Every time I get to talking with one of the Chinese governmental types (which isn’t often, and not military types) I mention to them the Bill Gertz versus Tom Barnett theories of Chinese military buildup.
I mention that GDP spending is unknown for Chinese military but a guess from anywhere around greater than, say, six percent feels about right. (Thumbrule: 3-5%GDP : sustaining size; 5%+ : building up; 3%- : drawing down; spending ~1% : becoming militarily irrelevant. Hard to calculate in a closed society with weird GDP calculations.) Naval deployments are being made further out. Arms sales are being made in more places. More aggressive statements are being made by officials. New types of ships are coming out, more capabilities, and it’s cheaper and easier to copy someone’s tech to catch up than it is to develop that tech in the first place. Lots of complementary moves globally in sync with the military ops. (One link here, but I cannot tell whether it is accurate or not.)
Back to my discussion. I mention some folks on the US side are worried. We see the global trends and the resource trends and some of us remember that China wasn’t always the same size it is now. That’s not even considering the current regime’s recent acquisitions, like Tibet. Some Americans I have met have very little trust in the Chinese government, although some have made their living working there.
The question then becomes: Why should we believe your words, China government person, when your government’s actions don’t appear to match, and when your own people can’t reasonably believe you?
See, we don’t quite freak out like this on other countries on the ascendant. Japan’s 1980 boom resulted in lots of alarmist books and such but things worked out okay–and we were military allies, so no big deal. France, with whom we have often squabbled, has nuclear weapons on ballistic missile submarines and we don’t freak out about those on a constant basis. Other countries have growing capabilties and we’re not as forceful about being worried as we do with China. One reason we are calmer is something I mentioned before–after some time having those weapons and learning about diplomatic effects of nuclear-capable statements, a country’s language and action get a little different. The other reason is that we know that within a range of believeability, that we can pretty much trust France to do what it says it will do.
You heard me. I said France. We argue and there is a wide difference in positions and attitudes but we’ve managed to figure some of this compatibility thing out. We know where not to trust them; they know where not to trust us, pretty much.
Unfortunately, this trust is hard to build from where we are today. Our American national attitudes toward the Chinese administration is more informed by what the Chinese administration is doing to its own people, the people they supposedly are serving. It’s happening in public health where SARS managed to kill a whole lot more people because of dictatorial suppression of information and denial that bad things might happen. It’s happening today, when a vast environmental disaster is badly covered up–you kill your own people and lose your own assets and don’t learn from it. Look at the Japanese and Minamata–they learned and got better at their environmental practices nationally. Do they have a Clean Air Act? I don’t think so. Are they better off than China environmentally, and not just because their society is aging? I would say clearly yes. This failure to rapidly seize upon failure, publicize it, and correct it will hurt you. One way it hurts you is that when we see these botched coverups (which are easier to see outside of China than in China), we lose our trust in what you’re saying to us.
I’m not merely asking this question out of some uppity moral position. There are three ways this should bother you, the Chinese government person.
- So far, open and free societies beat the other ones in efficiency and production, even when the unfree country can quickly catch up to the free society by stealing or leveraging the cost of being the first one to pay for the R&D. This happens partially because even a person growing away from centrally managed economies in the terms of “to grow rich is glorious” cannot perform as well overall with those restrictions on freedom. Japan and Singapore and Korea have had to move away from their more restrictive societies, not because those wily Americans were mean and made them do so, but because it works better. Hayek works. Your dissidents come here and do pretty well–you’re losing some useful people to your society that way.
- It takes much more effort to suppress dissent than it does to co-opt it. Our weirdoes are noisy, and they sometimes become millionaires–but the market works on them as well and bad ideas don’t tend to win. The extra effort to crush people you don’t like saps your own progress.
- We, the big loud arrogant Americans, have a chaotic foreign policy. You can win being more slow than us–for instance, how Taiwan got tossed out of the UN, a slow effort that achieved a Chinese goal–but your effort has to be done sensitively. If you come up against the Jacksonian tradition you invite some serious damage that you’d rather avoid. The military moves China has been making could be slipped under the American attention radar, but weren’t–and China has not been as subtle a player in this arena as it could have been. Bottom line: Scare us and we get itchy. You’ve just recently begun to realize the problems inherent in stoking nationalism to keep the fervor going–stoking ours isn’t too helpful either in times of crisis.
As a military man I look at capabilities and weapons systems. I have a harder time looking at economic links and personal ties and which Taiwanese moguls live in Shanghai because that takes a different skill set from the standard issue military skill set. If one looks at apparent spending on building new capabilities that match expanded reach, at moves using that military consistent with not just assertive statement of interests but also placing markers that appear consistent with expansionist moves, and discussions and actions from officials that match not just a China ascendant but a China aggressive militarily, then one can conclude that there is something that one must counter. Which means that we’ll spend more with you in mind and place more time thinking about China as moving away from co-existence to threatening our existence, never mind moving from co-existence to co-operation to trustworthy allies.
I’ve played the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, and right now I see China forcing both of us into the “uncooperative” decisions.
There are other ways to succeed.
Without benzene in your water.
This feeling of being on the horns of a dilemma is, I think, the reason that Secretary Rumsfeld went to China last month and gave a speech at the Academy of Military Sciences in Beijing. This speech is worth study because of its focus: Rumsfeld here is talking directly to the young guys. He’s doing a single point version of what Barnett crows about doing continuously: getting his point across to the people young enough to more easily consider a new concept. And perhaps not coincidentally Rumsfeld’s putting across the same message I’ve been putting across.
The United States welcomes the emergence of a peaceful and prosperous China that is a responsible partner in the international system. We value our countriesâ€™ relationship, recognize the challenges, and believe that success in our relationship will require both cooperation and candor.
One area where more information would be helpful would be on Chinaâ€™s military. For example, China appears to be expanding its missile forces, enabling them to reach many areas of the world, beyond the Pacific region.
Such improvements in Chinaâ€™s strategic strike capability give cause for concern, particularly when we have an incomplete understanding of such developments.
Many countries with interests in the region are asking questions about Chinaâ€™s intentions.
Clearly, it is for the Chinese government to decide on its plans and programs and to also decide the extent to which it wishes to provide clarity about its intentions. But it is also true that clarity would generate greater certainty in the region.
To the extent that defense expenditures are considerably higher than what is published, neighbors understandably wonder what the reason might be for the disparity between reality and public statements.
The second half of this speech talks about how modernization is of course good, and how America’s doing this too, but the transparency is the thing.
(It is perhaps instructive to compare Rumsfeld’s speech against that of his predecessor Cohen. Cohen’s 1998 speech sounds a bit like a guy in a tie going all Keanu: “Whoa.” By 2005 we’ve learned enough in the building to be able to clarify what we need to say.)