China's military might: first, the good news

By Thomas J. Christensen, Bloomberg

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It isn't just about the number. Photo: AFP It isn't just about the number. Photo: AFP


Every week seems to bring new cause for concern about China's rising military power and assertiveness. Some scholars and pundits worry that the Chinese government is aiming to block U.S. forces from operating in East Asia altogether -- and even plans to replace the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower.
While China’s buildup indeed creates security challenges for the U.S. and its Asian allies, the consequences are more subtle and complicated than some alarms would suggest. Despite its quickly increasing defense budgets in the last 20 years, China still lacks the ability to project combat power in a sustained way far from its shores, and the U.S. maintains full-spectrum military superiority, even in East Asia. Chinese forces lag far behind their U.S. counterparts in quality of equipment, experience and training.
Unfortunately for the U.S., the good news ends there. China doesn't need to be a peer competitor to pose serious problems in East Asia, a region of great importance to America and the rest of the world. I'll explain why in a second article tomorrow.
Meanwhile, however, let's put the arsenals and fighting abilities in context. China’s large military establishment was traditionally a land army for homeland defense against the Communist Party's foreign and domestic foes and was supplemented by a small number of stationary liquid-fueled missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads. In the 1990s China began developing the ability to project military power abroad with its navy, air force and conventionally tipped ballistic missiles. Some of these highly accurate solid-fueled missiles can apparently even strike moving targets at sea.
China is also modernizing its nuclear arsenal by employing mobile land-based missiles, as well as submarine-launched nuclear missiles. But other than the conventionally tipped missiles, which the U.S. has chosen not to develop because it has other methods of delivering the ordnance, no Chinese capabilities come close to surpassing those of the U.S. Internal Chinese military writings readily recognize the wide gaps between China and unnamed, superior high-tech enemies and call for designing tactics and strategies that might allow “the weak to prevail over the strong.”
The ability to wage cyberwar is often cited as a potential Chinese trump card. China has developed a large cadre of government-sponsored hackers and cyberwarriors. But just because it has significant assets in cyberspace that should concern us doesn't mean China is somehow in the lead. The U.S. government rarely refers to its own cyber-offensive abilities, which are highly classified. But in 2013, Keith Alexander, the general who was then in charge of Cyber Command, said they are “the best in the world,” and there has been little reason to doubt the veracity of his claim.
Another much-heralded advance by the Chinese was the deployment of its first aircraft carrier, a vintage Cold War-era warship they bought from Ukraine. Since then, the government has announced plans for two more carriers it will build itself. This development is significant, particularly for China’s weaker neighbors, but it is hardly a game changer in the Chinese-American balance of power.
The U.S. has 11 nuclear-powered carriers, with massive and fully trained battle groups to accompany and protect them. It also has decades of experience from World War II and the Cold War in tracking and targeting enemy carriers. Many military analysts worry more about the vulnerability of U.S. carriers to attack by Chinese missiles and torpedoes than they do about the offensive threat posed to American forces by aircraft taking off from Chinese carriers. A U.S. defense expert who generally frets greatly about trends in China’s defense modernization once half-joked to me, “When I dream happy dreams, they are full of new carriers: Chinese carriers.”
In addition to having more advanced weapons systems, the U.S. has a huge advantage in training and war-fighting experience. China has not been in a major international conflict since 1979, when Deng Xiaoping ordered the ill-fated ground invasion of Vietnam. By contrast, the American military has been in harm’s way somewhere in the world almost constantly since the first Gulf War began in January 1991.
One of the biggest advantages the U.S. has compared with China is its network of allies -- some 60 countries, which (including the U.S.) account for some 80 percent of global military spending. China has a formal alliance only with North Korea and a strong security partnership with one other Asian country, Pakistan. It has defense cooperation and an arms trade relationship with Russia, but mutual mistrust between the two historical rivals makes it hard to label this an alliance.
So after laying out the evidence showing continued American superiority, why am I still concerned about the bad news? Measures of the overall balance of power between two countries are most relevant when considering wars of survival, such as World War I and World War II. But most international security politics involves coercive diplomacy and limited military engagements short of full-scale war. In such struggles, geography, politics, psychology and perceptions can play an even more important role than the military balances of power. In tomorrow's excerpt, I'll describe what that means.
(This is the first of two articles excerpted from "The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power," to be published June 8 by W.W. Norton.)
Thomas J. Christensen, Boswell professor of world politics and director of the China and the World Program at Princeton University, is a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

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