China’s global reach

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China, obviously, will be our strongest long-term competitor in the world, both economically and militarily. But the form that competition will take isn’t always clear.

A lot of alarmists like to point to China’s growing military muscle. They’re modernizing their army and air force, expanding their navy and improving their missile technology.

But while the numbers can be impressive, most people overestimate China’s military strength because they underestimate the effects of technology and the more prosaic arts of transport and logistics, both of which fall under the heading of “force projection.”

Let’s look at technology. China’s air force, for example, contains about 2,000 fighters, bombers and attack planes, and is being modernized. But as you may notice from the link, that’s largely because obsolete planes are being dropped from the inventory, not because large numbers of advanced planes are being added. And the technology of those “advanced” planes still trails ours by a generation or more. The backbone of its fighter fleet, for instance, remains the MiG-21, a design that is more than 50 years old.

Similarly, the Chinese navy is trying to build the first Chinese aircraft carrier. Sounds impressive until you realize it’s based on the never-finished hull of an old Soviet carrier, the 67,500-ton Varyag. Meanwhile, we’ve got 12 carrier battle groups, built around 100,000-ton Nimitz-class and CVN-21 ships. That doesn’t even count the various minicarriers we’ve got, like our amphibious assault ships.

And while the Chinese Army musters an impressive 2 million or so, it’s mostly infantry, without decent transportation options. And their heavy units are armed with largely obsolete tanks and artillery.

Where does force projection come in? Well, in order to fight a war in the Middle East, for example, a military needs to be able to get the troops there and then supply them with food, ammunition and equipment. That takes a staggering number of ships, airplanes and trucks, not to mention the warships, fighter planes and security troops needed to protect the supply routes.

It’s such a staggering job that there is currently only one country with the ability to fight a war anywhere in the world: the United States. China may be growing powerful, but they simply are unable to invade, say, Canada. And they will remain unable to project serious force for a long, long time.

So militarily, China poses only a regional threat. Fight in the Mideast? We win. Fight in countries neighboring China? More of an even match, with quality and long supply lines squaring off against quantity and short supply lines. Invade China? We lose. The initial fighting aside, there’s simply no plausible way to occupy and pacify 1.3 billion people.

But if China isn’t a serious military threat, it still poses an interesting economic and diplomatic challenge.

(Continued at Midtopia)

  • DosPeros

    Nice post, Sean. I’m not a fan of Keynesian economics, but assuming the “multiplier effect” has merit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiplier_(economics) think about its application to China. It puts your contention that the Chinese can not sustain an increase in the standard of living into question.

  • DosPeros
  • http://midtopia.blogspot.com Sean Aqui

    Dos: I’m not sure that applies at the level we’re talking about. I’ll grant that there are inefficiencies in the global economy, and there’s no reason to think that more resources can’t be found: that is, the global pie can get larger. I just think China’s staggering scale swamps that. If 300 million people consume (more or less efficiently) a quarter of global GDP, then 1.3 billion people at the same standard of living would consume 130% or so of current global GDP.

    There are certain ameliorating factors — technology could reduce the resource cost, or maybe China is aiming more for something like Europe, which sustains a high standard of living on fewer resources per person than America — but in the end, in order for China to maintain a U.S.-type standard of living, real global GDP would have to more than double. That’s a tall order. For the short term at least, I think Chinese demand for resources will outpace the world’s ability to provide them.

  • BenG

    Mr. Aqui; Thanks, it is very helpful to get this perspective, especially about the technology of the Chinese military. The question I have with all analysis is how fast is the situation evolving. Can our knowledge increase as fast as the Chinese can upgrade?
    What brings this to mind is the news today on Iraq. The situation there is changing so fast that I can’t imagine how the administration or the military can make any meaningful decisions. It seams to be unraveling at a pace that makes anything we do obsolete. Now I realize the two have little in common other than the military analysis. But policy must be made now that will effect us later.

  • http://midtopia.blogspot.com/ Sean Aqui

    Can our knowledge increase as fast as the Chinese can upgrade?

    It’s always easier to play catchup than to break new ground, but the basic answer is “probably.” History demonstrates that we have been able to do so for the last 50 years. Beyond that it comes down to spending research money and having the technical skill to work with some very tricky materials. Currently we do both better than anyone.

    If China made a concerted effort, including espionage, they could close the gap somewhat. But they’d still face the problem of affording the result (boondoggle though it may be, nobody else can afford to spend $1 billion on a single B-2 bomber).

    Eventually a much larger Chinese economy could support a much more robust military R&D establishment, and the much more expensive military such R&D would produce. But for the near-term at least — say, 15 or 20 years — our edge is safe.

  • http://www.sarken.org gordo

    Big Ideas recently had a lecture by Minxin Pei on China.

    The point that hit home most with me was Pei’s suggestion that China, under its current political leadership, doesn’t have the mentality for empire. To paraphrase, China doesn’t have the “manifest destiny” belief that the US does.

    Another good tidbit was the fact that China’s per capita GDP is only $2000 US. China as a whole is still quite poor — although the party leaders will see more of that than the rural farmers.

    The subject of this lecture is the state of the ever growing, ever more powerful, ever more confident China today. Our guide is Minxin Pei, a senior associate and director of the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC.

    You can grab Pei’s lecture in mp3 here.

  • DosPeros

    Deng Xiaoping: To get rich is glorious.

    I love China.