Saturday, January 22, 2011

Aggressive China? Aggressive America!

The whole western world went abuzz when China recently tested its new stealth fighter jet (more info here). In particular, Americans were put off because the test flight took place at the same time as Defense Minster Robert Gates met with Hu Jintao. A provocation? A demonstration of Chinese power?

In following, military expenditure in the world:


Seeing that the US military is far superior to the Chinese military, lets look at US military deployment in the world:

Countries with a US military presence in 2010
More than 1,000 US personnel
More than 100 US personnel
Use of military facilities

(Source: Wikipedia)

In China's east, South Korea hosts 28,500 military troops (2007 figure) and 38 military installations, while Japan has 32,385 American soldiers or military staff on its soil (2010 figure). In and around Afghanistan, the US has 105,900 troops (2010 figure) that come into Asia through a US travel base in Kyrgistan, China's neighbor in the west. During South Korea's last military exercise, the US deployed an aircraft carrier into the Yellow Sea that separates South Korea from China.

Somehow understandable that China feels a little threatened, isn't it? Everything points to the idea that the US is seeking to contain China. What would happen if China dispatched an aircraft carrier to Cuba in return? I can already hear the US media panic.

Recently, an article from a Peking University resurfaced and caused much discussion in the Chinese blogosphere: "If the United States Attacked China, I Would Surrender". The Chinese believe it is a real threat that the US will use military power to advance its own interests in China.

In Japan, the presence of the US military is already contested. The troops have been involved in 200,000 mostly traffic-related accidents and acts of crime against Japanese in which 1,076 Japanese civilians died since 1952.

Given an increasingly assertive China, the US Military Chief has vowed in early 2011 to put a special focus on Asia. How will China react?

By the way: Chinese president Hu Jintao finished his three-day state visit to the United States successfully. Read more about it here and here.


  1. Well, while I generally agree that we must not confuse absolute and relative power (and therefore regard the Chinese expenditure with relative ease), it is important (at least from an American pov) to follow these relative gains in Chinese power, as they get more bang per buck for every dollar spent.

  2. I should have mentioned that Chinese military expenditures are growing faster than American (couldn't find the chart tho). And Chinese economy is actually growing VERY fast (look at page 11 of this publication). Still, I don't think the discourse of "China as a threat" is justified. The US is by no means a neutral power...have a look at the first pages of their latest "Quadrennial Defense Review" and you're getting a weird feeling in your stomach.

  3. True - this is something often overlooked. However, perceptions of decline often precipitate actual decline. In Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" he points out that British military spending actually increased in the later period of Empire, but perceptions of decline were much more prevalent (and, in fact, ultimately accurate). The overall trend is that China is increasing military spending, whilst the US is cutting it. In the short and medium term, the US is still the world's only hyperpower. In the long-term, however, it will eventually have to share.

  4. Absolutely. The US will need to direct public spending to other things than the military. My prediction: to prevent escalation, it will depend on skillful diplomacy between the "civilizations". In other words, on cultural understanding.

  5. I would disagree that the US is a 'hyperpower', irrespective of the fact that the term is already stupid. China de facto owns large parts of the US economy, they could easily cause a major catastrophe there.

    But, Andre: Stil, the idea of a 'security dilemma' (that you cannot increasing security without decreasing the security of another state) prevails. If the US cannot take out China militarily anymore (whether or not that's true, likely, etc), that might do little to the general perspective, but the relative decline is significant.

    I think that it is not about objective assessment here, but really about perception.

  6. Janosch, I share your view on the hyperpower - even if they US could advance toward Baghdad very fast, we saw in Afghanistan and Vietnam how difficult it is to fight against guerrilla forces. I also believe that the struggles of the future will be economic more than military.

    But I don't think that China could make the US topple from one day to another. The US is too big too fail. Worldbank, IMF and the European countries would certainly rush in to help, because their own investments depend on it. Of course, that puts China in a pretty good situation.

    Dambisa Moyo proposes that Western countries need to focus on innovation and education to get their economies in order. I hope she's right. It's not very flattering for our policy-makers that the entire Western world is looking to a developing country...why can we not rescue our economies on our own?

  7. Well, a lot of speculation is involved here, obviously. It is indeed very unlikely that China could do such a move (because of its own abilities as well as its dependency on exports to the US). That was a bit of an aggravation. Nevertheless, the fact that China holds 20% of US treasury securities is quite significant.

    I like the point regarding the need for innovation in the West. I absolutely agree, but think that it is a very complex issue. Education is key, obviously. Apart from that, however, you have a lot of capital available in rising economies where western companies (particularly Germany of course) massively benefit. Focussing on Europe/the West/whathaveyou alone would cause significant difficulties - again.
    In addition, you very quickly run into the problem that you can't force people to become engineers, etc.

  8. @Janosch - As you point out yourself, China is in a "dollar trap" when it comes to the US - which is why it's trying now to diversify its foreign currency reserves. This limits how much power China truly has over the US economy.

    In terms of conventional force projection, however, the US is absolutely unprecedented. You might not approve of the term "hyperpower" - but the US has the capacity to engage in full-scale conventional conflicts in two (or, possibly, even three) separate theatres of operation simultaneously. No other country (including China) could pull this off (I'm not talking about limited engagements - I mean major conflicts).

    As Andre points out - we shouldn't underestimate the US today, even if they seem to be "on the way out" tomorrow.