Post #6 China Threat? The Military Side of US-China Relations

Looking back over the history of the US-USSR Cold War competition, two aspects stand out: first, the USSR’s inability to catch up with the US in strategic weapons capability; second, both countries’ interventions and interferences in distant places as they sparred for influence.  The Russians lost both games, and in the end, lost the Soviet Union itself.

The Soviets really had little prospect of overcoming enormous US strategic and economic advantages that date from the end of World War II.  Yet throughout the Cold War many foreign policy analysts and journalists, not to mention US officials, constantly exaggerated both Soviet capabilities and intentions.  The greater numbers of Soviet nuclear weapons were incorrectly given more significance than was superior US capacity to deploy and target them.  Soviet intentions in the developing world were likewise miscast, as though the Russians possessed magic bullets or charm amulets that would automatically win over local populations or rebellious groups.  Afghanistan was the capstone of Soviet overreach, and while the same might be said of the United States in Vietnam, America survived its tragic intervention whereas the Russians did not.  Only when the Soviet empire crumbled did it become apparent how global overreach had weakened the USSR internally and undermined its capacity for international leadership.

We may be seeing similar misinterpretations in US-China relations today.  China’s economic rise has given new life to those who, in Mao’s time, read every menacing statement from Beijing as a realistic threat to the interests of the US and its allies.  Now that China has a huge economy, the second-largest military budget, and increasing military capabilities, some threat analysts see Beijing as being able to accomplish what Mao never could.  Some of them stress China’s year-on increases in military expenditures and force modernization, while others stress its willingness to use force and threat to achieve regional objectives, such as in the South China and East China Seas.  Both groups portray the United States as underestimating Chinese intentions and capabilities, with the inevitable consequence that China may soon replace the US as the leading Pacific power.

We should be wary of such alarmism.  It overstates both Chinese intentions and capabilities, fails to give credence to China’s absorption of the lessons of Soviet decline, neglects the vastly superior military and diplomatic capabilities of the US in Asia-Pacific, and gives virtually no attention to ways in which a collision of the two countries might be—and should be—avoided.

Let’s be clear: US naval and air power across the Pacific greatly exceeds Chinese capabilities.  Relative military capabilities do matter, and here the advantage is overwhelmingly on the US side.  Whether with respect to the numbers and quality of nuclear and conventional weapons, speed of deployment of forces, access to bases, weapons sales, or contributions from allies and friendly nations, the United States is far ahead of China.  China is still a “partial power,” as David Shambaugh has put it in China Goes Global: The Partial Power. Yes, China is seeking to improve in all these areas of military capability, and its military is becoming more globally visible; but as China’s profile expands, so does that of the United States, as its numerous bases in Africa attest.  Some analysts seem to forget this last point, arguing as though China will keep spending and modernizing while the US stands still.  US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s recent announcement of slashes in manpower and consolidation of control over some weapons will have little impact on the US military presence in Asia-Pacific.  The US “rebalancing” (especially of naval forces) to Asia, Abe Shinzo’s intention to put Japan’s military on a “normal nation” path, and strengthening of US military ties with South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines have to give pause to anyone in Beijing who might think about aggressive behavior around China’s rim.

What about relative military spending?  “China threat” theorists devote a good deal of attention to the rapid rise in this category.  And it’s true that in recent years, annual double-digit growth in China’s military budget has become the norm.  But consider these figures, which come from the authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (

  • In 2012, the official US military budget was $682 billion; China’s was second at $166 billion. (US spending exceeded the combined spending of the next 10 other countries.)
  • Relative to GNP, US military spending accounted for 4.4%, China’s for 2%.
  • The US accounts for 39% of global military spending, China for 9.5%.

We should also keep in mind that all countries hide or mask actual military spending—China, by off-book spending for some weapons research and development, subsidies for military industries, and many weapons imports; the US, by not counting in the Pentagon’s regular budget nuclear weapons spending, interest on the national debt for war spending, special appropriations for wars (see Iraq and Afghanistan), and veterans’ benefits.  If all those categories were counted, US military spending would dwarf China’s by much more than the official four times.

Chinese military leaders understand quite well the strategic disadvantages they face.  Their desire is not to repeat the Soviet mistake of trying to match US capabilities. Instead, they are building the kinds of forces that can deter the US in areas of “core interest,” for example in the Taiwan Strait area or the East China Sea.  So doing, they may raise for US commanders the uncomfortable choice of defending an ally at the risk of a major war in China’s backyard.  But Chinese commanders face risks too as they face superior firepower.  Most importantly, PRC party and state leaders, who must take the country’s economic and political stability into account, know full well that a direct confrontation with the United States would mean diverting from if not destroying China’s priorities of rapid economic development and maintenance of one-party rule.  That concern speaks to the leadership’s fundamental insecurity, another factor that China threat theorists ignore (see Robert S. Ross’s article, “The Problem with the Pivot: Obama’s New Asia Policy is Unnecessary and Counterproductive,” in Foreign Affairs, November-December, 2012).

One would think that if the China threat were as immediate as conservative US commentators maintain, the Pentagon would be sounding the alarm on China.  But a careful look at its most recent report (2012, at indicates a rather calm assessment different from Cold War years. The report does not take China’s force modernization lightly; but, in keeping with my analysis, the report says that “China’s leaders are placing a priority on fostering a positive external environment to provide the PRC with the strategic space to focus on economic growth and development.”  While underscoring Chinese advances in weapons and missions, the report emphasizes the desire for expanded military ties.

Nevertheless, the military side of US-China relations is not worry-free.  Eminent PRC and US security experts recently characterized the relationship as one of “strategic distrust” (Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi, “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust,” Brookings Institution, March 2012).  Mutual assurances, a multitude (around 90) of Track 1 dialogue groups, and a high level of economic interdependence have not been sufficient to offset suspicions.  Some of the language used by influential people in both countries resembles Cold War rhetoric.  Even those Chinese specialists who value the relationship with the United States and say conflict would be disastrous also believe the United States is the one country that stands in the way of China’s full rise to major-power status.  Meantime, US leaders regularly assure China that they wish it peace and prosperity, but feed Chinese anxieties by “rebalancing” forces in ways that raise the specter of “containment” and by conditioning acceptance of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on support of US policy preferences (Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell, “How China Sees America: The Sum of Beijing’s Fears,” Foreign Affairs, September-October, 2012).  Nationalism is fanning the fires in both countries: China is determined to assert itself as a “responsible great power” on territorial and strategic issues, while the US is equally determined to maintain its paramount position in the Pacific.  These are not the ingredients for confidence building.

And confidence building is what is badly needed now.

One piece of good news, revealed at a US Naval Institute conference earlier this year (, is that US-China military engagement on security issues will increase 20 percent this year, and that China will attend the RIMPAC exercises for the first time in 2014.  This is occurring despite concern among the navy brass about a China-Japan war, which might trigger US involvement under its security treaty with Japan.  More such military-to-military ties, both bilateral and multilateral (with Japan and South Korea), are essential, in particular if they lead to a PRC-US code of conduct to guard against further incidents at sea that might result in an exchange of fire.

        At the height of the US-USSR Cold War, both countries took steps to ensure that the competition never again reached the stage of a nuclear showdown such as occurred over Cuba.  Today, US-China relations are far more developed at every level—Tracks I, II, and III—than was ever the case between Washington and Moscow.  Nor have US-China relations reached the stage of an expensive and dangerous arms race such as bankrupted the USSR and permanently unbalanced the US budget.  Both countries’ leaders need to stay focused on the importance of the relationship while opportunities still exist to sustain deep cooperation on common interests, such as restraining North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, keeping the South China and East China Seas disputes from turning violent, working together on peacekeeping missions and humanitarian assistance, and agreeing to meaningful targets on carbon emissions before climate change becomes irreversible.


Readers: Just after this post appeared, I read the New York Times Editorial Board’s editorial, “China’s Disturbing Defense Budget” (  I wrote the following letter:

To the Editors:

I’m disappointed to find the Times editorial board repeating the Pentagon’s position on China’s military spending. Yes, it continues to rise by double digits every year, and yes it is the second largest in the world. Yet Chinese military spending, not to mention military capabilities, remain well behind those of the US.  The official US military budget is four times China’s, and if other military-related spending not in the official defense budgets is included–such as special war appropriations and nuclear weapons in the US case, and subsidies for military industries and certain weapons acquisitions in the China case–that gap in the US favor would be much larger.  But perhaps more important is what money buys–a global US military role and fairly constant involvement in war, versus a China with regional military capability and no allies. So if transparency is the issue, why not say that the United States is at least as guilty as China of disguising its actual military intentions.


  1. What are the relative cyberwar capabilities? It would seem that militarily exploiting cyberspace to shift advantages might be a more likely emerging influence than comparing hardware for risk. It might even be done relatively anonymously, so as to avoid outright default of debt that would probably come with substantial military confrontation.

  2. Mel, two quick points:
    I agree that defense budget comparisons and historical trends obviously have a bearing on US-China military competition but without a lot of massaging these numbers can give a distorted reading of true differences in force capabilities—assuming that’s ultimately the contrast of most interest. How so? Just a couple of examples to add to your own: the substantial difference between US and China’s military compensation (including salaries, retirement, health and other benefits and dependent support) may contribute in some degree to meaningful disparities in force quality and combat proficiency but how much? In the case of pay and benefits, I suspect they tend to overstate the discrepancy between the US and the PRC Making an apples-to-apples comparison would be a real challenge. A second (reverse) example: if China’s defense budget is funding expensive offshore oil and gas development in the South China Sea, the impact of these allocations on the military force as opposed to the domestic economy and trade, would call for further analysis. In this example, the disparity between the US and China might appear to be understated. [“Speaking at the opening of China’s annual session of parliament, Premier Li Keqiang said the government would “strengthen research on national defense and the development of new- and high-technology weapons and equipment” and “enhance border, coastal and air defenses”. Michael Martina And Greg Torode, “China’s Xi ramps up military spending in face of worried region” (Reuters, March 5, 2013,) This enigmatic statement may mean that the military budget is contributing directly to strategic development of offshore resources (LJK). Maybe you can shed some light on this.] It would be interesting to drill down as much as possible on this general point if only because aggregate spending analyses will almost certainly continue to top the news.
    Second, regarding your point about the PRC’s mission of “building the kinds of forces that can deter the US in areas of ‘core interest’” and “fostering a positive external environment”, is it your belief that the recent naval upgrade, for example, has been driven, principally, by US competition rather than regional concerns? It seems to me an argument could be made that the diversification and modernization of the PRC naval inventory and the configuration of technology investments is more compatible with a scenario of limited off-shore conflicts and operations—rather than security and competition with the US. But, of course, as you have suggested, off-shore conflicts could draw the US into the area in support of Japan or other allies. [For a detailed presentation, see, China’s Military Modernization And its Implications for The United States, Hearing before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, January 30, 2014).
    Finally, Mel, I’d like to express thanks for putting your views out there. It’s nice to have the benefit of your contribution to a much more diverse classroom.
    Larry Kirsch

    1. Larry, thanks for your excellent comment. As to your first point, I’d say that both examples only reinforce the disparity between US and PRC capabilities. The Chinese soldier would certainly envy his US counterpart; military service in China is often viewed as taking away opportunities to make money in the new economy. South China Sea drilling isn’t part of the military budget so far as I know; but protecting China’s stake certainly does require some spending that the US doesn’t have to worry about. All the US has to do is keep subsidizing the military budgets of its allies in the region that provide basing and visitation rights–a capability that, again, the Chinese don’t have. On your second point, China’s naval buildup–or ANY Chinese military move–certainly takes the US into mind, whether with regard to its territorial dispute with Japan, the South China Sea, or the Taiwan Strait. But offshore defense of Chinese interests is no doubt mainly motivated by the determination to ensure its perceived maritime rights, with access to presumed undersea resources primary right now. And when it comes to Japan, needless to say that historical grievances always enter the picture too.

  3. The United States misstated the threat from the USSR very deliberately in order to construct the threat Eisenhower warned our deaf ears about. (JFK contributed mightily to this mythology during his Presidential campaign with the ‘Missile Gap’ bullshit. His misinformation, deliberate or not, on this issue may have been one motivation for Eisenhower’s obvious contempt for Kennedy.) The ‘Military Industrial Complex’ established a small minority as a dramatically isolated economic elite and empowered them to purchase our government lock, stock, and barrel. An identical process has occurred in China, establishing an even more venal bacillus than the American strain in control of the comparable complex in the Middle Kingdom. In my opinion, the grand threat to every Homo Sapien on the planet is the identity of interests among the ‘Complexes’ on each side of the Pacific, and, now in nearly every country on earth. In every case, the ‘complexes’ produce a criminally overpriced product that we dare not use. ‘Use some, and die,’ should be their corporate slogan, as if they were piling huge quantities of arsenic everywhere. The solution to every problem is, make the piles higher and more concentrated. Those tiny groups wear the same wristwatches, vacation in the same spas, send their children to the same pricy schools, have identical private airplanes and yachts, and share a burning contempt for people like ourselves. Most speak and read fluently in English. Many have lived for long periods in the west, particularly in the eastern United States, especially Massachusetts.

    Now, with the advent of drones, by controlling a small cadre of highly rewarded and bemedaled young people essentially playing the same electronic games they learned at their rural southern hometown’s electronic game room, the ‘Complexes’ can patrol and control the streets and highways worldwide, obliterating any forming opposition.

  4. Hey Mel: another great post. I think it is worth keeping two things in mind that were not true during the Cold War years. First, the US and China both consider the Pacific their own backyard. This is much different than US-Soviet geostrategic positions, where it was very difficult to play in each others sandbox. I would be interested to know if you think China and the US are more likely to work out differences due to this shared Pacific positioning, or, is it an inherent negative and automatically adds to tensions.
    Secondly, unlike the Cold War days, the US and China have a strong economic dependency that the US and Soviets never shared. China’s trade is some 74% of GDP in value and its number one import and export partner is the US. Although strategic thinkers seem to neglect the economic aspect, it seems quite important that ties are this significant. Could China, without projection capabilities, afford a conflict with the US that would surely lead to sanctions and true containment? Or, would China’s ability to draw resources from Mongolia and SCO countries for military purposes allow it to weather a storm of US sanctions and diminished trading?
    The drumbeats of China as a threat will continue, but it seems to be made much easier by not recognizing some fundamental differences between Cold War days and current military/economic postures.

  5. Thanks for the excellent insights. As to your questions, first, I think a shared Pacific is a negative, since from the outset of the Cold War in Asia, the US has ringed China with its alliance and basing system, and been involved in one hot war and several very tense confrontations there. Recall that it is the US that has always claimed the Pacific as an “American lake” (MacArthur). Second, you are right that US-PRC economic interdependence puts the relationships worlds apart from the US-USSR relationship. I do think it is a key factor in preventing war. Still, it does not prevent high levels of tension, arming, and the ever-present possibility of military conflict, as we see in China-Japan relations and in the 1995-96 US-China duel over Taiwan. But Beijing certainly realizes that war or sanctions would be an economic disaster–and the SCO and other Chinese friends would be no substitute for trade with the US, EU, and Japan.

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