The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming!
Well, actually, they were just parading around their capital, celebrating the defeat of the Japanese and end of their bloody part in World War II. But (cue some strangely ominous music plucked on a Chinese guitar) this was no Chinese New Year parade featuring dancing acrobats, red firecrackers and a dragon puppet.
No, this was China showing that it’d come a long way from a century of foreign domination at the hands of the British, through America’s “Open Door” policy and then by the brute force of Imperial Japan. Perhaps predictably, this show of national pride and strength caused a funny little freak-out among media establishment-types sitting at their desks halfway around the world.
Although President Xi announced a cut of 300,000 troops and assured the world of China’s peaceful intentions, the news media framed the accompanying military parade as a display of “power, not peace” (The Guardian), as a show of military “might” (NY Times), as the kick-off to a dangerous “modernization” of China’s military (WaPo) … and it was juxtaposed against a new report detailing the Chinese Navy’s unprecedented encroachment into the Bering Sea (WSJ).
First, it’s not like the US doesn’t sail around the world like it owns the seven seas. Uncle Sam has, depending upon your definition of an “aircraft carrier,” somewhere between ten and nineteen carriers. China has one, but last year TIME ran story declaring that the Chinese were “doubling” their fleet! That would make for a “fleet” of … two. On the other hand, Uncle Sam’s actual fleet dwarfs the rest of the world combined and the US is currently dropping $580 million to expand its naval base in the Persian Gulf. And it’s deploying drones to its long-standing base in Guam … with the intent of monitoring, perhaps, Fiji? Uh, nope.
Second, the freak-out seems comically lacking in circumspection given that the US is “activating” forces on Russia’s doorstep, trying to build a new base in Japan and is running a deadly, extrajudicial drone campaign over Africa and Asia (Pakistan is China’s neighbor, after all). And the US now has Marines permanently based in Australia, is negotiating greater access to the Philippines and is building the most technologically-advanced nuclear weapon ever made … under the guise of “modernization.”
Third, the US relentlessly touts its alliteratively-alluring “Pacific Pivot” strategy. Yes, US officials never miss an opportunity to talk about “pivoting” its wildly-popular Global War on Terror to a new effort in Asia. Just imagine if Xi has announced that, instead of a cut of 300k troops, China was launching its “South American Sojourn” policy? Exactly.
Fourth, if the US had a similar military parade, it would take over four times as long as the 90-minute Chinese parade that has everyone freaking out about the growing power of China’s military. Why four times as long? Because the US “officially” spends over four times as much on defense as the dreaded, island-building Chinese—approximately $580 billion versus $129 billion—and it spends more than the next seven biggest defense spenders combined.
But wait, there’s more.
Literally … it’s actually WAY more … like nearly a trillion dollars if you calculate all the defense spending in continuing resolutions to fund the Global War on Terror, nuclear weapons development hidden in the Department of Energy and all the other Military-Industrial Complexities peppered throughout the Federal budget.
So, the Chinese military parade—condensed here by the WSJ into 60 seconds from 90 minutes—is, in fact, more like a victory parade for anyone and everyone working in the world’s only recession-proof economy—Washington, DC.
And none too soon, either.
The Iran Deal, the Afghanistan phase-out and persistent public war-weariness after Iraq portended a possible realignment of spending priorities away from bombing, invading or merely patrolling in and around nations that didn’t attack America. Thank the Gods of War, though, that the lingering thaw from the Cold War could easily be re-purposed into a renewed slush fund for the world’s biggest corporate entitlement program.
The least they could do, however, is throw a parade like the Chinese did … just to let Americans see just what the biggest military ever assembled actually looks like and what you can buy with few trillion dollars.
Then again, maybe that’s why America doesn’t do military parades.
By the time the final, trillion-dollar F-35 is towed down Pennsylvania Avenue (because it was grounded by morning drizzle or some other snafu), the forthcoming B-3 Bomber will already be well on its way to half-a-trillion dollars in profitable delays, cost overruns and endless redesigns.
And, in the meantime, China will have secured more of Africa’s sought-after resources by building roads, bridges and airports around a continent the US prefers to enlist into its Global War on Terror.
And China will keep building its New Silk Road into Europe, while Uncle Sam gathers NATO around the campfire to tell ghost stories about a menacing, dictatorial bear roaming around the woods of Eastern Europe. Of course, they can keep the bear away by redirecting public funds to buy new, whiz-bang military gadgets in the supermarket of America weaponry.
Maybe Donald “China! China! China!” Trump is right. Maybe their leaders are smarter. Maybe they are beating America. They certainly prefer to spend their money building infrastructure to modernize other countries while the US likes to spend its greenbacks bombing the infrastructure of other nations all the way back to the Stone Age.
Really, that’s how Uncle Sam operates. Pick a nation with some “good” targets. Bomb it to bits. And then go in and (sorta) rebuild the infrastructure. So what if the projects never quite materialize or, if they do, they never get used. Either way, there is money to be made. The outcome is irrelevant. And it’s okay if the stuff you leave behind ends up falling into the hands of a new enemy. You can just go back and bomb again!
Eventually, Uncle Sam will even be able to fly the F-35 on those bombing runs.
That is, of course, if the weather cooperates.Tweet
September 3, 2015 @ 10:49 pm Symmachus
I’ve been living in China for a little over a year now. Though that hardly qualifies me as an expert on the country, I have had the opportunity to talk to a soldier or two. I’ve also read accounts of recent Chinese history written by my students after interviewing their grandparents. Finally, I’ve had several frank conversations with some rather high ranking party members, whose children attend my school. (This is why I am using a pseudonym, to protect both my sources and myself.) From these experiences, I can say with confidence that we have nothing, absolutely nothing to fear from the Chinese military.
I base this assertion on 4 prominent features of Chinese society: China’s military policy, China’s tendency toward Potemkinism, China’s domestic instability, and simple demographics.
1. Military Policy
Despite their posturing, the whole Chinese military policy is one of self defense. The past two centuries have left this ancient civilization horribly embarrassed by how easily it was subjugated by western (and westernized) powers. Having seen how various nations have treated China in the past, this is not at all surprising. Remember what this parade celebrates: driving the Japanese out of China. The horrifying brutality of the Japanese invasion is still a poignant memory for the Chinese. This parade shouts, “never again will China be raped, murdered and pillaged by foreign invaders.” They’re not trying to attack anyone, they just want to be scary enough that no one will subjugate them again.
Though some alarmists would cite China’s island building foray into the South China sea as an example of the Chinese trying to establish their hegemony… I think those hawks are sort of missing the point. Yes, China is trying to establish hegemony over those sea routes; no doubt about it. But, here’s the important bit, it is doing so by LEGAL means. China is pumping millions into building concrete habitable islands in order to establish a LEGAL claim on the surrounding seas. They’re not breaking international law… they’re COUNTING on it.
The US rarely shows such concern for international law when it “intervenes.” Russia showed no regard for international law when it gobbled up the Crimea. Compared to the illegal antics of the old Cold War super powers, China’s entire strategy with island building rather than alarming us, should comfort us. They take international law seriously enough to use it as the basis for their maritime policy. Is it a challenge to American interests? You betcha! But it’s a challenge based on international law.
Yes, those man made islands are all going to be military bases and air strips. Yes, China is trying to project an image of military might. However, when we consider that a superpower with a tendency to disregard international law has been sending state-of-the-art warships on patrol as part of a publicly proclaimed Pacific Pivot (how’s THAT for alliteration Mr. Sottile?), China’s martial bravado begins to seem more like the quills of a porcupine than the claws of a dragon.
Potemkinism is a huge part of China, as evidenced by (1) the massive luxury housing complexes with no one living in them, (2) the fact that they shut down all their factories and unlocked their internet the week of the international summit on pollution, and (3) their recent, inept attempts to manipulate their own stock market. (Other examples abound.)
The same fixation on appearance over content is present in their military. The Chinese soldiers I talked to said they spend half of their time being indoctrinated at party meetings, and the other half practicing marching. “They give us guns,” one said “but no bullets.” This makes for a fancy show, but not a particularly good soldier. While our soldiers are running simulations and doing target practice, the Chinese are memorizing Party catch phrases and practicing the martial version of water ballet.
3. Domestic Instability
Though the Chinese have opened up and moved forward a great deal, they are still an inward-facing society. The Party is in constant fear of losing control of China’s massive population. Unlike the US military, which is explicitly forbidden from operating within the US, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is more of a domestic police force than a standing army.
That domestic police force has its hands full at the moment. Two provinces of China (Xinjiang and Tibet) are pretty much under martial law; with check points, machine gun toting patrols, and APCs lumbering around Ürümqi. Many Uyghurs and Tibetans don’t consider themselves Chinese, and many would rather die than be assimilated. Like the Spartans with their helots, or the plantation owners of the antebellum south, the Chinese need their army just to control their own population, and are loathe to send it elsewhere for a prolonged engagement, lest they face a rebellion at home.
Yes, despite domestic concerns, this inward facing army occasionally turns its eye beyond China’s borders. Yet even when the PLA was deployed outside of China, there were usually serious domestic reasons involved. According to one grandfather, who was deployed to Korea, the Korean war more about purging the army of politically unreliable soldiers than any great hope of defeating the combined forces of the UN. It turns out if you shoot a politically inconvenient person in the head, it hurts the Party… but if you send him to, say, Korea, and the enemy shoots him in the head, he becomes a martyr for the very government he might have challenged. War turns such political liabilities into assets.
While this insight might worry some, the political climate in China is very different now. These days, China is trying to rebuild it’s moneyed class and intelligentsia, rather than sending them off to the countryside for reprogramming, or to war for involuntary martyrdom.
With the old personae non gratis now busy building a middle class, China has no pool of dissidents to throw into a war. Besides radical Uyghurs and self immolating Tibetans, neither of whom are likely to fight FOR China, the only politically inconvenient group China has left to worry about is its growing pile of lifelong bachelors.
There are entire villages of bachelors in China, denied a wife by a combination of the one-child policy and the resulting mass female infanticide. The women of these villages, realizing that they are now a rare and precious commodity, have all gone to the cities to find wealthy husbands. With no offspring to support them, tens of millions of Chinese men will end up a burden on a state that is already pushed to the limit trying to build an effective social safety net. Moreover, considering that procreation lies at the heart of Chinese culture (the Chinese character for “Good” is the character for Woman plus the character for Baby), such men have no future, no stake in their society, and are, therefore, not really all that invested in the status quo. While these poor fellows might seem prime candidates for the meat grinder of war, it seems unlikely that China could manage to enlist them all. There are simply too many of them, and most are now to old to enlist anyway. And so, rather than ending as cannon fodder, China’s millions of discontent bachelors will remain another domestic concern to keep the PLA facing inward, another set of helots who might rebel at any moment, another millstone around the neck of China.
4. Simple Demographics
Yet, perhaps the biggest reason China is unlikely to send its young people off to war is that it needs every one of them. Given the genealogical bottleneck created by the 1 child only policy, China really cannot afford to lose a single member of the younger generation. The Party is counting on those youths to feed, house and support the much larger older generation. As mentioned above, the Chinese social net is already stretched to the limit. The vast majority of the population depends on subsidized food to survive. The GDP per capita is dismal. With such a vast, impoverished populace to draw from, tax revenue is insufficient to maintain any sort of social security system. Moreover, China’s attempts at providing for its elderly have been fraught with corruption. Most of the cost of supporting the older generation has fallen on the shoulders of the very same young men that war consumes. Upon marrying, a Chinese man becomes legally responsible for the maintenance of both his parents and his wife’s parents. Every young man lost means 4 old people for the state to support. The soldier himself is worth more to China than whatever might be gained from his sacrifice.
In short, we have nothing to fear from China’s military for four reasons. 1. They’re unlikely to use it in aggression (except, of course, against their own people). 2. Their soldiers are ill trained. 3. Their domestic instability ensures that their military is unlikely to be deployed. 4. They cannot afford to lose the younger generation to a war.
September 4, 2015 @ 8:25 am Bruce
“Well” (to quote Raygun), I LOVE a Parade!
September 5, 2015 @ 4:51 pm Mike
The key here is that the U.S. has a consistent record when it pertains to violating “international law.” Whereas, China is abiding by such law, while pursuing its territorial economic interests in the South China Sea region. The U.S. views China as a hegemonic threat, as such the media is deployed to spin public opinion against China, be it to sway either the domestic or international masses. The next step will involve military action, thus, why the media spin occurs prior to this. It is a systematic and efficient means, especially, when you own the most lethal military force in the world. Perhaps at some juncture, (most likely just prior to military action) the U.S. will threaten China with economic sanctions. Though that could get messy since China controls much of the U.S. debt, so the threat of military action by the U.S. could very well skip economic threats against China.
September 5, 2015 @ 6:37 pm Michael Turton
For those of us living in Taiwan, Japan, SE Asia, and elsewhere, the Chinese threat is quite real, while the US presence is currently strongly supported. For South China Sea states, the US is the only counterbalance to Chinese expansion in the region. For Taiwan, only the ambiguous US promise keeps China from murdering Taiwanese and annexing their land. China invented a claim to Japan’s Senkakus in 1971, and also covets the “return” of Okinawa. Never mind its claims on India, Korea, Vietnam, etc. Whatever you may say about the US, it isn’t demanding that other powers hand over their lands and peoples or else.
It’s important to stop writing as if China were not a hegemonic power. It’s very easy to point out US imperialism and hypocrisy. The trick is to realize that China is no different, and sometimes the only tonic for a hegemonic expansionist power is another hegemonic imperialist power. If you’re not opposed to imperialism in all its forms, you’re exactly what your opponents say you are: merely anti-American.