Are we being suckered?
China may seek to bankrupt us with military spending
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
By Dan Simpson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It may be that China is consciously or unconsciously using the same tactic to destroy the United States -- an arms race -- that the United States under President Ronald Reagan allegedly used to bring about the demise of the old Soviet Union.
The story runs that in the 1980s U.S. analysts realized that the Soviet economy was at the point of near collapse but that its leaders felt obliged to maintain the USSR's superpower status by staying up with the United States in expensive armaments.
Following classic poker tactics, Mr. Reagan thus came up with his Strategic Defense Initiative -- a missile defense shield dubbed "Star Wars" -- with the idea that SDI would raise the ante so high in the Cold War weapons face-off that the Soviet Union would be forced either to throw in its hand or go bankrupt. In the end it did both.
Fast-forward to now. We read that the Chinese navy is becoming stronger and reaching farther from home by leaps and bounds. It carried out drills around the Japanese islands, including Okinawa, which hosts U.S. bases. It will have an aircraft carrier in service soon, which will extend its reach deeper into the Pacific, challenging U.S. Navy dominance there.
In quest of offshore oil and gas, China's naval vessels and other ships, even fishing boats, are becoming increasingly active in waters that other countries of the region, including the Philippines and Vietnam, consider to be theirs. These countries are predictably looking to the U.S. Navy to carry out America's traditional "biggest fish in the sea" role in the Pacific to help fend off the Chinese.
The challenge from China is, of course, music to the ears of the U.S. Navy. No matter how many ships it has, it always wants more, better and more expensive ones. Its part of the defense industry sees the reports of growing Chinese naval forces and licks its chops in anticipation of more money for the more sophisticated Navy ships that these reports can help justify.
But let's think history and facts for a minute. The first point is that Chinese military spending overall comes to 10 percent of ours. So, for every dollar the Chinese up their military spending, we will probably spend $10 to keep up. And we will probably have to borrow that $10 from them.
What a good deal for the Chinese. And if their idea over the long haul is to see the U.S. economy ruined by military spending, a new ship here and a new ship there for the Chinese navy is an incredible bargain. That is, if the United States is dumb enough, or parochial-minded enough in terms of interservice rivalry, to play the game.
There is the idea out there that, because the Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen wars are largely being waged by the U.S. Army, Marines and Air Force, the Navy has had a lesser claim on resources but that now it is the Navy's turn.
The fundamental question is the large, strategic one. Why does the United States have to be the dominant naval power in the Pacific?
It is easy for us at current or even much lower force levels to be an important naval presence in the Pacific. But why exactly must we play a preeminent naval role in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea, the Sea of Japan and the Philippine Sea? Don't the names of those places tell us something about which countries should have primary responsibility for them?
Should we spend ourselves bankrupt to provide U.S. Navy ships to patrol those seas? Or to patrol the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden against Somali pirates? At some point, instead of "run fast, run deep" we become "chicken of the sea" in terms of strategic intelligence.
Then there is the question of what China does right with its money. We are all humiliatingly aware of the approach that some of America's more politically troglodite, broken-state governors take to high-speed or other rail. ("How 19th century to want to build railroads!") Meanwhile, the Chinese are building high-speed railways in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Venezuela. (Note that Saudi Arabia and Venezuela are major oil producers.)
The Chinese piece de resistance in rail building, however, is a regional project to construct a line from China to Singapore, a trip that would take only a day, with links to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Remember the good old days of the 19th century when the United States was building transcontinental railroads? We were even bringing in cheap Chinese labor to do the construction. Is it possible that China will need some of America's 14 million unemployed to help build the China-to-Singapore line?
If China is able to get past the political, economic and even military barriers to building such an all-encompassing regional network, the benefits in terms of economic development in Asia will be enormous. It would be particularly advantageous to the less-developed nations, such as Cambodia and Myanmar, as well as to China.
To the degree that the Chinese economy becomes more oriented toward the huge market that Southeast Asian countries comprise, with a combined population of some 220 million, it will be less dependent on sometimes flaky U.S. economic actors to maintain its financial health.
There will be problems. On the one hand, the people of Asian countries can be relatively relaxed about Chinese economic activities within their borders. "The Chinese are just interested in making money," they say. But if the new Chinese empire, like the American empire, gets it in its head that it wants to export its political system, as we do with democracy, there will be blood. China has internal problems in that area itself with the Uighurs, Tibetans and now the Mongols putting up resistance to Han Chinese Communist rule.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1976). More articles by this author
First published on June 22, 2011 at 12:00 am
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