Commentary

Sharpening the Dragon’s Claws

The People’s Republic of China continues to send worrisome signals about its security strategy. As the tone of cross-straits relations grows increasingly strident, China’s latest military reshuffle and ongoing lack of transparency about its military budget are creating new tensions with both the United States and its neighbors in East Asia.

In the lead-up to the opening of the Communists’ 17th National Party Congress last week, President Hu Jintao’s government promoted at least four senior officers, including Gen. Chen Bingde, the new chief of the army general staff, and Gen. Xu Qiliang, the new head of the air force, whose principal expertise is in planning for war with Taiwan.

Their promotions follow the elevation last year of another Taiwan specialist, Adm. Wu Shengli, to head the navy. Taiwan hard-liners now occupy the top posts in all three branches of the military.

These promotions, along with the continued deployment of missiles (now numbering more than 1,000) across the strait from Taiwan, raise obvious questions about Beijing’s intentions regarding the breakaway island.

Although it’s unlikely that Chinese leaders plan to attack Taiwan in the near future, Beijing is building capabilities to take action there if it chooses — and to deter the United States from intervening. Late last month, Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright, commander of U.S. forces in Japan, made the startling assertion that China’s military modernization has reached the point that its air defenses are now nearly impenetrable to all but the newest American fighter aircraft.

Even if Wright overstates China’s capabilities somewhat — or understates those of the U.S. — there is no doubt that Beijing is making a serious effort to modernize its military. The PRC’s defense spending grew 17.8 percent this year.

Although Beijing’s official military budget is only $44.9 billion, almost no independent experts believe that figure. The official budget omits several pertinent items, including expenses for strategic forces, foreign weapons acquisitions, military-related research and development, and paramilitary forces.

That obfuscation leads to a stunningly wide range of estimates about China’s actual military spending. In its latest report to Congress, the Pentagon concludes that the PRC’s defense outlays are at least $85 billion, and perhaps as much as $125 billion. Many nongovernment analysts dispute the Pentagon’s figures, and whatever the real number, it is dwarfed by the U.S. military budget. (When you factor in the additional $150 billion in appropriations requests for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress is now wrapping up debate on a defense budget that totals $672 billion.) It is a mammoth expenditure, but the difference is that, unlike China’s budget, it is publicly documented in painstaking detail.

Beijing’s secrecy plays into the hands of panda-bashers in the United States.

Heritage Foundation analyst John Tkacik asserts that, using “purchasing power parity,” China’s military budget is really $450 billion and that China is already a major security threat to the United States. It is an absurdly inflated figure. If China were spending at that level, one wonders why the military outputs haven’t been greater. Where are the aircraft carriers (to compete with America’s 12), the fleets of long-range bombers, the world-class navy, the vast expansion of China’s tiny fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and so on?

Former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick called China a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community. If the PRC wants to allay the concerns of its East Asian neighbors and the United States, it needs to come clean about the extent of its military spending and the nature of its security strategy. We should expect nothing less.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of seven books on international affairs, including America’s Coming War with China: A Collision Course over Taiwan (2006).