Key Points

  • China remains militarily weak despite rapid economic growth—the pattern of which is actually undermining the old military-industrial state.
  • China has been demilitarizing since the 1970s, and its military capabilities have been declining relative to those of the U.S. and most of its Asian neighbors.
  • The war effort is contributing to problems in the allied countries, notably Zimbabwe.

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 clash with Vietnam over the Paracel Islands). China and Russia have demilitarized their common border, and China has extensive trading relations with all of its neighbors, including Taiwan and both North and South Korea. Even where there is tension, as in China’s relations with Taiwan, India, and Vietnam, relations have improved considerably since the armed clashes of decades ago.

The most persistent remaining problem is China’s threat to use armed force against Taiwan if it declares itself to be what it de facto is: an island country independent of China. Beijing has refused to recognize the government of Taiwan as a sovereign government with standing equal to China itself. Taiwan’s moves toward claiming that status are met with threats of force, most recently in Beijing’s warnings to the Taiwanese people not to elect Chen Shui-bian president. China’s warnings failed to prevent Chen’s victory, however, as similar warnings failed in 1996 to prevent the election of President Lee Teng-hui.

Beijing’s threats against Taiwan are hollow, because China lacks the military capability to inflict damage on Taiwan without suffering immense damage to its own economy and coastal regions. For example, Taiwan’s air force, though much smaller than China’s, has been completely reequipped with modern aircraft, outnumbering China’s few modern Russian-built fighters by more than six to one. China is now much more dependent on foreign trade than it was during the Taiwan Straits crises of the 1950s, and its economy would consequently suffer much more in the event of any armed conflict than it did then. Taiwan is today more powerful relative to China than it was in the 1950s. The Taiwanese could defend themselves adequately even without U.S. intervention. Although China and Taiwan could inflict mutual injury on each other, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which this would facilitate China’s goal of reunification with Taiwan.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

  • U.S. criticism and fear of China have mounted in recent years, despite the decreasing threat.
  • Recent U.S. disputes with China occur more because of shifts in U.S. policy in the aftermath of the cold war than because of any increased assertiveness by China.
  • U.S. arms control policy vis-à-vis China is one-sided and offers no reciprocal concessions.

Given that Chinese external relations have generally improved, its arms exports have declined, and its military forces have deteriorated during the 1990s, there should be less U.S. fear and criticism of China; nevertheless, there is more of both. The most obvious reason is that the bloody repression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests shattered for many Americans the image that China was liberalizing along Western lines. Another less widely recognized reason is that the end of the cold war has made China less useful to the U.S. as a military ally and more useful as a potential threat in order to justify U.S. military spending.

The U.S.-China rapprochement of 1971-89 was rooted in a common opposition to the Soviet Union. During the 1980s, however, the lure of the vast Chinese market began to surpass the anti-Soviet alliance as a motivation for closer U.S.-China relations.

In recent years, there have been four major concerns in U.S.-China security relations: 1) Taiwan, 2) U.S. proposals for deploying theater missile defense (TMD) systems in Asia, 3) supposed leaks to China of military-related technologies and nuclear secrets, and 4) Chinese arms export policies. In all four areas, the emerging frictions have more to do with the post-cold war changes in U.S. policy than with memories of Tiananmen or any adverse changes in Chinese policy.

The U.S.-China rapprochement was founded in a fundamental realignment of U.S. foreign policy embodied in the Shanghai Communiqué of 1972. Washington agreed to support Beijing’s bid for the UN seat formerly held by the Nationalist Chinese government on Taiwan, and the U.S. withdrew its military bases and forces from Taiwan. Washington restored full diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979 and withdrew official recognition of the Taiwan government. Yet the U.S. has maintained “unofficial” relations with Taiwan under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. This law also mandates U.S. military protection of Taiwan in defense of its independence from China, while not disputing Beijing’s claim that Taiwan is merely a province of China.

In 1982 the Reagan administration agreed to limit arms sales to Taiwan in return for Beijing’s promise to resolve differences with Taiwan peacefully. But then the Bush administration resumed sales of high-tech weapons to Taiwan, including 150 F-16 fighter aircraft, ostensibly to counter China’s purchase of 50 modern Russian Su-27 fighters. Such a response was disproportionate, especially since Taiwan also acquired 60 French Mirage fighters and manufactures its own modern fighters using imported U.S. technology.

The second area of U.S.-China tension concerns Beijing’s objections to U.S. proposals to share a Theater Missile Defense (TMD) system with Taiwan and Japan. Such systems are restricted by the U.S.-Soviet ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty of 1972. But now that China has apparently developed multiple warhead technology (perhaps, in part, through spying), a TMD system could be inexpensively overwhelmed by multiple-warhead Chinese missiles and probably also by cruise missiles flying below the radar horizon of the TMD system. Although Taiwan lacks nuclear-armed missiles with which to counter any Chinese use of such weapons, a TMD system for Taiwan and Japan increases the possibility that the U.S. could once again (as it did in the 1950s) make nuclear threats against China with the risky expectation that the TMD system might protect Japan and Taiwan from any Chinese retaliation.

The third area of tension involves U.S. restrictions on the transfer of military-related technologies to China since 1989. At that time, several major U.S. arms manufacturers had contracts with Chinese firms to upgrade weaponry, including fighter aircraft, tanks, and missiles. President Bush forced cancellation of all these contracts as part of the sanctions imposed after Tiananmen. Despite an uproar over supposed leaks of missile technology to China in the months prior to Clinton’s June 1998 visit, limits on transfer of dual-use or military-related technologies are much stricter today than during the 1980s. Recently it has been alleged that China’s spies have acquired U.S. nuclear weapons technology. Since Chinese missiles and nuclear weapons remain a tiny fraction of the arsenals of the U.S. and Russia, this should not portend a new nuclear arms race.

The fourth area of tension revolves around U.S. efforts to restrict Chinese arms exports. Ironically, Chinese exports were much greater in the 1980s, when the U.S. did not complain. Several of China’s biggest arms customers then, including Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand, were also U.S. allies and arms customers. The United States, China, and U.S. allies all sold weapons to both sides during the Iran-Iraq war. During the 1990s, the low quality of Chinese weapons and the end of the Iran-Iraq war led to a precipitous drop in Chinese arms sales. By the mid-1990s, Chinese arms sales were one-sixth the peak level of 1987-88 and only 4% of U.S. arms sales. While the U.S. has increased its market share of global weapons sales, China’s sales and market share have decreased.

In a final blow to Chinese arms exports, the U.S. and its allies decided to restrict international sales of ballistic missiles with the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Although the MTCR was negotiated without Chinese input, China was asked to adhere to it and agreed to do so in 1992. Chinese military-industrial interests resent these restrictions, because the MTCR limits China’s ability to sell one of the few weapons it can produce that happens to be in demand abroad. China considers U.S. arms control efforts one-sided, since the U.S. offers no reciprocal concessions, such as limiting arms sales to Taiwan.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations

  • The U.S. should relate to China with confidence, not with fear or with bullying tactics.
  • Cold war-era controls on technology transfer are unnecessary for U.S. security and harmful to U.S. exports.
  • The U.S. should offer China full partnership in more comprehensive regional arms limitation agreements rather than merely demanding adherence to norms negotiated without Chinese participation.

U.S. public media and some politicians have often tended to exaggerate the threat from China. The U.S. should relate to China with confidence, not with fear. In the two decades since relations were normalized, China has gradually liberalized its economy, becoming an outward-looking, commercial society sharing many interests with the United States. During this period, China has demilitarized to a much greater extent than has the United States. If China is to be a superpower, it seems destined to be an economic one more akin to Japan than a military superpower like the former Soviet Union. Although the U.S. might be strong enough to bully China, it should resist that temptation, because in the long run—like the pressure against Weimar Germany in the 1920s—bullying could divert China from its current hopeful path toward a more suspicious and antagonistic relationship with the outside world.

Since China is not an aggressive or formidable military power, it is not necessary to “contain” the Chinese. Although Washington should not return to the pre-1989 policy of directly transferring military technologies to China, it is an unnecessary cold war hangover to restrict exports of dual-use high-technology equipment such as advanced computers or machine tools. It does Americans no credit to complain about a trade deficit with China if the U.S. refuses to sell high-technology equipment that is in demand for modernizing the Chinese economy.

There is also no danger in allowing American companies to cooperate with Chinese firms to launch satellites with Chinese rockets. Even if the Chinese military did thereby acquire information to make their ICBMs more accurate, such a move would not increase the vulnerability of the United States. The handful of nuclear-armed ICBMs that China possesses could hit a target as big as Los Angeles even without U.S. help, but only at the ridiculous cost of national suicide.

Some argue that China should be denied high-technology equipment as punishment for its previous assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. However, this would be counterproductive, since China has subsequently become more cooperative in preventing nuclear arms proliferation. For example, Beijing ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1992 and agreed to curtail its exports of technology to unsafeguarded nuclear facilities in 1996. Furthermore, China’s most significant assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear arms program came during the 1980s, when the U.S. was ignoring or perhaps even tacitly approving such assistance.

Washington will easily secure Chinese cooperation in regional arms control if the U.S. invites Beijing to participate in the negotiations and offers meaningful concessions to China. Most important would be an offer to limit U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, especially TMD systems, in return for Chinese cooperation in regional arms reductions. During the cold war it was understood that U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations required mutual compromise to gain mutual benefit, but the U.S. tendency so far has been simply to demand Chinese adherence to multilateral agreements such as the MTCR and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, even though they were negotiated without Chinese participation. Now that India and Pakistan are undisguised nuclear powers, the U.S. should encourage multilateral talks for worldwide nuclear arms reduction. The U.S. and China were the first two signatories to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) of 1996, which was an excellent beginning. Further progress could be made by negotiating reductions in existing stockpiles, elimination of delivery systems, extending the U.S.-Russian ABM treaty to ban or limit TMD in Asia, expansion of nuclear-free zones, and inclusion of India and Pakistan in the CTBT.

The Clinton administration and China have cooperated more effectively since 1996 on a range of security issues, including increased confidence building measures, renewal of U.S.-Chinese summit meetings, exchanges of senior officials, the four-party talks on Korea, and initial steps toward a U.S.-Japanese-Chinese security dialogue. Further progress might be made if Washington downplays bilateral security arrangements with Japan and South Korea (legacies of the cold war) in favor of multilateral discussions that include China. Since the Opium War, China has faced countless insults, invasions, and depredations from foreigners, unlike anything in American experience. China must be treated with dignity if this bitter history is to be overcome.

James H. Nolt is a Senior Fellow specializing in East Asia relations at the World Policy Institute.

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