China's Hollow Military

By Gill, Bates; O'Hanlon, Michael | The National Interest, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

China's Hollow Military


Gill, Bates, O'Hanlon, Michael, The National Interest


How good is China's military, and how much should the United States care? There are ample grounds for addressing these questions. In 1995, and then again in 1996, the People's Republic of China (PRC) splashed missiles off the Taiwanese coast. It also reinforced military facilities on the Spratly Islands, which China claims although they are hundreds of miles from its shores. More recently, the PRC has undertaken a steady build-up of short-range missiles opposite Taiwan - hardly, it seems, a benign development, particularly when considered alongside President Jiang Zemin's presumed goal of reuniting Taiwan with the Chinese mainland during his tenure in office. And now these questions have been given a new urgency by the espionage allegations contained in the Cox report.

The PRC, then, has demonstrated a number of intentions and aims that warrant close American attention. The ongoing dispute over Taiwan, for example, is ripe for troublesome misperception. Chinese ambitions toward the Spratly Islands do not converge with U.S. interests or, for that matter, with those of nearby countries. The PRC continues to criticize harshly America's global alliance system and its assertive foreign policy. More generally, Beijing appears poised to translate its growing economic power into greater military strength and geopolitical weight, as indeed a Chinese defense white paper acknowledged last year.

Despite all of the above, we believe that the recent clamor over China's strategic ambitions is greatly overblown. Most of the Chinese aims that run counter to U.S. interests are in fact not global or ideological but territorial in nature, and confined primarily to the islands and waterways to China's south and southeast. In addition, Beijing has recently taken a number of steps to cooperate with the United States on security matters: signing the Chemical Weapons Convention and nuclear test ban treaty, terminating its assistance to nuclear facilities in Pakistan, pledging to cut off ballistic missile transfers to Pakistan as well as nuclear and anti-ship cruise missile trade with Iran, and quietly restraining the North Koreans. Moreover, China is plagued by enormous socioeconomic problems, whose solution requires maintaining good relations with the world's major economic powers - and with the United States in particular.

That said, our main focus in this article is less on the PRC'S intentions, always subject to change in any event, than on its military capabilities. An enormous gap separates China's military capabilities from its aspirations. The PRC's armed forces are not very good, and not getting better very fast. Whatever China's concerns and intentions, its capacity to act upon them in ways inimical to U.S. interests is severely limited, and will remain so for many years.

To begin with, consider some basic facts: China remains a developing country, with per capita income levels - even after twenty years' growth of historic proportions - only about one-tenth those of the West. China's living standards trail even those of American adversaries such as Iran, Yugoslavia and pre-Desert Storm Iraq. It faces enormous challenges in its agricultural, environmental and banking sectors, which its arteriosclerotic central government is ill-equipped to address.

Looking at these facts, the new commander-in-chief of U.S. Pacific forces, Admiral Dennis Blair, has declared that China will not represent a serious strategic threat to the United States for at least twenty years.(1) In almost every respect, China's armed forces lag behind the U.S. military by at least a couple of decades; in many areas they even compare poorly with the "hollow force" that the United States fielded in the immediate wake of the war in Vietnam.(2) And on matters ranging from the professionalism of its officer corps and troop morale to training and logistics, China's military is in even worse shape than that.

An Empty Threat

China wields by far the world's largest military, with 2.

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