Asia's balance of power
China’s military rise
There are ways to reduce the threat to stability that an emerging superpower poses
Apr 7th 2012 | from the print edition
NO MATTER how often China has emphasised the idea of a peaceful rise, the pace and nature of its military modernisation inevitably cause alarm. As America and the big European powers reduce their defence spending, China looks likely to maintain the past decade’s increases of about 12% a year. Even though its defence budget is less than a quarter the size of America’s today, China’s generals are ambitious. The country is on course to become the world’s largest military spender in just 20 years or so ...view middle of the document...
Were Taiwan to attempt formal secession from the mainland, China could launch a series of pre-emptive strikes to delay American intervention and raise its cost prohibitively.
This has already had an effect on China’s neighbours, who fear that it will draw them into its sphere of influence. Japan, South Korea, India and even Australia are quietly spending more on defence, especially on their navies. Barack Obama’s new “pivot” towards Asia includes a clear signal that America will still guarantee its allies’ security. This week a contingent of 200 US marines arrived in Darwin, while India took formal charge of a nuclear submarine, leased from Russia.
The prospect of an Asian arms race is genuinely frightening, but prudent concern about China’s build-up must not lapse into hysteria. For the moment at least, China is far less formidable than hawks on both sides claim. Its armed forces have had no real combat experience for more than 30 years, whereas America’s have been fighting, and learning, constantly. The capacity of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for complex joint operations in a hostile environment is untested. China’s formidable missile and submarine forces would pose a threat to American carrier groups near its coast, but not farther out to sea for some time at least. Blue-water operations for China’s navy are limited to anti-piracy patrolling in the Indian Ocean and the rescue of Chinese workers from war-torn Libya. Two or three small aircraft-carriers may soon be deployed, but learning to use them will take many years. Nobody knows if the “carrier-killer” missile can be made to work.
As for China’s longer-term intentions, the West should acknowledge that it is hardly unnatural for a rising power to aspire to have armed forces that reflect its growing economic clout. China consistently devotes a bit over 2% of GDP to defence—about the same as Britain and France and half of what America spends. That share may fall if Chinese growth slows or the government faces demands for more social spending. China might well use force to stop Taiwan from formally seceding. Yet, apart from claims over the virtually uninhabited Spratly and Paracel Islands, China is not expansionist: it already has its empire. Its policy of non-interference in the affairs of other...