Just how ominous is the China threat?

7 months ago 12

AP Photo/Andy Wong

Former Chinese President Hu Jintao, front row, second from right, tries to talk to party leader Xi Jinping as he is inexplicably escorted from the hall during the closing ceremony of the 20th National Congress of China’s ruling Communist Party in Beijing on Oct. 22, 2022.

China’s recently concluded 20th Party Congress was highlighted visually by the Godfather-like scene of former president Hu Jintao being abruptly escorted off stage as an indifferent Xi Jinping mumbled a brief word to his predecessor and then let him depart. The results of the Congress were to consolidate control even further for Xi, as he prepares for a third five-year term in office with no signs of slowing down.  

Onlookers have understandably worried about a strengthening autocracy under Xi. Given that China has become more powerful during Xi’s reign, less tolerant of dissent at home, and more menacing to its neighbors as well, Xi’s strengthening position would seem to portend a more dangerous China in the years ahead. Together, these developments seem to support the Biden administration’s view, as expressed in its new National Security Strategy, that China represents America’s “most consequential strategic challenge” — even as it is Vladimir Putin’s Russia that rains down missiles and artillery on Ukraine, while driving up global energy and food prices and issuing nuclear threats to the world.

There is ample reason to worry about China, to be sure. The Pentagon has good cause to describe it as our “pacing challenge,” given that China’s military budget of some $250 billion to $350 billion is far and away the world’s second largest, its research and development efforts with national security relevance the second largest as well, and its manufacturing base easily the planet’s biggest. These realities combined with China’s avowed desire to absorb Taiwan back into the motherland as soon as possible, and its dangerous military activities in the western Pacific in general, give serious pause. 

But we need to approach the China threat with perspective. For all its potential seriousness, there remain at least three objective realities and structural restraints on China’s behavior to date.  Factoring them into the equation should not make us lower our guard, or relent in the various kinds of economic and military efforts we are now making in the interest of vigilance. But our outlook should be tempered by a certain calm, especially in regard to handling crises that may occur in the western Pacific. China may now be the No. 1 strategic challenge to the United States, but it is not public enemy No. 1.

Chinese military spending. Yes, the People’s Liberation Army budget is large, and partially hidden from view; yes, it has doubled over the past decade (as it had done each of the previous two decades at least). But even when adjusted to account for activities that NATO considers military-related, even if China does not, it represents about 1.5 percent to 1.75 percent of GDP, according to the U.S. Intelligence Community and independent observers such as the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. That is about half the American level as a fraction of national economic output — explaining why China’s military budget is less than half our own. China devotes most of its military effort to the western Pacific region, whereas America’s responsibilities and commitments are more global. But we have global allies that collectively spend more than China on their armed forces themselves; China, by contrast, has North Korea. 

No doubt about it, China has plenty of money to invest in its armed forces — and alas, Beijing is investing much of it well. Huge numbers of precision missiles, more quiet submarines, semi-stealthy aircraft, lots of satellites, and a couple aircraft carriers are among the results to date. Yet it has not built a viable amphibious fleet to take Taiwan. Its much-touted navy is now the world’s largest by ship count — but is actually still only half the size of America’s as measured by tonnage (not that either ship counts or aggregate tonnage constitute the ultimate metric of modern naval capability). The overall point here is that China is building up its military power steadily and impressively, but it is not arms-racing as the term is commonly understood.

Chinese use of force. China is misbehaving plenty around its borders. It is flying planes and sailing ships near or in the territorial waters of Japan’s Senkaku islands, Taiwan, and various locations in the South China Sea — which it continues, unreasonably and threateningly, to claim as its own. It also often operates unsafely near American warships exercising the right of free passage in those waters. 

But China has not gone to war since 1979 and it rarely uses lethal force on a smaller scale. Its troops did kill a couple dozen Indian forces along those countries’ Himalayan border in the recent past, and its military has taken a few lethal shots against countries such as Vietnam from time to time in recent decades. So the PLA certainly doesn’t deserve a Nobel Peace Prize. But by the standards of rising powers, China has been restrained in its overall levels of aggression this century. In contrast to Vladimir Putin, China seems to appreciate the huge consequences of military aggression and does not seem inclined to make war lightly.

China’s support for Russia. Speaking of Putin, while Chinese rhetoric has callously sought to justify his war against Ukraine as a somewhat understandable reaction to NATO expansion, Beijing has drawn sharp limits on its actual help extended to Russia. It has not sent Russia weapons during the war; it has curtailed high-tech exports to Russia dramatically since Feb. 24 when the large-scale aggression began. Much of this restraint was likely out of fear of Western economic retribution, rather than goodwill. But it has still been the right call — and suggests that for all our fears of a Russia-China axis, their relationship stops well short of a military alliance or even a close strategic partnership at present.

This is not a call for complacency. We can and should continue to reduce the appeal to Beijing of any attack on Taiwan in particular, through economic as well as military preparations. But we also need to avoid pushing China further towards Russia or treating it as an adversary in a way that contributes to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Michael O’Hanlon is the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy at the Brookings Institution and the author of several books, including “The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint,” “Defense 101: Understanding the Military of Today and Tomorrow,” and the forthcoming “Military History for the Modern Strategist.” Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEOHanlon.

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