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The China "Threat"

Via Brad Plumer, an article where John Mearsheimer outlines the threat of US-China conflict in the future. The Mearsheimer article is worth quoting, because it contains what I consider a rebuttal of its own thesis:

China cannot rise peacefully, and if it continues its dramatic economic growth over the next few decades, the United States and China are likely to engage in an intense security competition with considerable potential for war. Most of China’s neighbors, including India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Russia, and Vietnam, will likely join with the United States to contain China’s power.
And there you have it. We're supposed to be worried not that the Chinese economy will grow fast enough to challenge American power, but that it will grow fast enough to challenge the combined power of the United States, Japan, India, South Korea, Singapore, Russia, and Vietnam. Right now, China has a GDP of $1.8 trillion. India, South Korea, Singapore, Russia, and Vietnam combine for $2.39 trillion. Japan is at $4.8 trillion. The United States stands at $12.4 trillion (source). How fast is China supposed to grow, exactly, so that it's going to be challenging this coalition? Obviously, the US can't devote as large a proportion of its resources to power-projection in East Asia as China can. But the Asian-only members of the anti-China coalition have four times the resources of China. You might also want to consider the matter of Taiwan, the Phillipines, and a bit more distantly Australia and New Zealand. If China ever made a serious play for regional domination it would be ridiculously easy for the US to support a counter-coalition. The only way to seriously curb American influence in East Asia would be for China to develop a cordial, cooperative relationship with other regional powers like Japan and India. But if China's in a position to be having cordial, cooperative relations with its neighbors, then there's very little to worry about.

Far and away the thing to worry about here is that the United States will adopt some nutty irrational policy driven by sensationalist journalism, defense contractors' demands for ever-higher procurement budgets, and labor unions' willingness to stoke any old anti-China sentiment they can find to try and build political support for measures designed to change their jobs.

April 29, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Fielding a military isn't entirely related to GDP. The USSR had a much more powerful military than we had even though their economy otherwise sucked.

With its huge population, China can conscript an army of hundreds of millions.

Posted by: Half Sigma | Apr 29, 2005 11:49:10 PM

With its huge population, China can conscript an army of hundreds of millions.

Which, in an age of nuclear weapons means what, exactly?

Posted by: P. B. Almeida | Apr 29, 2005 11:52:39 PM

I predict we actually have more to worry about if china's economy tanks. As long as they prosper, I think we can safely assume the pressure for political liberalization will continue to mount. If they fall into a recession, then people start radicalizing, it all becomes the fault of the capitalist west, etc. Countries going through hard times are much more likely to be irrational about the benefits of an aggressive war; china, with it's surfeit of young men with poor marriage prospects, is especially dangerous in this regard.

As long as they keep making money, all their militarism remains mostly bravado. It's when they stop making money that we have to worry about them going off on and doing something stupid, such as invading Taiwan.

Posted by: Glenn Bridgman | Apr 29, 2005 11:54:50 PM

The USSR had a much more powerful military than we had even though their economy otherwise sucked.

Is that a serious statement? Were you a member of Team B?

Posted by: 2shoes | Apr 29, 2005 11:59:48 PM

With its huge population, China can conscript an army of hundreds of millions.

Which, in an age of nuclear weapons means what, exactly?

Forget nukes. You can have the largest army in the world. If you don't have an airforce you're fucked.

Posted by: WillieStyle | Apr 30, 2005 12:03:18 AM

China's population certainly isn't larger than the combined populations of India, Russia, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and the United States either. This is a red herring. On top of this, China has a rapidly aging population -- much more rapidly aging than the USA, India, or even Japan. There's absolutely no problem here, it's just something the defense department made up one day to scare people into investing in more nuclear submarines and howitzers.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Apr 30, 2005 12:10:12 AM

Hmm... it sounds like you're using forex numbers for GDP. I'm not sure, but I think that, for strictly military matters, PPP probably matters more, at least for countries with an independent industrial base and not totally dependent on imports like, say, Saudi Arabia.

According to the CIA's PPP figures, the numbers are:

China: $7,262 billion

U.S.A.: $11,750 billion

India: $3,319 billion
South Korea: $925.1 billion
Singapore: $120.9 billion
Russia: $1,408 billion
Vietnam: $227.2 billion
Japan: $3,745 billion

Asian "non-China coalition" total: $9,745.2 billion

Also, I'm not so sure they'll all side with us over the Chinese. Some of them, to be sure, have very important reasons to be wary of China, like Vietnam and India. Some of them, to be sure, have strong (though weakening) ties to the U.S., like Japan and South Korea. I don't really know where Russia or Singapore would go, though.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Apr 30, 2005 12:28:28 AM

Singapore is with us. Russia, not so much.

Posted by: praktike | Apr 30, 2005 12:30:30 AM

"Most of China’s neighbors, including India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Russia, and Vietnam" If China continues its "dramatic economic growth" (and there are no guarantees that it will be the case), it will probably become the largest economy in the world, by a fair margin. ¿Why is everybody so sure that these countries will side with the second largest economy(or whatever is America position in 30 years)? Sure, they would probably side with the USA right now, but I find very unlikely that a China rich enough to challenge economically the USA, would find no close allies. It's easy to imagine an anti-China coalition, but it's also easy to imagine the creation of an anti-USA coalition, sometime during the early 20 century, and it didn't happen. I find the hypothesis that some present allies would change positions in the face of China growing economic influence perfectly credible. Of course, maybe China will not become the next dominant superpower, but somebody, sometime will. And present day alliances are unlikely to be of much use then.

Posted by: Carlos | Apr 30, 2005 12:36:36 AM

No, no, no PPP is wrong here. The fact that the cost of living in Shanghai is much lower than the cost of living in Tokyo or New York isn't relevant. There's a reason why Japan, South Korea, and the USA all have much more technologically advanced militaries than does China, and the fact that you can buy a loaf of bread really cheaply in the People's Republic doesn't compensate. The GDP stuff is just a crude measure anyway -- the closer you look at the People's Liberation Army the less impressive it becomes. Lots of troops that can't be deployed anywhere, second-hand Soviet avionics in the air force, no blue water navy, and a thin layer of cool Israeli radar technology and drones. China doesn't even have any real ICBMs!

As for the question of whether all these countries would really side with the USA it would depend, of course, on what happened. I don't, in fact, think you'll see this grand coalition emerge to fight China, simply because China won't do anything that would provoke the emergence of a grand coalition.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Apr 30, 2005 12:36:43 AM

China's population certainly isn't larger than the combined populations of India, Russia, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and the United States either. This is a red herring.

-Matt Y.

Communism was just a red herring.

-Wadsworth/ Mr. Body

Posted by: washerdreyer | Apr 30, 2005 12:44:25 AM

I agree with the comment on the PPP metric. Of course that is of no importance because the question in the article is not how rich or powerful is China now, but how rich and powerful will China be, at its current pace of economic growth, in 30 years. I also don't think that China would do anything to provoke the emergence of an anti-China coalition. If the USA could become the top dog without triggering this reaction, I can't see why the chinese would not be able to.

Posted by: Carlos | Apr 30, 2005 12:47:32 AM

The claim I took Matt to be disputing wasn't that China would become top dog, but that it's a threat to the U.S. for China to become top dog.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Apr 30, 2005 12:53:03 AM

Hmmm, I could see why PPP wouldn't be as directly relevant for these comparisons, but considering that China's currency is univerally considered to be severely and artificially undervalued, its hard to see how nominal values are better: the central bank could bring about a massive increase tomorrow just by letting the currency float.

Posted by: rd | Apr 30, 2005 12:53:27 AM

"The claim I took Matt to be disputing wasn't that China would become top dog, but that it's a threat to the U.S. for China to become top dog." Well, maybe. But it wasn't clear that that was his point and it's hard to differentiate when people is talking about maintaining American hegemony and when they are talking about American security. Most of the time people seems to see both things as identical.

Posted by: Carlos | Apr 30, 2005 1:08:29 AM

The normally astute P. B. Almeida wrote:
Which, in an age of nuclear weapons means what, exactly?

It means that they will be careful about directly confronting another nuclear armed country - but since that is a limited number of countries, that should not be too hard.

After all, even while in the grips of the Cold War, the USSR was able to fuel its proxy war with the United States in Vietnam, and the U.S. was able to fuel its proxy war with the USSR in Afghanistan. The nuclear age has only made nuclearized combatants more wary, not less warlike.

The indubitable WillieStyle wrote:
Forget nukes. You can have the largest army in the world. If you don't have an airforce you're fucked.

You libel the PLAAF, the world's third largest air force, when you write that. While it could be said that it was large and obsolete, it is in the process of modernization and it is not entirely clear to me that the United States Air Force will have the total dominance over them that it could have expected in the past. Part of this is because we are not spending well or wisely on the next generation of fighters, part of this is because we are not so far buying the next generation of fighters.

Of course, all of this is prelude to saying that one of Mearsheimer's core contentions is that across time, both pre-nuclear and post-nuclear, the primary measure of a country's power is measured in its economic capacity and the size of its army. It's not in the navy, it's not in the air force, although both play important roles in any military campaign, but in the army which can take and hold land. This is the most important consideration when asking whether China will become a threat.

The young Matthew Yglesias wrote:
There's absolutely no problem here,

Yet.

But that's Mearsheimer's entire point - he's trying to predict 20 years into the future - what is the security position going to be in 20 years considering that China's population and GDP are rising, that is rising faster than its neighbors, and that it has obvious designs on becoming a regional hegemon?

If you want to really understand where he's coming from on this, you really should read "The Tragedy of Great Power Politics". Mearsheimer leaves much unsaid of the theoretical backing in this little debate, and most of it is in his book.

Is China a threat? Not now, no. But it will probably become one, and is certainly on that trajectory, unless internal political changes within China democritize it, or forces from without and within bring about that change.

Posted by: Trickster Paean | Apr 30, 2005 1:25:00 AM

But the Asian-only members of the anti-China coalition have four times the resources of China. You might also want to consider the matter of Taiwan, the Phillipines, and a bit more distantly Australia and New Zealand. If China ever made a serious play for regional domination it would be ridiculously easy for the US to support a counter-coalition.

The problem with this view is that of all the countries you mentioned, only India has a sizable army of any sort. In an offensive realist world, power = GDP + army size (w/multiplier for tech level). China can make up somewhat for a lack of GDP by being able to support a huge army and for having mostly modernized weaponry.

From http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/active-force.htm and other places:

China has 2,250,000 active duty troops.
Taiwan, while rich, has an army of 290,000.
From what I can gather, New Zealand's army is about 10,000, and Australia has a bit over 30,000.
Australia and New Zealand have small armies and are separated from China by a great deal of water.
The Phillipines has problems with rebels on its own soil that is uses its 150,000 man army for.
Japan has a total defense force of around 240,000 military personel, and is similarly situated across the water (as well as having the principles of pacifism written into its constitution!)
India has an army of about 1 million, but much of that is commited to Kashmir and the north east.

So far China still has an edge of half a million troops.

Posted by: Trickster Paean | Apr 30, 2005 2:00:32 AM

There will be no Sino-American war. China will democratize, and westernize (the more sophisticated culture, with rare exceptions, cannibalizes the less sophisticated culture).

Posted by: Robin the Hood | Apr 30, 2005 2:15:07 AM

China has a huge army, which still, even after all the shrinking and modernization of the past 20 years, amounts to not much more than poor 18 year olds from the interior with limited training and rifles that are good for shooting fellow 18 year olds and not much else. You can have a bijillion soldiers, but if you can't move any of them across 60 miles of water, it does you almost no good. China still has very, very limited amphib assault capabilities, little sea lift, little blue water strength, not too many army helos, almost no marine aviation, and not many more than 200 4th generation fighters. The PLA can't swim the Taiwan Strait, and they're not going to cross the Himalayas to invade India. They are still playing catchup in power projection capabilities, and its not certain that they will be successful in those attempts. In fact, I'd argue that the PLA is an obstacle to this, both in regards to diverting money from air and naval spending and in the still excessive number of soldiers that the government dare not let go from their positions in the army.

Posted by: SamAm | Apr 30, 2005 3:09:22 AM

The real danger is that China will come into conflict with its neighbors and that we could be affected indirectly.

China is rapidly running down its water table and losing farmland to urbanization. Siberia has water and Central Asia has farmland, while Russia and the Caspian region have oil that China needs. Russia and the smaller Central Asian republics will probably sell China everything they can. But Russia may lose control of its territory in the Far East if the small European population there continues to flee to the west and if Chinese immigration increases. Conflict could erupt if Russia tries to prevent this.

The current Sino-Japanese rivalry over access to Russian oil could expand into a more general rivalry over oil, markets, regional maritime supremacy, and power in outer space. If North Korea tests a nuclear weapon, Japan will build a missile defense and may acquire nuclear weapons of its own. China will regard these moves as threats to itself. We might find ourselves having to restrain both sides from conflict. We will also have to prevent India and Pakistan from coming to blows, or China and India from having a war if China intervenes to prevent Pakistan from being defeated in a war with India.

In addition to devastating the countries involved, a nuclear exchange between Asian powers would kick radioactive fallout into the atmosphere that would cross the Pacific Ocean and rain down on us. We have to prevent war in Asia even if we are not directly engaged.

Posted by: David Billington | Apr 30, 2005 3:13:40 AM

China and India from having a war if China intervenes to prevent Pakistan from being defeated in a war with India.

Why the hell would China do that?!

Posted by: WillieStyle | Apr 30, 2005 3:44:16 AM

Poor Matthew.

1.1^20 = 6.7

You work it out.

Posted by: am | Apr 30, 2005 4:13:06 AM

Here in my international relations grad course in Britain, it is widely observed that Mearsheimer is the epitome of out-of-date old realist scholarship, whose failing [and the discipline's wider failing] to predict the end of the Cold War meant any other "predictions" he or scholars sympathetic to him might make are supposed to be cast aside as mere rubbish.

Posted by: mikey | Apr 30, 2005 9:28:14 AM

WOuldn't slowing down the purchase of US treasuries be a simpler means of attack? If they start sellng treasuries, the economic comparison could change significantly.

Posted by: richard | Apr 30, 2005 9:30:45 AM

I would imagine that China would try to find ways to split the anti-China coalition.

Ain't I brilliantI? Matt is thinking like an economist again: "Assume that we have united all of Asia against China".

Also, never assume that a war won't happen just because the result would be sure to be an utter disaster for everyone involved.

I believe that Battlepanda (originally Taiwanese) thinks that China is playing the game of chicken. If the US flinches or is tied down (as in Iraq), the China might try to call in some chips. (Yes, right, no chips in chicken, new metaphor).

Internal disunity (civil war or rebellion) is what could ruin China's plan. Their strength in the chicken game is the fact that they have been effectively able to control or ignore popular opinion so far, so they can play the game any way they want.

Posted by: John Emerson | Apr 30, 2005 10:07:40 AM

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