As the U.S. and China become the two largest economies in the world, the complexity of their relationship goes beyond trades, investments, cultural exchange, and education. In fact, in the area of technology (including space) and military, there seem to be more competition and concern casting uneasiness into the future of the US-China relationship. If you sensed that the U.S. had begun to sound off a hostile voice towards China, it was because the U.S. was surprised by China’s rapid rise (in economy, technology and military) and was not ready to deal with China on the world stage. The U.S. maintains a policy restricting high tech export to China and yet China has made tremendous advances on her own including satellite technology, launching missiles and the Beidou system (a variant global positioning system with added communication function) as well as super computer technology needed in space and other advanced R&D areas, lasers, robotics etc.
The notion, ‘China is a threat to the U.S.’, was mainly touted by the military industry complex based on comparing the two nations’ defense spending. China kept a double-digit increase in defense budget while the U.S. is suffering from defense budget cuts in recent years. However, we must examine the real numbers before drawing conclusions. Based on news reports, I have collected the following data:
U.S. versus China’s Defense Spending: 1996 ($266B:$8.46B), 1997 ($270B:$10B, +18%), 1998 ($271B:$11B, +10%), 1999 ($292B:$12.5B, +14%), 2000 ($304B:$14.6B, +17%), 2001 ($335B:$17B, +16%), 2002 ($362B:$20B, +17.6%), 2003 ($456B:$22B, +10%), 2004 ($491B:$24.6B, +11.8%), 2005 ($506B:$29.9B, +21.5%), 2006 ($556B:$35B, +17%), 2007 ($625B:$45B, +28.6%), 2008 ($696B:$57.22B, +27%), 2009 ($698B:$70.27B , +23%), 2010 ($721B:$77.9, Y532.115B+11%), 2011 (*\$717B:$91.5B, Y602,4B+17%), 2012 (*\$681B:$106.4B, Y670B,+16%), 2013 (*\$610B: $114.38B,Y720.2B, +7.5%), 2014 ($614B:$131.57B,Y808.2B, +15%), 2015 ($637B:$145B,Y890B, +10%), 2016 ($651B:$156B.Y958B,+7. 6%).
The above data give us a lot of information. The defense spending is in billions. The *\ sign indicates a budget reduction which occurred between 2011-2013 for the U.S. The annual increase of the Chinese defense spending by percentage was indicated. Due to exchange rate and purchasing power variants the percent increases are not precise. China has truly maintained a double-digit increase of her defense spending for the past two decades until the current year. However, China started with a very small defense budget for the size of her country. In addition, China paced her defense spending with her economy. As her economy slows down, her defense budget is scaled down accordingly. One must notice that in terms of dollar spent, the US defense budget dwarfed China’s 31.5:1 in 1996 to 15.9:1 in 2006 and 4.2:1 in 2016. The U.S. leads in spending and advanced weapon development for so many decades that the U.S. military is far superior to the Chinese military in equipment, personnel training and real battle experiences. Some analysts predict that even with double-digit increase in defense spending, China cannot come close to the U.S. military power for four decades or more.
The real important strategic question is: Why does China keep increasing her defense budget? By finding a logical answer to the above questions, the U.S. can then devise a strategy to deal with the rising China. At present, it is unreasonable to assume China is a threat to the U.S. It is also foolish to think an arms race is a sound strategy. The collapse of the Soviet Union is a clear historical case demonstrating that arms race and military confrontation are too costly to be sustainable, eventually destroying the economy even with profitable weapon sales. Both China and the U.S. should have understood the Soviet case and the fact that there would be no winner if nuclear weapons were included in the arms race.
So, why does China keep increasing her defense spending then? Does China have an ambitious plan to replace the superpower U.S. or does China feel compelled to build up her defense just for real defense? In the following, I would like to establish a number of factors as the basic reasons for China to keep increasing her defense spending. These are: 1. China felt insecure, 2. China recognized her vulnerability, 3. China witnessed the settlement of world crises by brutal wars and 4. China realized her weak defense capability, a large army with little modern battle experience, outdated equipments and training and a huge burden to the economy contributing little productivity. I shall present some arguments below to support this line of thinking.
China is increasing her defense budget out of fear and insecurity. The fear factor always exists among nations especially between great countries. (John J. Mearsheimer asserts that ‘fear’ drives nations to practice hegemony theory) I rather believe China’s fear is born from historical nightmares rather than from hegemony theory. Since 19th century, China had been invaded and violated her sovereignty rights by numerous world powers, all developed western nations from Europe and America and Russia and Japan from Asia. China was not willing to expose her North East region to foreign military occupation again after WW II but she had no choice but to enter into the Korean War (The Soviet would be glad to march her army through northern China to the Korea Peninsula) Likewise, China would not like to see her South West border with Indochina constantly in turmoil but she had little means to stop the Vietnam war until the U.S. really wanted to stop. China is vulnerable to her 14 watchful neighbor countries with over 22000 kilometers of land border.
China’s vulnerability is not limited to land only; she has over 15,000 kilometer coast line not counting the security zones defined by her islands in the East and South China Seas. For many centuries, Japanese pirates had always attacked China’s mainland and fishermen with hit and loot tactics along the East China Sea extending into the South China Sea. The present disputed islands in the South China Sea historically belonged to China but were one time seized by the French and later by the Japanese until Japan surrendered at the end of WW II. As China raises economically, more than half of her $4 trillion trades, imports and exports, must pass through the South and East China Seas. It is comical for Japan and the U.S. to accuse China impairing freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Bringing more naval power into South and East China Seas simply reminds China her vulnerability and her inadequate navy.
Is China really a threat to Japan and the U.S.? Japan has a much stronger and more modern navy than anyone in Asia; whereas the U.S. fleets are matchless in the world. China not only understands her vulnerability but also has a genuine fear from witnessing world crises being settled by brutal wars and regime change being practiced as a legitimate foreign policy. China’s repeated claims, ‘China wishes to rise peacefully’ seemed to fall on deaf ears. Following the US ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, she saw Japan’s eagerness in enhancing her military forces and anxiously revising her pacifist constitution to give her liberty to attack. She also saw many large scale military exercises conducted in the Asia Pacific, purposely or not, could only remind China her need to modernize her military. Hence, came the reform to reduce 300,000 personnel in China’s army, to upgrade to higher quality equipment and to develop more sophisticated communication systems. I would interpret China’s continuous increase of her defense spending as a logical decision reacting to ‘fear and vulnerability’ caused by her neighbors and the U.S.
China’s decision to reduce the size of her army, to modernize her navy and air force for quality and to focus on technology-driven defense system rather than offensive weapons is consistent with the ‘fear and vulnerability argument’. The construction work done on her islands in South China Sea is obviously for defense rather than for offense. China gauges her defense spending with her economic development. So long her economy is healthy she will keep up with defense spending unless she no longer feels fear and vulnerability.