U.S.-China-Taiwan Military Relations

By Nolt, James H. | Foreign Policy in Focus, April 10, 2000 | Go to article overview

U.S.-China-Taiwan Military Relations


Nolt, James H., Foreign Policy in Focus


Despite frequent alarms about the supposed China threat, China is not an emerging superpower. Although it has experienced rapid economic growth, militarily China has been in relative decline since the 1970s. China's high economic growth rate is now slowing, and its pattern of growth has actually undermined its ability to become an autonomous military power able to manufacture its own weapons systems and sustain a war effort without support from abroad. China does not, and will not in the foreseeable future, pose the kind of military threat to the U.S. that the Soviet Bloc did (exaggerated though that threat often was). Nor is China an irritating "rogue state": it has cooperative commercial and diplomatic relations with most of its neighbors and with the United States.

From the 1950s until the late 1970s, Chinese leaders felt besieged--initially by the struggle with the U.S. over Korea, Taiwan, and Indochina, later by tensions with the Soviet Union. Though a poor country, China managed to devote over 10% of its GDP to the military during this period, more than four times the current percentage. This massive effort made China a major producer of tanks, artillery, submarines, war planes, and other weaponry, though all of 1950s Soviet design. This huge, obsolete arsenal still constitutes the overwhelming bulk of China's military hardware. Since Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, production of weaponry has fallen drastically.

Many policymakers have voiced concern that an influx of U.S. dual-use technology into China could facilitate military modernization. However, in industries such as aerospace, the trend has been for foreign involvement to relegate Chinese manufacturers to merely subcontracting low-tech components rather than manufacturing entire systems. The country's incapacity to design and manufacture most modern weapons has forced it to rely, like most developing countries, on arms imports. China's limited acquisition of modern foreign weapons (mostly Russian) is a tiny fraction of what would be needed to replace its aging arsenal.

China's armed forces are the world's largest, but smaller per capita than those of many countries, including the United States. The Chinese military's size is actually a hindrance to modernization, because it cannot afford adequate pay, training, or modern weapons for most of its forces. China will not be able to develop modern military forces unless it either greatly increases military spending (which seems unlikely) or drastically cuts the size of its forces. China can defend its territory, but its capacity for external aggression is minimal.

Although China has disputes with most of its neighbors, it has not resorted to force to resolve them since its defeat in the 1979 war with Vietnam (except for a brief 1988 dash with Vietnam over the Paracel Islands). …

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