SINCE SEPT. 11, 2001, the United States has downplayed concerns about China's military, focusing instead on cooperation with Beijing to counter terrorism, pressure North Korea on its nuclear weapons program and resolve other immediate issues. But over the long term, Washington can't ignore China's emergence as a military power that could face the United States in a confrontation, most likely over the explosive issue of Taiwan.
There is no question that the United States will remain the world's dominant military power for the foreseeable future. China spends the equivalent of two to three times as much on the military each year as shown in its official $30-billion defense budget. But that is still far below the $400 billion the U.S. spends annually on defense.
A recent Rand Corp. study found that China's annual defense spending in 20 years will still be less than $200 billion a year in today's dollars.
This growth in spending stems from a series of reforms, beginning in the late 1970s when China began dismantling its Soviet-style economic planning in favor of something closer to a free market system. As the economy grew in the late 1980s, China found itself with more money for its military and, since 1997, its defense budget has grown by more than 10% per year.
China is using the money to modernize its armed forces and change their emphasis. Instead of preparing for a low-tech, protracted "people's war" of guerrilla operations against an invader, China is readying for high-tech local wars — conflicts of short duration and high intensity, similar to the United States' campaign in the 1991 Gulf War.
Although still largely equipped with weapons based on 1950s-era Soviet designs, China's armed forces are fielding increasing numbers of modern aircraft, warships, missiles and tanks. Many of these have been purchased from Russia, but China's own defense industry produces ever more first-rate weapons, thanks to technological advances rooted in the nation's economic transformation coupled with technical assistance from Russia and Israel.
The latter include: the J-10, a fighter jet comparable in capability to the U.S. F-16; the Luyang-class destroyer, comparable in capability to U.S. Aegis ships; the HQ-9, a new class of nuclear attack submarine; a surface-to-air missile system comparable to the U.S. Patriot system; the Type 98 tank, comparable in capability to the main battle tanks of Western countries; and short-range ballistic missiles of increasingly lethal accuracy.
China is also working hard to improve military training and the quality of personnel in its armed forces. Military exercises are increasingly comprehensive and realistic. The Chinese military has begun recruiting graduates of civilian colleges to become officers, and enlisted personnel must be at least middle school graduates.
Eventually, China's military may rise to that of a world power, capable of projecting power around the globe. But China has not yet begun investing in the systems needed to make that possible: aircraft carriers, heavy bombers, long-range amphibious ships and military transport aircraft, and a constellation of surveillance and communications satellites with global coverage.
For now, China is focusing primarily on countries on or near its borders — most notably Taiwan. Beijing is driving to develop a force strong enough to compel Taiwan to accept unification — and to defeat any U.S. defense of its longtime ally. The United States would likely prevail in such a war today, but 20 years from now China may be the dominant power in East Asia, and the U.S. would be hard-pressed to defeat a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
Even if the two nations do not have a direct conflict over Taiwan, they could find themselves moving toward a long "cold war" reminiscent of the old U.S.-Soviet rivalry. The greatest unknown at the moment is China's stability and long-term ideology. China faces many daunting political, social and economic challenges. Political upheaval, such as a repeat of the 1989 clash with pro-democracy demonstrators, seems all but inevitable. The outcome, however, is less certain.
China could develop a moderate form of democracy, establishing a friendly rivalry with the United States similar to U.S.-France relations. Occasional frictions would arise, but neither country would allow them to lead to serious security issues.
Another possibility is that social order and central control will deteriorate, significantly slowing China's economic growth.
Although this would reduce the resources available for military spending, it could destabilize China, making it unpredictable and dangerously adventuresome, even if too weak to challenge the United States' military dominance in East Asia.
Finally, China might instead continue to enjoy rapid economic and technological progress while firmly under the control of an authoritarian government. For that reason alone, the United States needs to continue developing its military capabilities to respond to a possible challenge in the region.
Roger Cliff is a China specialist at the Rand Corp.
This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on August 7, 2005.