"China's Military Is a Growing Threat."
Not yet. After two decades of massive military spending to modernize its armed forces, amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars, China increasingly has the ability to challenge the United States in its region, if not yet outside it. But the ability to project force tells us very little about China's willingness to use it.
Certainly, China has made moves over the last few years that have stoked the China-is-a-dangerous-threat crowd in Washington. In 2007, for instance, Beijing launched a missile that obliterated a communications satellite -- a dramatic and unexpected display of capability -- and then kept mum for 12 days before a Foreign Ministry spokesperson finally admitted it took place, stating: "This test was not directed at any country and does not constitute a threat to any country." In May 2008, satellite imagery revealed that China had constructed a massive subterranean naval base on the southern island of Hainan, presumably a staging point to launch naval operations into the Pacific. This January, China conducted another anti-missile test, shortly after the United States announced arms sales to Taiwan.
Similar developments have reliably shown up in annual Pentagon reports on China's military expansion, not to mention in articles such as Robert Kaplan's alarmist 2005 essay: "How We Would Fight China." Even Robert Gates, the mild-mannered U.S. defense secretary, warned last year that China's military modernization "could threaten America's primary means of projecting power and helping allies in the Pacific: our bases, air and sea assets, and the networks that support them." Last fall, Adm. Robert Willard, the new head of the U.S. Pacific Command, noted that "in the past decade or so, China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability," implying that maybe the alarmists are onto something.
At the same time, China's leaders vehemently denounce any suggestion that they are embarked on anything other than what they have referred to as a "peaceful rise" and haven't engaged in major external hostilities since the 1979 war with Vietnam. But they also don't explain why they are investing so heavily in this new arms race. Beijing's official line is that it wants to be able to defend itself against foreign aggression and catch up with the West, as it was famously unable to do in the 19th century.
When the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping began the process of reform and opening in 1979, he decided that bolstering the civilian economy would take precedence over military investments. But a dozen years later, the first Gulf War served as a wake-up call in Beijing, raising concerns about how quickly an inferior army could be demolished by better-equipped Western forces. In 1991, the Pentagon unleashed some of its most advanced weapons -- including stealth technology and precision-guided munitions -- against the Iraqi Army, the world's fourth largest at the time. U.S. and allied forces made short work of Iraq's Warsaw Pact military hardware, and the Chinese were duly shocked and awed.
It became immediately clear that Mao Zedong's doctrine of "human wave attacks" -- having more soldiers than your enemy has bullets -- would not meet China's defense needs in the 21st century. From the early 1990s, China's defense planners began intensively studying doctrine and sought to acquire superior foreign technologies for their People's Liberation Army (PLA). They also made a major strategic shift by cutting the size of their force to emphasize new technologies that would enable them to catch up with the United States and other possible foes.
Should the rest of the world be worried? Taiwan, long claimed as Chinese territory and well within range of Chinese ballistic missiles and conventional forces, certainly has cause to feel threatened. Even as cross-strait relations have warmed in recent years, Beijing has positioned more medium-range missiles facing Taiwan than ever. When asked why, Beijing demurs. India, Asia's other would-be superpower, also seems increasingly on edge. Last September, Indian analysts and media loudly worried over the publication of an article by Chinese analyst Li Qiulin in a prominent Communist Party organ that urged the PLA to bolster its ability to project force in South Asia.
But it's probably too soon for Americans to panic. Many experts who've looked closely at the matter agree that China today simply does not have the military capability to challenge the United States in the Pacific, though its modernization program has increased its ability to engage the United States close to Chinese shores. And the U.S. military is still, for all its troubles in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most capable fighting force on the planet.