Tuesday, December 22, 2009

China to Rule the World Anytime Soon? Not.

China's extraordinary development since the late Deng Xiao Ping declared the "Open Policy," as it's called in Chinese (better known in English as the "Open Door Policy") has led a great many people to assume (or fear, in some instances) that China will be a major global military power in the next one to two decades and that it will increasingly flex its muscle on a global scale.

These predictions are based, in part, on the fact that China's economic development has bordered on the unbelievable-if-you-didn't-see-it.

The apples and oranges model is useful here. Though those two fruits are distinct fruits, they both are, after all, fruits. Similarly, a strong military requires buckets of money, money that won't be there unless the economy is strong.

But a strong economy doesn't mean a strong military is an automatic result. Consider Germany, for example (ignoring the current economic crisis; I'm looking at a longer time stretch). Over the years, Germany has had an essentially strong economy, yet does not have a major military in the global sense.

Consider naval forces. China is building "rapidly," but that's a relative term. For instance, the USS Carl Vinson, has just completed a refitting -- it was already built. And just to get it refitted took four years. Building a modern aircraft carrier takes much longer than that.

Even if they could snap their fingers and have a complete fleet identical to that the U.S. has, they still wouldn't be able to project globally anytime soon. Why? Because of the human factor. It takes many years to develop qualified, experienced personnel, which in terms of projecting globally, or even just in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean, they have little of. Yes, they're participating in anti-piracy patrols off Somalia, but that's about as far as they've projected so far.

Another factor is their nuclear capability. China famously hides its military expenditures (but then we have our own black budget), making it impossible to know the precise number of nuclear weapons they possess, but the numerous expert sources I've read say they have somewhere around 200 operational warheads. In contrast, the U.S. and Russia have somewhere in the range of 20,000 nuclear weapons, counting tactical and stockpiled ones. That's 100 times as many as China has.

Not that 200 weapons is anything to shrug off, especially since some of those are ICBM's with global reach. But it would be suicide for China to launch -- and they're not stupid. Also, just how many of its nuclear weapons are ready to fire is unknown. I remember reading that when the U.S. spy aircraft and a Chinese fighter collided, leading the the Chinese forcing our plane down on Hainan Island, China was estimated to have only about 18 ready-to-launch ICBM's. (I think I read that at Jane's Information Group, the world's leading source of military information such as this. That's an active link to it, by the way.)

My point isn't that China has plenty of economic muscle to flex; it does. But that's simply not the same thing as being able to sail fleets into San Francisco and New York at will.

Some analysts point to the U.S.'s swift ascent in every sphere between 1914 and 1945. True enough -- but that was helped along by those two dustups, WW I and WW II. That buildup was incredibly rapid, but still we're talking about 31 years -- fewer, really, since the U.S. was a late entrant into WW I. If China develops that quickly, we're talking 2040, not 2020, as I've read some claim.

And I flat don't think they can pull it off that fast, not with their huge population and myriad social issues they're going to have to address, whether they like it or not.

Look, I'm not a China-basher; after all, I lived there about eight years (in three hitches, and if you count four years in Macau before Portugal returned the colony back to China -- I do count it, since it's essentially a Chinese city). I could happily live there again in the right circumstances, and very nearly returned there to teach last year.

But these within-a-decade-or-so predictions strike me as fantasy.