jump to navigation

China and their defence budget: devious or defensive? 6, March 2008

Posted by in China.
Tags: , , , , , ,
add a comment

There are two broad theses regarding China’s future. The first suggests that China is essentially a peacefully creature looking to expand its economy, improve its society, and generally emerge as a modern developed nation. It will do this by being neither more nor less aggressive than any other country in the state system.

The alternative thesis suggests that China is an angry country. For the vast majority of its history it was the superpower in its corner of the world. This all came to an end with the arrival, interference, and subjugation at the hands of Europeans (and the Japanese briefly). China is, therefore, seeking to emerge from its ‘century of humiliation’ and eager to reassert its rightful place at the top of the international tree. They will pursue this goal single-mindedly and with vigour, spurred on by the painful and humiliating memories of its recent history.

These opinions (though particularly the latter) can clearly be seen as soon as China releases its defence spending figures. Now that the Soviet Union is dead and buried (in its old guise at least) the US Department of Defence (DOD) now produces an annual assessment of the Chinese military threat as opposed to the Soviet one. This time around the headline is China’s 17.6% increase in defence spending. That sounds like a lot. Yet, if the absolute figure is compared to US defence spending and assuming that China has released an honest appraisal of its spending (which many people doubt), then we are comparing China’s paltry $57.2 billion to the US’ mammoth $700 billion. Even accounting for any Chinese ‘creative accounting’ when arriving at the $57.2 figure, it would still be utterly dwarfed by US spending.

However, it is not really the money per se that has the US DOD worried, but what they are spending it on and the apparent furtiveness with which China seek to disguise such spending.

Firstly, the Chinese are – sensibly – employing asymmetric tactics when it comes to thinking about America and its military. For example, the US navy currently has twenty-four aircraft carriers, which is more than twice the number that the rest of the world has put together and twenty-four times as many as China. These gigantic floating fortresses are staggeringly powerful and play a crucial role in guaranteeing America’s pre-eminence in the Pacific and elsewhere. China – somewhat unsportingly as far as the US DOD are concerned – are not spending hundreds of billions of dollars on creating their own fleet of aircraft carriers, but instead only tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on designing and producing highly advanced cruise missiles with the potential capability of taking out America’s aircraft carriers. Other important aspects of China’s asymmetric warfare potential are their development of satellite-killing missiles to take advantage of the US military’s dependence on their spying and communication satellites as well as China’s apparent investment in cyber-warfare.

David Sedney the US deputy assistant secretary of defence for East Asia neatly describes America’s secondary concern.

“China’s military build-up has been characterized by opacity…The real story is the continuing development, the continuing modernization, the continuing acquisition of capabilities and the corresponding and unfortunate lack of understanding, lack of transparency about the intentions of those and how they are going to be employed. What is China going to do with all that?”

America seem to want China to be more forthcoming than rational prudence would suggest is sensible. Of course China is keeping some things a secret from the rest of the world. Why is this such a great shock? All countries do this to some degree. Whilst America may well be one of the most open countries about such things, they are the world hegemon and account for 48% of the world’s spending on the military, as much as China, Russia, the UK, France, Japan, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, India, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Spain, Turkey, Israel, the Netherlands, the UAE, Taiwan, Greece, Iran, Myanmar, Singapore, Poland, Sweden, Colombia, Chile, Belgium, Egypt, Pakistan, Denmark, Indonesia, Switzerland, Kuwait, South Africa, Oman, Malaysia, Mexico, Portugal, Algeria, Finland, Austria, Venezuela, the Czech Republic, Romania, Qatar and Thailand put together. They have nearly 170,000 troops between China and America, including nearly 70,000 right on China’s doorstep. This list of the manifestations of American pre-eminence, as you can probably imagine, could go on for a while. In short, it is easy to be sanctimonious and somewhat smug when you have such staggering hegemony.

Yet just think of how China sees the American position. They see, I would argue, American military presence filtered through two prisms: Taiwan and resource procurement. Taiwan is one of the most sensitive subjects for China. They see it as an utterly private and internal matter. They viscerally despise American intervention in it and it is often – rightly – quoted as a potential flashpoint for US-Chinese relations. China, therefore, see the advanced American hardware floating around the South China sea (and indeed, just about every other sea of importance). They see the 70,000 American troops stationed in South Korea (less than a three hour flight away), Japan (less than a four hour flight away) and Guam (armed with long-range stealth B-2s). They see America’s huge defence budget. They see and believe America’s stated stance to defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese aggression, and are, somewhat understandably, nervous.

China’s other prism is that of resource protection. China is becoming ever increasingly dependent on Middle Eastern oil despite numerous attempts to procure other energy sources from other locales. Whilst they have very good relations with the producing states themselves, they still have to get it back to the homeland. The only viable way to do this (for the medium term at least) is to ship it. The problem here is – again – that America rules the waves. No nation on earth would have its lifeline so firmly in the hands of another power, friendly or unfriendly. China has tried to redress this balance by establishing a base on Gwadar in Pakistan, close to the Straits of Hormuz from where they can project some power. Also, as the US DOD report points out, China will have almost twice as many submarines as America by 2010. Whilst this is an important statistic, it must be remembered that the vast majority of these submarines are vastly inferior to their American counterparts and don’t forget the rest of the American hi-tech arsenal. Overall, therefore, China is still woefully outmatched by America on this front. Hence their asymmetric stance.

There is clearly enough information in these arguments which sounds sufficiently plausible and convincing to make either case. The numbers can be alarming. Yet if the situation can be seen from the Chinese perspective many of China’s actions seem like a perfectly reasonable course of action, however much we in the West may see them as unnecessary.