Sunday, March 18, 2007

China Ad Astra

Speaking in Sydney, Australia on Friday, February 23, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney asserted that a recent anti-satellite missile test and China's general military buildup are "not consistent with China's stated goal of a peaceful rise." At a press conference concluding the latest session of the National People's Congress, PRC Premier Wen Jiabao deflected questions about the missile test and China's decision to increase military spending by 18 percent, asserting, "China’s position on the peaceful utilization of outer space remains unchanged." Inquiring minds no doubt want to know which of these leaders has got the story straight.

The incommensurability of Wen's and Cheney's remarks exemplifies a deep-seated clash of perspectives. For the Chinese, expressions of concern over China's presence on the "final frontier" smack of racism and 19th century propaganda about the "Yellow Peril." For Europeans and Americans, Cheney's ideas enjoy a long pedigree extending back to Napoleon's famous injunction, "Let China sleep, for when she awakens, she will shake the world." The Chinese view is undoubtedly well-founded. The idea that technology already possessed by other powers (say, the US) poses a unique threat in Chinese hands is a paternalistic one at the very least, especially in the wake of events like the most recent Gulf War. On the other hand the proposition that any nation of more than one billion people, whatever their race or creed, poses a distinct challenge to the international "balance of power" is not ridiculous.

While this latter principle may be true, it does not provide an easy calculus by which development of China's military strength may be judged inimical to peace. Pundits will always fret over the "balance of power," but such concern is only useful if it is done in full acknowledgment of the fact that the international "balance of power" is an infinitely more complex phenomenon now than it was in the age of Napoleon or Metternich. Dick Cheney (and others) presumably singled out China's anti-satellite missile test because it involves a technology that (according to their view) presupposes a conflict between China and another sovereign power. Only a nation-state can maintain militarily useful satellites, so goes this reasoning, so if China is developing weapons to destroy satellites it must anticipate a conflict with another sovereign power.

It takes little examination of the facts of the 21st-century world to realize that this line of thinking is erroneous. An increasing number of private groups and corporations deploy satellites in space, it is not inconceivable that a nation state might someday view a privately owned satellite as a threat. One does not have to imagine a James Bond scenario in which a mad scientist controls a laser in space. For example, if terrorists hacked into the computers of a company whose satellites could acquire images of important economic or military targets, a sovereign government pursuing an "all options" strategy might be very relieved to have such a system as China tested at its disposal.

In similar ways many of the fears about China's military power are rooted in antiquated or distorted notions of how the international balance of power works today. China's size is always cited as the root of international concern, but such thinking discounts the ways in which size is a liability as much as an asset. Pundits too often assume that a nation's ability to project force is uniform throughout its territorial domain, thus China's capacity to take military action against Vietnam is greater than the U.S.'s ability to project force against Cuba. China's logistical "home court" advantage only begins diminishing as one moves away from its sovereign borders, thus Vietnam is poised to bear the full force of Chinese military power.

Yet the history of China well demonstrates that the internal coherence of a state fluctuates in inverse proportion to its size. The further one moves from Beijing, the less firm CCP political control becomes. Thus when a PRC military unit penetrates one kilometer into Vietnam the CCP has not, in essence, projected force one kilometer. That distance must be measured between the operational zone of the unit in question and Beijing itself. At one kilometer into Vietnam, the CCP has thus projected force more than two thousand kilometers.

Moreover, most pundits vastly overestimate the importance of China's population to the calculation of its effect on the balance of power. Warfare has evolved over the course of the late 20th and early 21st century to give far greater prominence to technology than manpower. The US military is a mere fraction of the size to which it grew over the course of WWII, yet the entire military of that era could not match the combat power of a single brigade or carrier group of today. The most recent Gulf War provided the empirical proof of this principle. Despite having one of the world's largest standing armies, Iraq was defeated with lightning speed due to the vast technological superiority of the US military. Until China possesses technology to match that of the US, the size of its population or armed forces does not really figure into a calculation of the balance of power.

Then should not the world be concerned about China's acquisition of space-age technology? Concern may be warranted, but not paranoia. Most experts would agree that China is decades from developing military technology to match that of the US, and in the decades it would take to develop that technology the US will remain a moving target. Even if and when the day came that China and the US were on a technological par, war would not be inevitable or even likely. Until some technology is discovered that negates the threat of nuclear ballistic missiles the deterrence of "mutually assured destruction" will continue to restrain the strategic options of all powers.

Even if a war between superpowers is averted, would not a technologically advanced China be more prone to aggression against its neighbors? Here the realities of China's own internal political coherence are not the only facts to bear in mind. Though the speedy defeat of Saddam Hussein demonstrated the power that advanced technology affords, the subsequent aftermath of that conflict has been an object lesson in the limits of that power. The world is a very different place than it was when Napoleon spoke his sage advice. Nationalism, capitalism, industrialization, telecommunications, and economic globalization have created a world in which even a technological superpower faces discrete constraints upon its potential to project force beyond its borders.

Unless profound changes occur to stabilize China's internal political dynamic it is difficult to contemplate the circumstances in which the PRC would enjoy more success projecting force than the US has experienced in Iraq, space-age technology or no. Certainly China's political institutions as they currently exist could not withstand the kind of strain that the Iraq war has placed upon those of the US. One can never predict all the contingencies that might prompt a government to war, and it would be foolish to declare outright that China (or any other nation, including the US) poses no threat to peace. But where historically the Chinese are no less prone to conflict than anyone else, they are also certainly no more so. Whether China will ever pose a threat to peace is in this sense an imponderable, but in real terms one can predict that no matter how much China spends or what type of technology it comes to possess, the PRC will not pose a threat to the global balance of power any time in the near future.

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