Think Again

Think Again: The Internet

They told us it would usher in a new era of freedom, political activism, and perpetual peace. They were wrong. 

"The Internet Has Been a Force for Good"

No. In the days when the Internet was young, our hopes were high. As with any budding love affair, we wanted to believe our newfound object of fascination could change the world. The Internet was lauded as the ultimate tool to foster tolerance, destroy nationalism, and transform the planet into one great wired global village. Writing in 1994, a group of digital aficionados led by Esther Dyson and Alvin Toffler published a manifesto modestly subtitled "A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age" that promised the rise of  "'electronic neighborhoods' bound together not by geography but by shared interests." Nicholas Negroponte, then the famed head of the MIT MediaLab, dramatically predicted in 1997 that the Internet would shatter borders between nations and usher in a new era of world peace.

Well, the Internet as we know it has now been around for two decades, and it has certainly been transformative. The amount of goods and services available online is staggering. Communicating across borders is simpler than ever: Hefty international phone bills have been replaced by inexpensive subscriptions to Skype, while Google Translate helps readers navigate Web pages in Spanish, Mandarin, Maltese, and more than 40 other languages. But just as earlier generations were disappointed to see that neither the telegraph nor the radio delivered on the world-changing promises made by their most ardent cheerleaders, we haven't seen an Internet-powered rise in global peace, love, and liberty.

And we're not likely to. Many of the transnational networks fostered by the Internet arguably worsen -- rather than improve -- the world as we know it. At a recent gathering devoted to stamping out the illicit trade in endangered animals, for instance, the Internet was singled out as the main driver behind the increased global commerce in protected species. Today's Internet is a world where homophobic activists in Serbia are turning to Facebook to organize against gay rights, and where social conservatives in Saudi Arabia are setting up online equivalents of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. So much for the "freedom to connect" lauded by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her much-ballyhooed speech on the Internet and human rights.

Sadly enough, a networked world is not inherently a more just world.

Twitter Will Undermine Dictators.

#Wrong. Tweets don't overthrow governments; people do. And what we've learned so far is that social networking sites can be both helpful and harmful to activists operating from inside authoritarian regimes. Cheerleaders of today's rapidly proliferating virtual protests point out that online services such as Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube have made it much easier to circulate information that in the past had been strictly controlled by the state -- especially gruesome photos and videos and evidence of abuses by police and the courts. Think of the Burmese dissidents who distributed cell-phone photos documenting how police suppressed protests, or opposition bloggers in Russia who launched as a Wikipedia-like site that allows anyone to upload photos, names, and contact details of purported "enemies of democracy" -- judges, police officers, even some politicians -- who are complicit in muzzling free speech. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown famously declared last year that the Rwandan genocide would have been impossible in the age of Twitter.

But does more information really translate into more power to right wrongs? Not necessarily. Neither the Iranian nor the Burmese regime has crumbled under the pressure of pixelated photos of human rights abuses circulated on social networking sites. Indeed, the Iranian authorities have been as eager to take advantage of the Internet as their green-clad opponents. After last year's protests in Tehran, Iranian authorities launched a website that publishes photos from the protests, urging the public to identify the unruly protesters by name. Relying on photos and videos uploaded to Flickr and YouTube by protesters and their Western sympathizers, the secret police now have a large pool of incriminating evidence. Neither Twitter nor Facebook provides the security required for asuccessful revolution, and they might even serve as an early warning system for authoritarian rulers. Had East Germans been tweeting about their feelings in1989, who knows what the Stasi would have done to shut down dissent?

Even when Twitter and Facebook do help score partial victories, a betting man wouldn't put odds on the same trick working twice. Take the favorite poster child of digital utopians: In early 2008 a Facebook group started by a 33-year-old Colombian engineer culminated in massive protests, with up to 2 million people marching in Bogotá's streets to demonstrate against the brutality of Marxist FARC rebels. (A New York Times article about the protests gushed: "Facebook has helped bring public protest to Colombia, a country with no real history of mass demonstrations.") However,when the very same "digital revolutionaries" last September tried to organize a similar march against Venezuelan leader and FARC sponsor Hugo Chávez, they floundered.

The reasons why follow-up campaigns fail often have nothing to do with Facebook or Twitter, and everything to do with the more general problems of organizing and sustaining a political movement. Internet enthusiasts argue that the Web has made organizing easier. But this is only partially true; taking full advantage of online organizing requires a well-disciplined movement with clearly defined goals, hierarchies, and operational procedures (think of Barack Obama's presidential campaign). But if a political movement is disorganized and unfocused, the Internet might onlyexpose and publicize its vulnerabilities and ratchet up the rancor ofinternecine conflicts. This, alas, sounds much like Iran's disorganized green movement.

Google Defends Internet Freedom.

Only when convenient. If the world's human rights community had to choose its favorite Fortune 500 company, Google -- the world's overwhelming leader in Internet search and a trendsetter in everything from global mapping to social networking-- would be a top contender. Decrying the Chinese government's censorship demands, Google recently decided to move its Chinese search engine to Hong Kong and promised to spare no effort to protect identities of Chinese dissidents who use Gmail. Much of the Western world applauded, as Google seemed to live up to its "don't be evil" corporate motto.

Let's remember that Google, like any company, is motivated by profit rather than some higher purpose: The company entered China not to spread the gospel of Internet freedom, but to sell ads in what is now the world's largest online market. Only four years after agreeing to censor its search results did it refuse to do so any longer. Yet had it managed to make greater inroads among Chinese consumers, does anyone doubt that its decision to defy Beijing would have been much more difficult?

Sometimes Google really does operate on principle. In early March, Google executives held a joint event with Freedom House, bringing bloggers from the Middle East to Washington to participate in a series of talks on such topics as "digital media's power in social movements" and "political parties and elections 2.0." Last summer, Google stood up to protect Cyxymu, a Georgian blogger who found himself the target of intense cyberattacks -- supposedly from Russian nationalists unhappywith his take on the 2008 Russia-Georgia war -- by keeping his Google-hosted blog online. Following the incident, the company's public-policy blog even boasted of Google's commitment to "giving a voice to 'digital refugees.'"

But the company's reputation as a defender of Internet freedom is decidedly mixed. For example, its Internet filtering process in Thailand -- driven by the country's strict laws against insulting the monarchy -- is not particularly transparent and draws much criticism from the country's netizens. In India, Google faces understandable government pressure to remove extremist and nationalist content from Orkut, its social networking site; yet some Indian critics charge that Google is overzealous in its self-censorship because it fears losing access to the vast Indian market. Google's defense of Internet freedom is, ultimately, a pragmatically principled stance, with the rules often applied on a case-by-case basis. It would be somewhat naive -- and, perhaps, even dangerous -- to expect Google to become the new Radio Free Europe.

Li Xin/AFP/Getty Images

The Internet Makes Governments More Accountable.

Not necessarily. Many Internet enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic who were previously uninterested in policy debates have eagerly taken on the challenge of playing government watchdog, spending days and nights digitizing public data and uploading it into online databases. From Britain's TheyWorkforYou to Kenya's Mzalendo to various projects affiliated with the U.S.-based Sunlight Foundation such as, a host of new independent websites has begun monitoring parliamentary activity, with some even offering comparisons between parliamentarians' voting records and campaign promises.

But have such efforts resulted in better or more honest politics? The results, so far, are quite mixed. Even the most idealistic geeks are beginning to understand that entrenched political and institutional pathologies -- not technological shortfalls -- are the greatest barriers to more open and participatory politics. Technology doesn't necessarily pry more information from closed regimes; rather, it allows more people access to information that is available. Governments still maintain great sway in determining what kinds of data to release. So far, even the Obama administration, the self-proclaimed champion of "open government," draws criticism from transparency groups for releasing information about population counts for horses and burros while hoarding more sensitive data on oil and gas leases.

And even when the most detailed data get released, it does not always lead to reformed policies, as Lawrence Lessig pointed out in his trenchant New Republic cover story last year. Establishing meaningful connections between information, transparency, and accountability will require more than just tinkering with spreadsheets; it will require building healthy democratic institutions and effective systems of checks and balances. The Internet can help, but only to an extent: It's political will, not more info, that is still too often missing.

The Internet Boosts Political Participation.

Define it. The Internet has certainly created new avenues for exchanging opinions and ideas, but we don't yet know whether this will boost the global appeal and practice of democracy. Where some see a renewal of civic engagement, others see "slacktivism," the new favorite pejorative for the shallow, peripheral, and fluid political campaigning that seems to thrive on the Internet -- sometimes at the expense of more effective real-world campaigning. And where some applaud new online campaigns purportedly aimed at increasing civic participation, such as Estonia's planned 2011 launch of voting via text-messaging, others, myself included, doubt whether the hassle of showing up at a polling place once every two or four years is really what makes disengaged citizens avoid the political process. 

The debate over the Internet's impact on participation echoes a much earlier controversy about the ambiguous social and political effects of cable television. Long before blogs were invented, scholars and pundits were arguing over whether the boob tube was turning voters into passive, apolitical entertainment maniacs who, when given greater choice, favored James Bond flicks and Happy Days reruns over nightly news broadcasts -- or whether it was turning them into hyperactive, obsessive citizens who watch C-SPAN nonstop. The argument then, and now, was that American-style democracy was turning into niche markets for politics, with the entertainment-obsessed masses opting out, on TV and at the polling booth, and news junkies looking for ever-quicker fixes in the sped-up news cycle. The Internet is cable television on steroids; both tuning in and tuning out of political discourse have never been easier.

Another danger is that even the news we read will come increasingly from selective sources, such as our Facebook friends, which might decrease the range of views to which we're exposed. Three-quarters of Americans who consume their news online say they receive at least some of it through forwarded emails or posts on social networking sites, according to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. Presently, less than 10 percent of Americans report relying on just one media platform. But that could easily change as traditional news sources lose market share to the Web.

The Internet Is Killing Foreign News.

Only if we let it. You won't hear this from most Western news organizations, which today are fighting for their financial survival andclosing foreign bureaus, but we've never had faster access to more world news than we do today. Aggregators like Google News might be disrupting the business models of CNN and the New York Times, forcing substantial cutbacks in one particularly costly form of news-gathering -- foreign correspondents -- but they have also equalized the playing field for thousands of niche and country-specific news sources, helping them to reach global audiences. How many people would be reading or the Asia Times Online were it not for Google News?

While we decry the Internet's role in destroying the business model that supported old-school foreign reporting, we should also celebrate the Web's unequivocally positive effects on the quality of research about global affairs done today on the periphery of the news business. The instantaneous fact-checking, ability to continuously follow a story from multiple sources,and extensive newspaper archives that are now freely available were unimaginable even 15 years ago.

The real danger in the changing face of foreign news is the absence of intelligent and respected moderators. The Internet may be a paradise for well-informed news junkies, but it is a confusing news junkyard for the rest of us. Even fairly sophisticated readers might not know the difference between the Global Times, a nationalist Chinese daily produced under the auspices of the Communist Party, and the Epoch Times, another China-related daily published by the Falun Gong dissident group.

The Internet Brings Us Closer Together.

No. Geography still matters. In her best-selling 1997 book, The Death of Distance, the Economist's then senior editor Frances Cairncross predicted that the Internet-powered communications revolution would "increase understanding, foster tolerance, and ultimately promote worldwide peace." But pronouncing the death of distance was premature.

Even in a networked world, the hunger for consumer goods and information is still taste-dependent, and location remains a fairly reliable proxy for taste. A 2006 study published in the Journal of International Economics, for instance, found that for certain digital products -- such as music, games, and pornography -- each 1 percent increase in physical distance from the United States reduced by 3.25 percent the number of visits an American would make to a particular website.

Not only user preferences, but also government and corporate actions -- motivated as often by cost and copyright as by political agendas -- might mean the end of the era of the single Internet. That is to say, the days in which everyone can visit the same websites regardless of geographic location might be waning, even in the "free" world. We are seeing more attempts, mostly by corporations and their lawyers, to keep foreign nationals off certain Web properties. For instance, digital content that is available to Brits via the BBC's innovative iPlayer is increasingly unavailable to Germans. Norwegians can already access 50,000 copyrighted books online for free through the country's Bookshelfinitiative, but one has to be in Norway to do so -- the government is footing the annual $900,000 bill for licensing fees and doesn't plan to subsidize the rest of the world.

Moreover, many celebrated Internet pioneers -- Google, Twitter,Facebook -- are U.S. companies that other governments increasingly fear as political agents. Chinese, Cuban, Iranian, and even Turkish politicians are already talking up "information sovereignty" -- a euphemism for replacing services provided by Western Internet companies with their own more limited but somewhat easier to control products, further splintering the World Wide Web into numerous national Internets. The age of the Splinternet beckons.

Two decades in, the Internet has neither brought down dictators nor eliminated borders. It has certainly not ushered in a post-political age of rational and data-driven policymaking. It has sped up and amplified many existing forces atwork in the world, often making politics more combustible and unpredictable. Increasingly, the Internet looks like a hypercharged version of the real world, with all of its promise and perils, while the cyber utopia that the early Web enthusiasts predicted seems ever more illusory.

Think Again

Think Again: China's Military

It's not time to panic. Yet.

"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. 

STR/AFP/Getty Images

"China's Armed Forces Are the Biggest in the World."

Yes,but it depends on how you count. The PLA has the most people on its payroll -- 2.2 million active personnel (though between 1985 and 2005, it shrank by 1.7 million soldiers and is still shrinking today). That's still far more than the 1.4 million active service members in the U.S. military.

Then again, the United States also has more than 700,000 civilian Defense Department employees and significant uncounted numbers of contractors. (In Iraq and Afghanistan, there are roughly equal numbers of contractors and uniformed personnel -- about 250,000 contractors to 180,000 soldiers.) But in China, uniformed PLA soldiers carry out many of the same duties that contractors perform for the U.S. military.

Arguably, the more significant figure for comparison is defense spending. Here the PLA lags far behind the Pentagon. In 2009, the U.S. military spent $738 billion on defense and homeland security. Estimates for China's annual military budget vary considerably, ranging from $69.5 billion to $150 billion, but it's clear that U.S. military spending is still several times higher than China's, the world's second highest.

And the PLA's global range is much more limited. As of last June, the United States had 285,773 active-duty personnel deployed around the world. But China operates no overseas bases and has only a handful of PLA personnel stationed abroad in embassies, on fellowships, and in U.N. peacekeeping operations.


"The PLA Is Slow, Conservative, and Backward."

Not anymore. Although it is still no match for the mighty U.S. military, the PLA has come a long way since Mao's ragtag army defeated the Nationalists in 1949. Over the last two decades in particular, China has improved the quality, technical capabilities, and effectiveness of its enlistees and officers, even as it has shrunk the total number of military personnel.

No longer are PLA soldiers rudimentarily equipped with second-rate Soviet technology, such as the outmoded Soviet T-55 tanks from the 1950s and 1960s that they used to have and that Iraqis fielded during the Gulf War. Although not every PLA unit has cutting-edge equipment, Chinese forces are continually integrating new weapons, doctrine, training, and command-and-control systems.

China's military today is, if not a near rival to that of the United States, at least a "fast-learning organization," in the view of many close foreign observers. It is deploying weapons that neutralize key U.S. advantages, such as ballistic missiles and supersonic sea-skimming missiles that can target U.S. aircraft carriers in the region; an enlarged submarine fleet; homegrown satellite reconnaissance and communications capabilities; and recently, the demonstrated capability to eliminate satellites and intercept ballistic missiles.

That said, not all technologies have proven easy to integrate. For instance, when China first bought Russian-made Kilo-class submarines, some were reportedly out of service for extended periods and in 2002 were even shipped back to Russia for repairs. China also reportedly experienced problems servicing imported fighter planes and engines.

Since those initial stumbles, China watchers think the PLA has made significant improvements in mastering the maintenance and operation of these imported platforms. Late in 2008, China dispatched a three-ship task force to the African coast to conduct anti-piracy missions and escort vessels through pirate-infested waters off the coast of Somalia. It was the first time in modern history that Chinese military vessels -- in this case, two destroyers and a supply ship -- had deployed outside local waters, armed and ready for combat. Using helicopters and special operations units, the PLA Navy successfully engaged pirates and escorted hundreds of civilian ships. It has now deployed its fourth task force, demonstrating its ability to maintain a presence for an extended time.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

"China's One-Child Generation
Will Weaken Its Military."

Probably. The PLA's hardware is improving, but what about its recruits? China's one-child policy is widely perceived as creating a generation of spoiled, overweight boys, dubbed "little emperors," who are doted on by four grandparents while their parents toil to support them in fields, factories, and offices. Although accounts are sometimes exaggerated (in practice, many families, particularly in rural areas, have managed to have more than one child), the dramatic demographic shifts brought about by this policy, started in 1979, certainly impact the PLA. By 2006, "only-child soldiers" made up more than half of the force, up from just 20 percent a decade earlier, giving China the largest-ever military with a majority of only-children.

In a nod to the fact that enlistees are often the sole support for aging parents and grandparents, the PLA has shortened service commitments. In 1998, China reduced the time conscripts must serve to two years, lessening the economic and social burdens on rural families dependent on an only son. With a significantly shortened time to train conscripts and participate in exercises, many units will likely maintain low levels of readiness. Only-child officers are also more likely to leave the PLA to enter the private sector, where they are better able to support their parents and families.

Of course, it's difficult to really assess whether an army made up of only-child soldiers will be an effective fighting force, as the PLA has not been tested in combat since the late 1970s. The PLA has found that such soldiers have better communication and computer skills than their peers with siblings. However, they haven't performed as well in other ways. Only-child recruits are not as tough; they don't like to go through the pain of intense training; they call in sick more frequently; and they struggle to perform some simple chores like doing their own laundry. If too much hand-holding is required for these recruits, the PLA could well find itself all suited up for modern warfare -- but without the soldiers ready to fight it.

Feng Li/Getty Images

"China Needs Its Army to Stamp Out Domestic Unrest."

No. That's the job of the People's Armed Police. While the world watched in horror as armored personnel carriers and camouflaged soldiers suppressed riots in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in 2008 and Uighur-dominated Urumqi in 2009, many assumed it was the Chinese army marching in the streets behind Plexiglas shields. But they were mistaken. A careful look at their insignia revealed that the units were part of the People's Armed Police, not the PLA.

The People's Armed Police is a paramilitary force with a wide range of responsibilities for public security. After June 1989, when the PLA was called upon to mobilize its tanks and clear protesters from Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the military sought guarantees from the Chinese leadership that it would no longer be tasked with suppressing domestic "incidents" that it was neither trained nor equipped to handle. The People's Armed Police was then given this specific job as well as significant increases in resources, personnel, and specialized training.

It is subject to many of the same military laws and regulations issued by the central government as its PLA counterpart. However, much of the armed police is under the command of the Public Security Ministry -- China's civilian police force -- and its bureaus, the largest unit of which is responsible for ensuring "internal security," including crowd control and riot response. When domestic disturbances arise, the armed police is called out to control crowds and put down riots, not the PLA. While China's 2008 defense white paper claims that 260,000 armed police are on daily guard duty, other official sources claim a total force of 660,000 officers. And though the armed police is tasked primarily with domestic security, it is also expected to support the PLA in a time of war.


"China's War Plans Are All About Invading Taiwan."

That was then. Chinese military leaders in the recent past did place intense focus on preparing their armed forces to fight a "limited war" over Taiwan, fully expecting that the United States would enter the conflict. Many weapons systems the PLA acquired or developed, as well as the exercises it trained for, were largely aimed at fighting a technologically superior enemy -- with particular emphasis on developing tactics to keep the United States from bringing naval assets to China's shores, a strategy known as "access denial." In the past, massive annual amphibious-assault exercises, known derisively as the "million-man swim," defined the military experiences of hundreds of thousands of conscripts.

Although simulating a Chinese D-Day on Taiwan might be a tidy demonstration of the PLA's core mission, the armed forces today are developing capabilities and doctrine that will eventually enable them to protect China's expanding global interests. The PLA's Second Artillery Corps and science-and-technology units are increasingly capable in space and cyberspace operations, and they have honed the ability to launch and operate satellites to improve communications and intelligence collection. New air and naval platforms and capabilities, such as aerial refueling and new classes of ships, also increase the PLA's ability to deploy abroad.

Official Chinese military writings now pay increasing attention to a greater range of military missions, focusing not only on China's territorial integrity, but on its global interests. From oil rigs in Nigeria to a crude-oil pipeline under construction that will connect Yunnan's capital city to Burma's port of Sittwe on the Bay of Bengal, Beijing thinks it must be able to defend its people, infrastructure, and investments in some of the world's most volatile places -- much as the British did in the 1800s.

"China's Military Has Global Aspirations."

Perhaps someday. At the height of the Cold War, Soviet military vessels prowled the world's oceans, and its aircraft patrolled international airspace. By contrast, China's navy rarely leaves its home waters; when it does patrol farther afield, it still does not cross the Pacific.

But there is little doubt that China is steadily building its ability to project power beyond its shores. Milestones such as the PLA Navy's around-the-world cruise in 2002 and its anti-piracy mission off the African coast indicate that China is looking to operate more globally.

Although Beijing has not yet sought to deploy combat-capable military units to the sites of international natural disasters, in the not-too-distant future Chinese military aircraft might be delivering Chinese-made disaster-relief supplies. Having recently commissioned a hospital ship, Chinese naval strategists have already identified disaster relief as a key mission for a future Chinese aircraft carrier, while military writers discuss how to conduct regional missions to protect China's interests outside its territorial waters.

Undoubtedly, Chinese war planners see a future in which China will be able to defend itself offshore and its navy will operate beyond what is sometimes referred to as the "first island chain" (an imaginary line stretching from Japan, through Okinawa and Taiwan, and south to the Philippines and the South China Sea), eventually encompassing much of the Western Pacific up to the "second island chain" that runs from Japan southward past Guam to Australia. But whether Beijing envisions one day establishing overseas bases, or simply having the capability to project power globally when needed, is unclear.

Some wonder whether China and the United States are on a collision course. Kaplan raised the ominous possibility in the Atlantic that when the Chinese navy does push out into the Pacific, "it will very quickly encounter a U.S. Navy and Air Force unwilling to budge from the coastal shelf of the Asian mainland," resulting in a "replay of the decades-long Cold War, with a center of gravity not in the heart of Europe but, rather, among Pacific atolls." Unquestionably, there is deep strategic mistrust between the two countries. China's rapid economic growth, steady military modernization, and relentless nationalistic propaganda at home are shaping Chinese public expectations and limiting possibilities for compromise with other powers.

This does not make conflict inevitable, but it is cause for long-term concern and will shape U.S. efforts to avoid hostilities with China. Military-to-military contacts lag far behind the rest of the U.S.-China relationship. Taiwan is an obvious point of disagreement and the one place where the two powers could conceivably come into direct conflict. U.S. maritime surveillance activities inside China's exclusive economic zone are another contentious point. There is, however, a growing recognition that the United States and China should engage one another and seek to avoid a conflict that would almost certainly be destructive to both sides.

Despite the goose-stepping soldiers at Chinese military parades, the PLA is far from a carbon copy of the Soviet threat. For all the jargon-laden, prideful articles about China's inevitable rise in the world, Chinese strategists are cautious not to openly verbalize aspirations to conquer the globe or establish distant bases, outposts, or supply stations.

Perhaps a generation from now, Chinese military planners might be strategizing more openly about how to acquire overseas basing rights and agreements with allies where they might station their forces abroad, just as the French and British have done since the Napoleonic wars and the Americans have done more recently. But with China, that process has not begun in earnest. At least, not for now.