U.S. misperceptions about the Chinese military

By Dingli Shen | June 28, 2007

The Pentagon reviews Chinese defense capabilities every year, but that doesn’t mean it draws the proper conclusions.

The United States likes to indulge in curiosity about the modernization of China’s military. On
May 25, the U.S. Defense Department once again made its annual report on China’s military public.
Candidly, I’m usually reluctant to respond, as I’ve been invited to comment on such reports many
times before, and this report doesn’t look much different than previous reports.

It is an examination, if not a trial, by the powerful United States of a less powerful China.
But the report follows a hypocritical logic: Washington thinks that it can initiate wars against
sovereign nations such as Iraq, but that China shouldn’t be allowed to enhance its defensive

The report reads, “Analysis of China’s military acquisitions and strategic thinking suggests
Beijing is also generating capabilities for other regional contingencies, such as conflict over
resources or territory.” The claim implies that China’s security strategy no longer only addresses
Taiwan as a concern.

Given this, I’m motivated to comment. Let’s start with China’s military budget. Washington
doesn’t believe Beijing’s claim of a $45 billion defense budget. The Pentagon report insists that
China’s “actual” spending reaches $90 billion to $110 billion. For comparison’s sake, the Stockholm
International Peace Research Institute puts Beijing’s budget at $49 billion.

The discrepancy arises because the United States and China define military spending differently.
For example, the U.S. defense budget includes the cost for the relocation of demobilized soldiers.
But in China, the government of civil affairs pays for this relocation. Conversely, the cost of
space research is calculated into Chinese military spending, while in the United States, such
research is a NASA expenditure.

Also, the U.S. market economy requires competition–even for weapons development. Usually, there
are at least two bidders for a big military research and development project, meaning the
government has to allocate more resources to support them. But China can’t afford that approach. In
China, the government usually appoints one unit to carry out military research and development. In
the United States, it’s impossible to believe that a country can spend so little while attaining so

Even if there isn’t a divergence in the definition of military spending, China doesn’t pose a
military threat to the United States because of the huge budget gap between the two countries:
China’s military spending only accounts for 9 percent of the U.S. defense budget–and even less
when taking the expenditure against terrorism into consideration.

The Pentagon report also says, “The expanding military capabilities of China’s armed forces are
a major factor in changing East Asian military balances; improvements in China’s strategic
capabilities have ramifications far beyond the Asia Pacific region.”

There isn’t a problem with this comment if it’s placed in an objective context. But the United
States projects a clear attitude that it will not tolerate a China with a worldwide defense
capability, long-range missiles, and a strong navy.

One can understand the U.S. concern, but all countries possess the right to develop their own
defense systems under international law–on the basis that they don’t harm other countries. China
won’t interfere with U.S. efforts to enhance its already powerful military forces. But the United
States can’t then harm Chinese interests by selling weapons to Taiwan.

China might be interested in developing a navy and owning an aircraft carrier or two. This
certainly would strengthen its effort for denying Taiwanese independence. Is there anything wrong
with it? Plus, if another tsunami occurs, a big naval vessel can help provide emergency aid.

China should build its military capability until its competitors realize the loss will outweigh
the gain if they interfere militarily. When China’s military capability is adequate enough to deter
an attack, Washington will cease producing such reports.

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