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Why we fear China

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Why do we fear China?  It’s not because the size of the Chinese economy has just overtaken the Japanese economy.  It’s because China is undertaking a massive and non-transparent buildup and modernization of its military, a trend which has accelerated over the past decade.  And the Chinese military is becoming more and more assertive, notwithstanding sweet words of reassurance from Chinese President Hu Jintao.  

Every country has the right to have a military for self defense purposes and for protecting national interests.  Even we Japanese have self defense forces.  It is also perfectly natural that as a poor country develops and becomes more prosperous that it should modernize its military.  In China’s case, there are some positive aspects of its military buildup.  This has allowed the People’s Liberation Army to contribute to the delivery of international public goods like international peacekeeping efforts, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and counter-piracy operations.

Notwithstanding the great investments in the Chinese military it is still way behind Japan’s (and the US's) in terms of sophistication and technological development.  But if the Chinese government were serious about peace and stability in East Asia and beyond, it would be open with everyone about the extent and nature of its military buildup and modernization.   It would also be open about its medium term strategy.  Moreover, it would certainly not be pointing so many weapons at Taiwan.

Since the March 2008 election of Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, Cross-Strait economic and cultural ties have progressed greatly.  The two sides have very recently signed a free trade agreement.  But China’s military buildup opposite Taiwan continues unabated, and the balance of Cross-Strait military forces is shifting in the mainland’s favor.  This is a form of military intimidation to deter Taiwan from pursuing independence and to settle the dispute on Beijing’s terms, while seeking to prevent US support for Taiwan in case of conflict.  And with so many US forces based in Japan, it would be hard for us not to be roped into any conflict

This is serious business.  True, the PLA is basically untested in modern conflict.  But according to the US Department of Defense, China has loads of weapons facing Taiwan like:

. ballistic and cruise missiles – China has the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world.

. naval forces – the PLA Navy has the largest force of principal combatants, submarines and amphibious warfare ships in Asia.

. air and air defense forces – China has 490 combat aircraft within unrefueled operational range of Taiwan, and has the airfield capacity to expand that number by hundreds.

. ground forces – the PLA has about 1.25 million personnel in its ground forces, with roughly 400,000 based in the three MRs opposite Taiwan.

While Taiwan will always be a major concern of the PLA, looking ahead to 2020 China will lay the foundation for a military with broader regional and global capacities.  It is unlikely however that China will be able to project and sustain large forces in high-intensity combat operations far from China until well into the following decade.  

Something else we must be concerned about is the East China Sea with its approximately 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and up to 100 billion barrels of oil.  While we believe an equidistant line from Japan and China should separate the EEZs, China claims an Extended Continental Shelf beyond the equidistant line to the Okinawa Trench.  It almost reaches Japan’s shore!  China has been violating a June 2008 agreement providing for joint exploration of oil and natural gas fields.  They even drilled beneath the demarcation line and extracted reserves from the Japanese side.  And then there is the never ending dispute over possession of the Senkaku Islands.

Although relations between China and Taiwan have warmed, the Chinese navy is becoming ever more aggressive against the Japanese Navy in the East China Sea.  For how long can we hold back and try to avoid conflict.  They think that we are weak, but we are just trying to avoid a big blowup.  These sea lanes are very important to us as so much of our trade passes through the South China Sea including most of our cruse oil.  

China is also rapidly developing its space and cyber capabilities.  In particular, it is expanding its space-based intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation and communications satellite constellations.  In 2009, numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the US Government, continue to be the target of intrusions and appear to have originated within China.

What is China's game?  The ultimate goal of the Chinese Government and the PLA is to maintain the Chinese Communist Party's monopoly on political power in China.  For that, protecting China's territorial sovereignty and integrity are critical.  Hence the paranoia over Taiwan.  Maintaining domestic political stability is a growing priority, made all the more challenging by sustained economic growth.  Another key point for maintaining power is supporting economic growth for which access to resources and markets are necessary.  More generally, as China grows and becomes more integrated into the global economy, its strategic interests are both more affected by external factors, and its own development has growing impacts on the world system.       ,  

But since the Chinese Communist Party needs the PLA to help maintain its grip on power, the PLA has lots of power and the scope to play its own games.  Military men with weapons are like children with toys.  They want to play with them.  More generally, China economic success and rising international political profile have given rise to a big case of hubris and arrogance which are clearly behind much of the bully tactics. 

Sure the PLA has made some modest improvements in the transparency of China’s military and security affairs.  But it is not clear what game China is playing.  As the US Department of Defense says “The limited transparency in China’s military and security affairs enhances uncertainty and increases the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation”.  Accidents can happen.

What is most greatly worrying is that our own capacity to deal with the strategic uncertainties created by China are limited by our pacifist constitution, the restrictions on the activities of our self defense forces, and the low level of our military expenditure.  We really do need the Americans, at least for the moment.  Because, at the highest levels, we really believe that China is a threat! 



Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2010.  US Department of Defense Annual Report to Congress