Posted: August 4, 2008
n interesting project for one of the journalists covering the formulaic debates between presidential candidates might be to quiz the aspirants about their party platforms and white papers. If my own experience is a guide, this would elicit blank looks and dead air. White papers and platforms exist, to quote no one in particular, "to keep the nuts busy and out of the way." What matters is what the candidates say, and more importantly, what they say repeatedly, for they come to believe it even if it is in essence a lie.
Although China may be included in unread position papers, it has yet to make a major appearance in 2008's parochial and self-referential presidential campaign. No one has yet made it an issue or set it out as a marker. Should the candidates address it, they would probably call for trade protection or comment on human rights and sport. Worldwide, activists of every stripe, from dilettante movie stars to Tibetans and Uighurs willing to lay down their lives, have seen China's coming into the light because of the Olympics as a point of leverage by which to make its governance more humane and democratic. They are mistaken. To begin with, they misread China's desire to impress, taking it as an appeal for approval. But, in accordance with its historically China-centric view, China is making not an appeal but an assertion. The more it appeases world opinion—such as by meeting with envoys of the Tibetan government in exile—the more it will rigidify in matters of substance.
Although it is dependent upon international trade, so are its trading partners, who, having begun the relationship knowing the nature of affairs in China, will not kill the goose that manufactures their golden eggs. Then there is China's great mass and strategic position, geographical and otherwise, insulating it from most pressure or influence. It is not Luxembourg. It is now a great power, and it knows it will not be conquered by the Mongols, the West, or Japan.
Its posture in regard to what the West seeks to change is neither arbitrary nor capricious, but dictated by imperatives of such great weight that they cannot be moved from the outside. First, there is the traditional Chinese style of governance, bred in the bone, thousands of years old, and not republican democracy. Then there is the remnant amalgam of the Maoist-Marxian-Chinese-imperial state, to which the ruling elite clings by education, habit, and lest in shifting away from it everything break apart. And, of course, there is plain economic determinism. China's almost miraculous leap forward since the 1978 Third Plenum of the 11th Party Congress Central Committee, analogous in many respects to a 19th-century industrial revolution on speed, is dependent upon cheap labor and high discipline. Both (along with the suppression of Tibet) attract the attention of outside reformers, and neither (along with the suppression of Tibet) will change other than by internal evolution, as they are China's chief structural supports, something of which the leadership could not be more vividly aware.
Which is not to say that efforts from without to improve rights and conditions are uncalled for, but rather that they are effective only as a very tiny flame to which, when the Chinese themselves are ready, they will touch their own torch of liberty. This tiny flame should not be drowned in the torrents of realpolitik. Neither should it dominate the agenda, public and private, as it has because American foreign policy in the past 16 years has been, in a word, incoherent, with the resultant vacuousness easy to fill with whatever enjoys the greatest power of publicity.
Were American foreign policy even slightly less oblivious, it would refocus its prime attentions away from reactive consideration of Tibet, Taiwan, tariffs, and Treasuries, and upon the two essential challenges that underlie each of these issues, and that we have failed to meet even though they play to our traditional strengths. The first is economic, the second military. These are inextricably bound together, and if we do not attend to them we may in this century discover in a place above us a nation recently so impotent that we cannot now convince ourselves to look into the blow it may strike.
The Rise of China
Every day, by measures such as the rate and nature of economic expansion, the character and patriotism of youth, and military and technological development, China grows stronger and the United States becomes relatively weaker. To some, this is of little moment because of China's protestations that in both senses of the word it is a Pacific power. But as the Yuan Dynasty, which stretched from Siberia to the Euphrates and from Moscow to the Arabian Sea; and as China's modern wars in Korea, Vietnam, India, and on the Amur; and its claims in regard to Tibet, Taiwan, the Spratlys, the Paracels, the Senkakus, and regions of India and Siberia show, it has not been and is not pacific by nature and is not the anomaly among nations it claims to be. China is not by nature our enemy. Nor would it have to be to present a problem. American Tories did not flee to Cuba, ally with Great Britain, and establish a government claiming sovereignty over the mainland. Cuba does not share our language or culture, and yet we have managed to invade it twice; once under a Republican, once under a Democrat, as if for good measure. We cannot expect that in regard to Taiwan China will forever be more forbearing than we have been in regard to Cuba, or that, if it is not, it is any more villainous than we are. One cannot place one's trust in the virtues of nations, but rather must be prepared for the amorality of the international system.
Nor can or should one take comfort from the view that China may run off the rails into the kind of strife that André Malraux described in La Condition humaine, a suicidal malfunctioning on a spectacular scale. Thirty years have passed with the almost flawless implementation of the Sixteen-Character Policy, Deng Xiaoping's blueprint for the renaissance of China. Whatever its difficulties, China now has an immense internal market newly unified by modern communications and transportation; a mature and rapidly flowering technology; a large pool of "internal offshore labor" that as long as it enjoys a steady and substantive rise in its standard of living—the compass of the Chinese leadership—should remain relatively content; the wider world, now freely accessible, that will buy anything it can make, and sell it the raw materials to feed its great manufacturing engine; and the advantage that no new "tiger" in Southeast Asia, Africa, or South America competing to unseat it from its mercantilist position has either the cohesion, scale, culture, or discipline with which to supplant it.
How did this happen in so short a time? China's success in amplifying its power is due in part to what may be called "the gift of the Meiji." That is, the transformation of the Japanese slogan fukoku kyohei—rich country, strong arms—into the Sixteen-Character Policy: "Combine the military and the civil; combine peace and war; give priority to military products; let the civil support the military." After humiliation and occupation by the West closely parallel to what also befell China, predominantly agricultural Japan rapidly transformed itself into an industrial state that could successfully wage war with modern arms against Russia, a second-tier European power, and then, not that many decades later, offer a mortal challenge to the world's leading naval power, the United States.
It was able to vault with preternatural speed into the first ranks of the leading nations because it understood the relation of economic growth to military potential. Unlike the United States, which, almost unconsciously, governs itself reactively and predominantly for the short term, China has plotted a long course in which with great deliberation it joins growth to military expansion. Consider the following hypothetical example: In an imaginary country with a population of 100 million and a GNP of $10 billion, even one dollar for defense subtracted from each person's income would equal 1% of his sustenance, or the equivalent of four days in which, because he lives at the margin, he would not eat. But in the same country with a GNP of $100 billion, the government could extract, say, $400 from each person, who would still be living a full six times better than in his recent memory. This vast difference is that between a defense budget of $100 million and a discontented population, and a defense budget of $40 billion and a population richer than it had ever imagined itself. A tenfold increase in GNP has been transformed into a four-hundred-fold increase in defense expenditure—because of a most extraordinary relation that escapes most observers who keep in mind merely two variables rather than three, the third being per capita income, which defines the permitted levels of diversion to military spending without causing social discontent or collapse.
This is theory. In reality, it is necessary to take into account population growth, inflation, and the need to attend to the expanding appetites of a people new to prosperity. But the relation is still extraordinarily potent. In 1950, Egypt's GNP was 4.5 times Israel's. In 2006, because of its high rate of growth—which from its founding to the eve of the Six-Day War averaged 11% per annum—Israel's was 1.5 times larger than Egypt's, and, more importantly, its per capita GNP was 17 times larger, allowing it, with ease, a defense budget almost three times as large as Egypt's.
Although, with an eye to social stability and the speed at which its military can reshape itself and absorb new weaponry, China prudently spends less on defense than it could, it, too, is an example of how a country with restrained population growth and a high rate of economic expansion can over time improve its standard of living dramatically and simultaneously elevate military spending almost beyond belief. Specifically, its average annual growth of roughly 9% over the past 20 years has resulted in a tenfold increase in per capita GNP, and a 21-fold increase in purchasing-power-parity military expenditure. Although inflation lessens the drama of this, it is still phenomenal.
As China rises rapidly from a small base and the United States crawls ahead relative to a large one, eventually the twain shall meet. We have already partially ceded the field to China and a resurgent Russia by contenting ourselves with the fallacy that never again shall we have to fight large, technological militaries; and by making the pathetic bet that, if we do, we can prevail with our extraordinary and rather delicate new weapons in obviously, patently, and painfully insufficient numbers.
For example, the call for the F-22, the world's most capable air dominance aircraft (although it will forfeit that title during the latter part of its museum-bait service life) was reduced over approximately a ten-year period from 648, to 339, to 183. This means that, exclusive of maintenance, training, and test, roughly 125 aircraft will be available to cover the entire world. China, India, and Russia are narrowing the distance between their first-line fighters and ours, even the F-22, and they will build theirs in greater numbers. The same story is repeated without relief throughout our diminished air echelons, shrinking fleets, and ground forces that have been turned from heavy battle to nation-building and counter-insurgency, the work not of an army but of a gendarmerie.
This may be illustrated by the following: in 1989, the U.S. had a wondrous anti-submarine-warfare establishment, and 133 submarines to China's 93. Today, the U.S. has 71 submarines to China's 62, and for almost 20 years has allowed anti-submarine-warfare to wither on the vine. To balance the potential of the largely coastal Chinese submarine fleet, the United States must revive its anti-submarine-warfare capacity by, inter alia, practice in our own territorial waters, as other coasts belong to other nations. But whereas the passion in China is to "let the civil support the military," including building the People's Liberation Army Navy, the passion in this country is to protect sea mammals from sonar, thus successfully blocking coastal anti-submarine-warfare training.
During this period of our neglect, China has moved to freeze the nuclear dimension of our rivalry, via its policy of effective parity, which, after deep American reductions, the creation of sea bastions for Chinese ballistic missile submarines, its building of solid-fueled mobile missiles, and its increase in warhead numbers, will become actual parity. (For greater detail on the nuclear balance, see my "China as a Rising Nuclear Power," CRB, Spring 2007.) The China that has threatened to turn Los Angeles to cinder is arguably more casual about nuclear weapons than are we, and may find parity a stimulus to brinkmanship. Who will blink first, a Barack Obama (who even now blinks like Betty Boop) or a Mao Tse-Tung?
China hasn't the amphibious or aerial lift for a successful invasion of Taiwan, but its shipyards, which produced 220,000 tons of shipping in 1980 and 13 million tons in 2006 (with 20 million projected for 2010), and its fast-growing aircraft industries, could, if directed, make this a moot point in a very short time. The purpose of the almost 1,000 intermediate- and short-range missiles arrayed opposite Taiwan, in conjunction with the future emplacement of the Russian SA-20 120-mile range air defense system, is to deny the U.S. a clear sky and expeditionary airfields, and, with real-time-terminal guidance from space, cleanse the adjacent waters of American warships. To counter this, the United States can—and, with the recent downing of a "menacing" American satellite in decaying orbit, threatens to—deploy the naval anti-satellite capacity with which, to date, and presumably out of sheer politeness, we have only flirted. Not that we will have to or should necessarily defend Taiwan, which is a separate question. We certainly should, however, be able to do so, as a matter of deterrence, flexibility, and reserve strength.
China has designed its David-like asymmetrically planned forces to elide into a Goliath-like full-spectrum military capable of major operations and remote power projection. And it has in full and rising measure what the 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldun called asabiya, the will, spirit, and momentum of a people in ascension. Of all its potential advantages perhaps the most powerful is that in geopolitical terms it thinks lucidly and ambitiously, whereas its chief rival, the United States, has ceased to think geopolitically at all almost as a requirement of faith.
In Africa and South America, China is building networks of informal alliances that in combination with an efflorescent Chinese power may result in the kind of high strategic leverage to which most Americans are deaf unless they are protesting our exercise of it. Most wars are silent, seemingly uneventful, and chiefly of maneuver, but at their end the losers are still dominated, dispirited, and subject to diktat.
Our object is not to regain the power we and the Europeans had over China in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but, now that things are in flux, to keep China from attaining a similar power over us. This necessitates keeping the correlation of forces in our favor, not to dominate but for the sake of stability in maintaining a consistent position and lest the rapid evening encourage China to push past us and beyond. To the protest that it is too early to be concerned, the fitting answer is that if anything it is too late.
Restoring the Balance
What, then, can we do, we who look back at the once typical American generation of the Second World War and, as great as it was, call it that only because we ourselves are so diminished? We can, in fact, compete with China; we can deter it from a range of military options; and we can maintain at least a balance of power if not a correlation of forces favorable to us. The default military position of the Democrats is for the country to be violently impotent, but to hint without a tittle of specificity that somehow and somewhere deep within their velvet is an iron fist. For the Republicans it is more or less the opposite: i.e., present weakly the iron fist and hint strongly that after growth in office it will velvetize. Economically, each party is so fearful of setbacks that it courts them. Neither dares speak of the inevitable blood, sweat, toil, and tears to which no nation is forever immune. The comfortable present will become uncomfortable one way or another. We can either run from the difficulties, magnifying them dishonorably, or face and demystify them.
In the past we have been able to outwit both more advanced industrial economies and those floating upon seas of cheap labor—by innovating and automating. Restriction of trade or waiting for equalization of labor costs will only impoverish us as we fail to compete in world markets. Until China's labor costs equal ours, the only way to compete with its manufactures is intensely to mechanize our own. The problem is cheap labor. The solution, therefore, is automation. In the '70s we laid this challenge aside and have since forgotten it. Whereas the structure of China's population, economy, and industry does not encourage mechanization, ours cries out for it. But instead of continuing to automate our production, which digitalization clearly makes possible, we have turned to entertainment. As we complain of industry moving offshore, we have put our culture in an electronic stupor—an anesthetic with which both to ensure and grow numb to defeat. But our understanding of information processing, sensing and measuring devices, artificial intelligence, nanotechnics, and materials science makes the automation of production a frontier we are exquisitely equipped to conquer. The pertinent question is not where is the outrage that we have not, but where is even the dim consciousness that we can and should? Who speaks of this in the presidential campaign? The candidates prefer, rather, though the answer is readily at hand, to whine and console.
Nor is there any great mystery in regard to the military dimension. We can and must readopt a clear view of deterrence, the balance of power, the military balance, the detailed orders of battle, and, if war is unavoidable, how to frame attainable war aims. Contemporary statesmen such as they are cannot even define these terms, much less apply them, and yet each is crucial for any nation that wants to keep its head above water. The assertion that weapons make war and we are the font of both has been argued almost to the point of general acceptance, and then easily coupled with reluctance to part with the peace dividend. But a military imbalance, especially in how it trends, has always created the vacuums of power that, perceived as opportunities, stimulate nations to aggressive actions. In slackening today, we are inviting war in the future—not as the result of evil intent or a malevolent or greedy plan, but from a circumstantial clash of the legitimate interests of nations insufficiently wary of one another's powers as balances shift and deterrents fade. This is now the dynamic with China. As our military is frustrated and worn down by a little war against a small enemy made terrible by the potential of weapons of mass destruction, the shift in the Pacific goes unaddressed as if it is unaddressable. But it is eminently addressable.
In comparison with its recent history, American military effort has of late been exceptionally restrained. Were we to allot the average of 5.7% of GNP that we devoted annually to defense in the peacetime years of 1940-2000, we would have as a matter of course $800 billion each year (twice as much as we now spend other than in direct war costs) with which to develop and sustain our forces. During the Second World War, we spent up to 40% of GNP on defense, and yet the economy expanded in real terms and we did not live like paupers. Now, when we are supposedly at war, and are spending approximately a tenth of that, what do we expect immediately and in the long term if not defeat by one name or another? The irony is that the very mechanism by means of which China is mounting its challenge—growth that elevates per capita income and provides higher and higher discretionary margins—has been ours for so long that we have forgotten it. It is what made us the arsenal of democracy during World War II, and the discretionary margins are now so much greater that even at rest our potential dwarfs what it was then.
Other advantages are also ours to lose. The oceans have been our battlefields since the beginning; we invented powered flight; and our automobiles still await us on the surface of the moon. Our métiers are the sea, air, and space, and thus we have been blessed by geography, for with the exception of South Korea our allies in the Pacific are islands. With Japan, Australasia, our own island territories, and Admiral Nimitz's ocean, we can match and exceed indefinitely any development of Chinese strategical power—which, by definition, must take to the sea and air.
And there we will be, if we are wise, not with 280 ships but a thousand, and not the contemptible 1,000-ship navy counting all the navies of the West (including Denmark's), but American warships. Not with eleven carriers, or nine, but 40. Not with 183 F-22s, but a thousand, and so on. That is, the levels of military potential that the traditional peacetimeexpenditures of GNP have provided, without strain, throughout most of our lives. As opposed to war with a rising power emboldened by our weakness and retirement, this would be infinitely cheaper.
It would of necessity have to be coupled with well-tended alliances, a tranquil and statesmanly understanding of deterrence, and, should deterrence fail, with reasonable, sustainable, non-messianic war aims premised not on a vision of what the world should be (leave that to Marxists and the clergy) but on defending the interests and existence of the United States and its allies—interests that are not perpetually guaranteed as if by some magic, and existence that cannot be taken for granted.
With intelligent direction and undeflectable resolve, we can have a stable peace in the Pacific and elsewhere. In their absence, we shall suffer either slow and ignominious defeat without war, or war with a tortuous unfolding and an uncertain end, and, of course, millions of broken hearts—like the war we are fighting now, because we did not heed these lessons in time.
And yet what candidate is alert to this? Who asserts that our sinews are still intact? That we can meet any challenge with our great and traditional strengths? That beneath a roiled surface is a power almost limitless yet fair, supple yet restrained? Who will speak of such things in time, and who will dare to awaken them?
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For Correspondence on this essay, click here.