibilities, and the likely future capabilities and intentions of our probable opponents.  Barnett’s argument is like pointing out that any given person’s chance of being a crime victim is relatively small, and so suggesting that a particular individual go take a walk in a high-crime neighborhood without adequate precautions.  Global statistics don’t tell us much about local or regional problems…  and total spending figures tell us little about HOW the Chinese are spending their money, compared to how the USA is spending on its military.

Consider:  we are stretched thin fighting what are really two minor, highly localized wars.  There is no comparison of the Iraq war to the size and complexity of the European theater in WW II, nor is there one between the Afghanistan war and the Pacific War of WWII.  Yet we fought in both theaters simultaneously in WWII.   There are differences, of course.  The entire nation was mobilized in WWII, and it isn’t now.  But, in WWII it was possible to ramp up quickly in war production and training, and produce then-modern weapons in incredible numbers with a relatively short startup period, and train people fairly quickly in how to use them.  That is simply not possible with modern weapons, which are far more complex to make and use, depend on many more production steps, and require specific manufacturing facilities that take years to create.  We can’t stop making F-22s this year, mothball the factories and reassign the expert technicians to other jobs, and then in five years, suddenly build three or four hundred of them that year, along with all their specialized weapons.  It is literally impossible to do, regardless of how much money we threw at it then.  In WWII, we made a quarter of a million warplanes in five years.  Such things are no longer possible.  And the F-22 is only one advanced weapons system that we would need.

Not convinced we couldn’t ramp up quickly?  We went to the moon in 1969.  But with the most optimistic program imaginable, it would take us ANOTHER ten years to go there again, even though we did it before in less time, and even that ten year time-frame would require a very large national investment.  We couldn’t do it the same way we did it before.  Literally, the expertise to do it THAT way no longer exists.  (Much as we couldn’t now outfit a Lewis and Clark expedition with period specific gear, manufactured the way they did it, and expect the expedition to even stay alive, traveling in the same ways they did it the first time.  Quite literally, no one alive now knows how to do things that way.)  Our current tech-base would have to do it the way it does things now.  There are no Saturn boosters or Apollo craft left, and there are no factories to build them, nor experts in the old way of doing things.  We’d literally have to start over.   (Obama, of course, has decided not to try, and to use NASA to encourage Muslim self-esteem.)

So:  if we don’t keep up our production capability for the advanced weapons we’ve already developed (and the ONLY way to do that is to keep producing them…  it really is “use it or lose it”), and if we don’t develop MORE advanced weapons (because we foolishly believe we’ve spent enough, and we’re in the lead, and because we assume our putative opponents, including the Chinese, are going to have their hands full as it is), we will have made the possibly fatal error of limiting our own capabilities to what we hope are the intentions of our opponents, instead of planning our capabilities to far exceed the possible capability OR intention of any opponent.

In other words, we will have abandoned “peace through strength,” and substituted for it, “peace through hope.”

It boils down to this.  China has, for now, limited but specific aims, namely to dominate Asia and the Pacific.  It targets essentially ALL of its spending to that end, and specifically to defeat the weapons systems the USA already has.  It looks to me, even taking Barnett’s optimistic numbers, as though the Chinese ARE outdoing us in the specific area of Asian and Pacific oriented military spending.  The Chinese are smart, capable people.  Only foolish complacency leads one to assume the Chinese can’t simply overwhelm ALL of our carrier defenses if it throws enough supersonic or hypersonic missiles simultaneously.  It is busy building that overwhelming force.  Will a US president be interested in staring down the Chinese over Taiwan when only a nuclear option remains, because conventional options are no longer adequate?

So it seems to me that Barnett hopes for the best in terms of Chinese demographics, internal pressures and foreign intentions, and suggests we plan accordingly.  In the meantime, the Chinese ARE spending much more on methods and means to defeat our Pacific carrier fleet and countering our satellite systems than WE are spending in specifically countering those new threats.  It’s as if a really strong, powerful, skilled fighter, who has big weapons (our carrier fleet, essentially a 1960s concept), has decided he doesn’t have to pay attention to the fact that his opponent is sneaking up behind him with something he hasn’t really planned for, like 3000 hypersonic shipkiller missiles.  Sure, we can perhaps stop many of them.  But unless the Chinese truly fear a nuclear response from us, why should they not destroy our Pacific carrier fleet, or significant portions of it, when they can, consistent with their broadening ambitions?  Only a few such missiles would have to get through, and our ability to project power in the Pacific would be severely degraded.

I am not convinced an American President would, or should, launch even limited theater nuclear weapons in response to even an overwhelming conventional attack.  I AM convinced that I don’t want any American President to ever have to make that decision.

The problem with feckless policies and foolish spending priorities is this:  it is almost always going to be the NEXT administration that will have to deal with the mess left behind.  And the shortsighted public will often blame the administration in which the problem emerges, instead of the one whose policies and spending priorities led to it.

It would be good to pray that Thomas Barnett is correct in his assessment.  But we’d better plan to deal with the possibility that he’s wrong.

Unfortunately, Obama’s foreign policy assumptions seem to be even rosier than Barnett’s about our likely future opponents’ capabilities and intentions.

2 Responses to “Two views on China’s danger to the USA”

  1. Sam says:

    One thing that these articles don’t really seem to take into account is the difference in culture regarding planning. I am by no means an expert of any sort in Asian culture, but I an very interested in it historically, and have read quite a bit on it. One thing that comes back throughout history in East Asia is a willingness to wait and enact strategies that may take decades (or even generations) to come to fruition. These are cultures that have been in existence for millennia and we’re talking about there actions over the last 50 years or so.

  2. MrMusiclover says:

    With our country’s focus on the various problems in the Gulf war region and domestic issues, it appears we have lost focus on the “big picture”. China is growing stronger as we grow weaker. We are heading for a truly global confrontation with an enemy that is as strong as we are. we must maintain a strong Navy. With our nations tunnel vision on urban warfare we are, IMHO, failing to maintain a Navy capable of countering the Chinese threat.

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