If you haven’t noticed, given all the attention being paid to a potential war between the United States and Israel against Iran, the sleeping Chinese military giant has begun to awaken up and assert itself.
No longer can observers dismiss it as a million-man army with outdated weapons incapable of fighting a war against a high-tech military force like that of the United States. Beijing has realized for some time that mass is no longer sufficient. It decided to build a smaller, more flexible, and more lethal, military. Beijing recently announced that it was cutting its economic growth rate to 7.5 percent in 2012 (from 9.2 percent last year). Chinese also noted that its new military budget would total $106 billion — an 11.2 percent increase from last year. This marks the first time the Chinese military budget has topped $100 billion.
Increasing the military budget is not new. China has been expanding its military for years. Last year, Beijing increased its military budget by 12.7 percent. Unfortunately, that did not provide a list of the new weapons it plans to produce. Most observers believe that much of the new money will go to China’s navy, perhaps providing additional carrier battle groups to back up the one it is now developing. That makes sense. After all, China is heavily dependent on imported energy. That means it must control the sea lanes off its coast and protect its population centers, many of which are along the coast. A Chinese move in this direction raises serious questions for the United States at a time when President Obama has decided to drastically cut the U.S. military.
President Obama’s budget would slash military spending by $487 billion over 10 years — in addition to the $500 billion in cuts from the sequestration process under the Budget Control Act.
These cuts will have a real impact on the U.S. armed forces. They include a cutback in the number of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft and a reduction of 72,000 soldiers in the Army and 20,000 in the Marines. Obama also plans to eliminate brigade combat units and an Air Force tactical fighter in addition to planes from training squadrons. In addition, he is retiring ships such as the carrier the USS Enterprise and slowing the acquisition of new ships. Indeed, the U.S. Navy may well slip to fewer ships than it had at the beginning of World War II.
Looking at China, the situation is sobering. Keep in mind that unlike the United States, China does not have global obligations. Its primary concern is to limit U.S. naval power in the Pacific region. Depending on what China produces — especially in the naval area — it could well be in a position to have an asymmetrical advantage over the United States. From the U.S. Navy’s standpoint, most of the new money will go to nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines along with better radar systems
One area getting attention from the Pentagon involves China’s efforts to build up its cyberwarfare and space systems. Unfortunately, these costs were not included in the military budget. Just as we had to guess for years about the size of the Russian military budget, the lack of transparency makes it difficult to know for certain how much China is spending on its military.
Admiral Robert Willard, the U.S. commander of the Asia-Pacific region, spoke to the Senate Arms Services Committee recently, noting that the Chinese “continue to advance their capability and capacities in all areas.”
The United States is not oblivious to the Chinese buildup. Last year the United States announced that it would station 500 Marines in Northern Australia in case of an emergency. Even the Chinese know that the Marines are there in case of Chinese mischief in the South China Sea. That was followed by a Pentagon announcement that approximately 60 percent of U.S. ships will be stationed in the Pacific. One reason is that China in recent years has made assertive maritime claims, upsetting its neighbors, especially Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines.
This is an election year, and it is open season on cutting the U.S. military. Most domestic cuts appear to be out of bounds. The tragedy of this approach is that once the election is over, it will be necessary to replace many of Obama’s cuts to the military. If the Republicans win, I suspect that many of the cuts will be rescinded. There still would be cuts but they would be more rational. Regardless of who wins, the U.S. military may soon find itself in combat, whether as an unenthusiastic participant in Israel’s war with Iran or in in some other part of the world.
It is fine to say, as the Pentagon does, that future wars will be small and quick. Unfortunately, our enemies may not always accommodate us. If nothing else, recent developments in China are cause for pause and concern.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.