China's Military: A Second Opinion

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In their recent article in the pages of The National Interest ("China's Hollow Military", Summer 1999), Bates Gill and Michael O'Hanlon write that "China's military is simply not very good." We think they got that half right. China is no military superpower and will not acquire that status for some years to come. But measured in terms of its capacity to challenge key U.S. allies in East Asia, China's capabilities have grown exponentially. That is the point; the authors miss it.

Gill and O'Hanlon assert that because China presently has a limited capacity to attack, say, Manhattan, it is therefore "severely limited" in its ability to act upon its "concerns and intentions." But in setting up such a straw man, it is the authors' arguments, not the capabilities of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), that are severely limited. It is China's burgeoning ability to challenge U.S. interests in East Asia, not the danger it poses to the continental United States, that threatens to draw America into a military confrontation in the years ahead. Indeed, one need only look back three years to the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996 - when thousands of U.S. military personnel stood minutes from military confrontation with communist Chinese naval forces - for a preview of what may lie in the future.

Recently, others have observed that, "Increasingly, political pressures are pushing the U.S. toward a self-fulfilling prophesy: Treat China as if it is inevitably hostile and dangerous, and it is more likely to become hostile and dangerous."(1) Gill and O'Hanlon harbor a similar fear, and it is one that we share. But we believe that understating the potential threat China poses to American interests, as the authors have done, is just as wrong as exaggerating it. Sound policy formulation starts with solid assessments, not false assumptions.

By emphasizing direct comparisons between the defense capabilities of the United States and the PRC, the authors create an artificial and misleading construct. Such comparisons distort more than they enlighten. Few imagine that the People's Republic of China (PRC), either now or in the foreseeable future, could best the United States in an all-out war. Though comforting in the abstract, that reality is not terribly relevant to the challenges at hand. What the Jiang regime gives every indication of striving for is sufficient military clout to achieve its aims in Asia. In the short term, it wishes to intimidate Taiwan sufficiently to bring about unification on Beijing's terms. Accomplishing that entails limiting or closing off entirely Washington's ability to intervene early and with enough force to prevent Taiwan from being overwhelmed. Looking further ahead, the PRC seeks to cow its neighbors and diminish American influence in the region. For these purposes, the PLA is close to being good enough today - and even better tomorrow.

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First, it makes a big difference where you fight a war. Beijing would be no match for the United States in the Persian Gulf or off the beaches of Waikiki, but a battle fought in Sichuan province would be a very different matter. The same applies to the Taiwan Strait. Anyone who believes that such a confrontation would be a walkover for American forces misunderstands the challenges the PEA would pose to U.S. operations near China's shores, and how difficult it would be even for the United States to operate on a major scale so far from home. That Beijing does not presently seek to provoke a military confrontation with the United States, and is deterred for now from lesser military actions in the Taiwan Strait, should not delude anyone into believing that China would not be a formidable opponent on its own turf, or that the PLA is as "hollow" as the authors would have readers believe.

Further, any comparison that depends merely on counting up all our military assets or raw defense expenditures for its persuasive power is almost always wrong. …