Articles in the American media usually portray China as a potential adversary, and recent press coverage is no exception. Stories have appeared about China’s military hacking into the computer systems of the American government and business and Chinese oil companies’ reaping of unfair gains in Iraq on the backs of dead American soldiers. Yet the threat from China in the popular American mind instilled by such articles is overblown.
Undoubtedly, the U.S. military and intelligence services also attempt to hack into Chinese computer systems; this unseemly fact is glossed over by the usually nationalist American media. Even if Chinese military espionage is taken in isolation, it indicates that the Chinese realize a technological gap exists between China and the West and that they are having trouble developing technologies themselves. Similarly, the same conclusions could be reached about the much-ballyhooed Chinese purchase of Russian military equipment. In contrast, the United States develops its own military technologies, and they are the best in the world.
Although Chinese defense spending has been growing at a double digit annual pace for a while now, China’s military started from only a low base. Chinese yearly defense spending is still only a fifth of that of the United States and the results of that annual disparity have accumulated over many years in a vastly superior U.S. military force. Also, much of China’s recent increases in defense spending have been spent increasing military pay to keep people from defecting to the white-hot civilian economy and converting a Maoist people’s land army into one more designed to project power from China’s coasts using air and sea power. Both of these requirements have constrained the purchase of new weaponry.
Even so, China has made gains in its ability to project power, recently obtaining a small, old Ukrainian aircraft carrier. Yet carrier operations take a long time to master, and China is still very limited in its power projection capability. Also, China’s imitation of the United States in emphasis on carrier forces could be ill advised. In any naval war, carriers may very well prove vulnerable to submarines using cruise missiles and torpedoes. To the extent that pursuing carriers has an opportunity cost for the Chinese in forgoing more of those potent sea-denial forces, it may lessen China’s ability to defend itself against U.S. carriers.
China’s sea-denial forces make up any real threat to the all-in U.S. force of 11 large deck carriers. But of course this threat is to the American Empire, not the United States itself. The U.S. carrier-heavy force is deployed far forward in East Asia to contain China and protect allies, such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Australia. Those wealthy allies should be doing more to provide their own security but will never do so as long as the United States provides the first line of defense. Japan already has a stronger navy than China and could do much more if it spent more of its large GDP on defense. As for Taiwan, being an easily defended island nation (amphibious assaults are notoriously difficult), it doesn’t need to match China dollar for dollar on defense spending but merely needs to adopt a porcupine strategy by being able to deter the same by inflicting unacceptable damage on the attacker. Finally, an American retraction of its defense perimeter to Hawaii and Guam would undoubtedly motivate these four nations, plus others in the region such as the Philippines and Vietnam, to band together in an alliance to be the first line of defense against China.
Because China’s ability to project military power is so limited, the fears that China is expanding in Africa and the Middle East are fanciful. For example, recent press articles have implied that Chinese state-owned oil companies have exploited the American invasion of Iraq to win oil contracts from the Iraqi government. Because they don’t have to satisfy private shareholders, those companies can accept low profit margins on oil contracts that Western companies, such as Exxon, cannot. To some neoconservatives, such as Victor Davis Hanson, such failure of America to economically exploit its military empire is praiseworthy; to other imperialists, it is merely foolish.
In any event, such Chinese commercial penetration is little threat to the United States and may actually be of some help. Because a worldwide oil market exists and any new petroleum being produced anywhere lowers the price for everyone, Chinese state-owned companies may be indirectly subsidizing U.S. oil consumers by bringing to market oil deposits that would be uneconomical for private firms to find and pump.
Of course, implicitly, a worldwide oil market would also obviate the need for the military forces of the United States, China, or any other nation to “secure” oil. In my award-winning book No War for Oil: U.S. Dependency and the Middle East, I explain why it is cheaper to just pay higher prices caused by any disruption of Middle Eastern oil than to pay for forward-deployed military forces to attempt to prevent this rare occurrence.In conclusion, the Chinese “threat” is being dragged out and hyped to attempt to forestall cuts in U.S. security budgets, not because it severely undermines American security.