Is Chinese Military Modernization a Threat to the United States?

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The ongoing modernization of the Chinesemilitary poses less of a threat to the UnitedStates than recent studies by the Pentagon and acongressionally mandated commission haveposited. Both studies exaggerate the strength ofChina's military by focusing on the modestimprovements of specific sectors rather than thestill-antiquated overall state of Chinese forces.

The state of the Chinese military and its modernizationmust also be put in the context of U.S.interests in East Asia and compared with thestate and modernization of the U.S. military andother militaries in East Asia, especially theTaiwanese military. Viewed in that context,China's military modernization does not lookespecially threatening.

Although not officially calling its policy inEast Asia "containment," the United States hasringed China with formal and informal alliancesand a forward military presence. With such anextended defense perimeter, the United Statesconsiders as a threat to its interests any naturalattempt by China--a rising power with a growingeconomy--to gain more control of its externalenvironment by increasing defense spending. IfU.S. policymakers would take a more restrainedview of America's vital interests in the region, themeasured Chinese military buildup would notappear so threatening. Conversely, U.S. policymay appear threatening to China. Even thePentagon admits that China accelerated hikes indefense spending after the United Statesattacked Yugoslavia over the Kosovo issue in1999.

The United States still spends about 10 timeswhat China does on national defense--$400 billionversus roughly $40 billion per year--and ismodernizing its forces much faster. In addition,much of the increase in China's official defensespending is soaked up by expenses not related toacquiring new weapons. Thus, China's spendingon new armaments is equivalent to that of anation that spends only $10 billion to $20 billionper year on defense. In contrast, the UnitedStates spends well over $100 billion per year toacquire new weapons.

Even without U.S. assistance, Taiwan's modernmilitary could probably dissuade China fromattacking. Taiwan does not have to be able to wina conflict; it needs only to make the costs of anyattack unacceptable to China. The informal guarantee is unneeded.

Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of Putting "Defense" Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World (2001).