China: No longer 'rising'

October 8, 2009
Washington Times

Beijing's 60th National Day celebrations last week featured a "Springtime for Mao" battalion of high-stepping, 5-foot-11 female army recruits decked out in hot magenta miniskirts, white boots and petite submachine guns.

But that did not necessarily mean the event's organizers had a Mel Brooks sense of humor. The rest of the People's Liberation Army parade, in ironic procession down Beijing's Avenue of Eternal Peace, featured a solemn march of advanced military equipment - 52 brand-new weapons systems ranging from airborne combat vehicles to colossal intercontinental ballistic missiles on mobile launchers - that flowed for two hours amid myriad serried, well-armed, perfectly synchronized, grim-visaged Chinese warriors.

Gen. Liang Guanglie, China's defense minister, last week reported that the 2.3-million-man PLA forces of satellites, fighter aircraft, tanks, cannons, missiles, naval vessels and submarines are now at technology levels that "have reached, or come close to, the world-leading standards."

Gen. Liang was stating a fact that the CIA has known for some time: China is spending massively on its military. The CIA estimates China's military spending at 4.3 percent of China's $4.4 trillion economy - about $190 billion in 2008; a more realistic look would take into account that the Chinese military gets at least twice as much for its money as the Pentagon does. China's real-value-added manufacturing, the second largest in the world, is already 60 percent to 70 percent of U.S. output. (China's motor vehicle market surpassed the U.S. market for the first time in August.) According to IHS/Global Insight, China will become the world's leading industrial power in five years - probably sooner. Last month, China reported a 12.3 percent increase in industrial output over 2008 levels, while U.S. numbers shrank.

It is a sobering thought, then, that China's industrial base supporting its military modernization might actually be more robust than America's in a few years. It is already a top world shipbuilder, electronics producer and chemical manufacturer; it produces more than half the world's steel; and it controls 90 percent of the globe's rare-earth oxides (essential for high-speed data retrieval).

As the newest global military superpower, it is understandable that China acts, as World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick once put it, "as if it can somehow 'lock up' energy supplies around the world." In the current global crisis, China's ideology of state mercantilism explains why it inexorably seeks to aggrandize its control of global mineral resources from Africa to Latin America to Australia and Central Asia - spending its greenbacks as fast as it can on oil fields, iron ore, even Afghan copper mines.

When it doesn't get the iron ore prices it wants from Australian negotiators, it simply arrests them as "industrial spies," as it did in the case of Australia's mining company Rio Tinto, and dares Australia to do anything about it. China's new ideology of state mercantilism has been wildly successful precisely because it flouts international norms.

China's announced military expenditures have grown far faster than its gross domestic product since 1999 - 15 percent to 19 percent annually - and military research and development spending growth is even greater. Gen. Liang flatly asserted that the PLA requires these "leaping upgrades" in military technologies to "effectively safeguard the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Of course, this terrifies Japan and India, whose real defense spending is nowhere near China's. China claims an entire Indian state, Arunachal Pradesh (the size of Taiwan), as China's "sacred territory," and India reports dozens of Chinese border incursions every month.

China claims Japan's Senkaku Islands and a quarter-million square miles of Japan's energy-rich continental shelf. China's Southeast Asian neighbors worry about Beijing's claims on all their islands in the South China Sea. Beijing now targets Taiwan with 1,500 ballistic missiles, a threat that has helped convince Taiwan that it is too enmeshed in China's economy to wriggle out of eventual unification. Mongolians joke that massive Chinese construction investment in Ulan Bator is intended to give their soldiers a place to stay "after the invasion." One needs a sense of humor when one is China's neighbor.

No sense of humor was evident 20 years ago in Beijing's Tiananmen Square when the "people's army" shot up a goodly number of "the people" who had a different vision of China's future than the Chinese Communist Party. Since then, Deng Xiaoping redefined the Communist Party's vision of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" as "anything that increases the comprehensive strength of the nation." The party's legitimacy, therefore, rests on the "strength of the nation" - more nationalism than socialism.

Outside China, many think China will mellow in its own way and in its own time. Believers point to a growing "middle class" that will demand peace and stability from the regime and will restrain state power. But that is not likely to happen.

Last winter, a few thousand Chinese intellectuals were prompted by a slight thaw in the ideological climate to sign the "Charter 08" manifesto, suggesting that "the military be made answerable to the national government, not to a political party, and ... should swear allegiance to the constitution and remain nonpartisan."

In response, the Army's top ideologue warned the military to "resist resolutely 'de-partyizing or de-politicizing the military,' or 'nationalizing the military' and other mistaken thoughts and influences." Charter 08's chief author was arrested, others lost their jobs, hundreds were threatened, and all are on the Ministry of State Security's watch list.

Unsurprisingly, few members of China's "middle class" are interested in challenging the Communist Party - much less the party's control of the PLA. And why should they complain? The PLA women's militia stages such entertaining "kick-turn, kick-turn" revues on Eternal Peace Avenue.

The rest of the world is bemused that Chinese leaders still insist theirs is a "developing" country in need of trade preferences and indulgence on climate change burdens. Last week's military show may signal that Beijing's communist leaders are ready to acknowledge that China is now a "risen" global superpower.

John J. Tkacik, a retired Foreign Service officer, was chief of China analysis in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research during the Clinton administration.



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