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Fearing China

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The biblical assertion that there is nothing original under the sun finds form on a regular basis in the behaviour of states. This is particularly so regarding assumptions or more often than not, misassumptions, about military means and abilities. The entire Cold War complex was riddled with psycho-babble and speculation: If they (they being a loose term for the enemy) get this weapon before we do, what will it do to the balance of power? As ever, the weapons race was pre-eminent, giving tenured positions to game-theorists and promoters of the “prisoner’s dilemma”. Nothing was spared in terms of dollar or rouble.

Today, it is the Chinese bothering those soft-headed spenders in the Pentagon: what if they manage, by some miracle, to develop the weapons, the systems, and the means that will place the US military machine in the shade? Little time goes by between reports that extol Chinese abilities, actual or potential, and risks posed to the US.

With menace, suggestions now abound that the Chinese drone capability will outdo any American variant in due course. A certain class of destroyer, the 052D Luyang III, might well track, engage and repel the celebrated F-35. The Chinese might, just might, push US naval presence out of the Pacific with their blue water navy.

The sentiment is captured by filmmaker Peter Navarro, whose cataclysmically toned Death by China speaks of the country’s “destructive economic trade relationship” with the US, while also highlighting military prospects. “[T]he People’s Republic is moving forward at Manhattan Project speed to develop a blue water navy capable of challenging the US Navy.”

Others, such as Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, wish such observers were given the coldest of showers. “China’s navy is not poised to speed across the Pacific to threaten America the way the Soviet Union once did, if not worse” (The Diplomat, Aug 30, 2012). Such commentary tends to be eclipsed by enthusiastic alarmists.

According to the Reuters report last Friday, China’s expenditure last year was in the order of $145 billion, covering the modernisation of drones, warships, jets, missiles and cyber weapons. Neither the Pentagon nor China’s authorities are in agreement about the figures, with Beijing’s estimate coming in at a more modest $119.5 billion.

The authors behind the Pentagon annual report admitted of “poor accounting transparency and incomplete transition from a command economy” as reasons for possible inaccuracy in the figures. This should hardly come as a surprise to the accountants of the Pentagon’s books, which have been in sore need of a searching audit for decades. Something happens when the perceived necessity of brute defence meet the considerations of accountancy. Transparency is not the usual offspring of that coupling.

Reports feature, in startling language, the nature of Asian defence spending. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, for instance, claims in its annual report “The Military Balance 2013” that Asia’s spending overtook Europe’s for the first time last year. The statement is only alarming in relative terms – European states are spending nominally less on defence. Budget cuts and austerity measures have been extended to the military. The spending by Asian states “has been so rapid” while “defence austerity” on the part of European states has been “severe”.

Shades of a “missile gap”, the notorious exaggeration on the part of the US defence security establishment about Soviet capabilities and American vulnerabilities, are finding form in estimates of what punch Chinese forces can pack. As Christopher A. Preble’s John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap (2004) accurately maintains, “missile-gap” pundits were motivated by economic considerations.

Kennedy, donning the outfit of the unrepentant Cold War hawk, was intent on reversing the position taken by Dwight D. Eisenhower during the 1950s – that the military should not be seen as an indispensable feature of a state’s economic growth. Pontificating about missiles and projections became part and parcel of self-aggrandized military expenditure, the famed military-industrial complex that distorted, as it continues to do, sane and considered policy. Preble even goes so far as to make the claim that “the military-industrial complex was the will of the people, and politicians throughout the Cold War era attempted to bend this will to their advantage”.

The Chinese Defence Ministry has come out with its own rebuke to US assertions: “Year after year the United States issues this so-called report on ‘Military and Security Development in China’, making preposterous criticism of China’s normal defense and military spending, exaggerating the ‘China military threat’, which is totally wrong.”

Commentators such as David C. Kang of The National Interest (May 14) don’t know what the fuss is about. True, there is a military build-up, but the trains are still under control. “East Asian regional military expenditures are at a twenty-five year low… and are almost half of what countries spent during the Cold War.” Kang goes so far as to suggest that “major East Asian countries have increased their spending about 50 percent less on average than Latin American countries since 2002.”

It all feeds into the idea that the Asia-Pacific may in time resemble the Europe of 1914, a series of pressure points that, if pressed, will see a convulsion. Shinzo Abe’s Japan is seeking to ease Japanese military constraints in the name of collective self-defence; a supine Australia is proving ever more receptive to US military overtures. Alliances threaten to engage; the gods of war wish to be propitiated. The spectre of this gloomy picture, as ever, remains China, part fantasy, part promise. The ghost of containment has come to the party, and is not leaving any time soon.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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