A Chinese Military Superpower?

por John J. Tkacik Jr., 16 de marzo de 2007

(Published in The Heritage Foundation, March 8, 2007)

On March 4, China’s National Peo-ple’s Congress announced that it would increase the country’s mili-tary budget 17.8 percent in 2007 to a total of $45 billion.[1] Despite the fact that this was the biggest single annual increase in China’s military spending,[2] the Chinese govern-ment reassured the world that this spending hike was normal and need not worry anyone. 'China is com-mitted to taking a path of peaceful development and it pursues a de-fensive military posture,' a spokes-man said.[3] But the evidence sug-gests instead that China’s intent is to challenge the United States as a mi-litary superpower.

A closer look at China’s military spending raises profound questions about China’s geopolitical direction. In terms of purchasing power parity (PPP), China’s effective military spending is far greater than $45 bil-lion, or even the U.S. Department of Defense’s $105 billion estimate.[4] In fact, it is in the $450 billion range, putting it in the same league as the United States and far ahead of any other country, including Russia.[5] This figure reflects the reality that a billion dollars can buy a lot more 'bang' in China than in the United States.

Within a decade, perhaps much sooner, China will be America’s on-ly global competitor for military and strategic influence. Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell told the Senate on Feb-ruary 27 that the Chinese are 'build-ing their military, in my view, to reach some state of parity with the United States,' adding that 'they’re a threat today, they would become an increasing threat over time.'[6] Nor is this a revelation to Washing-ton policy-makers. McConnell’s predecessor John Negroponte testi-fied to the Senate Intelligence Committee in February 2006 that 'China is a rapidly rising power with steadily expanding global reach that may become a peer com-petitor to the United States at some point.'[7] In June 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice observed that the U.S. must help integrate China into the international, rules-based economy before it becomes a 'military superpower.'[8] Rice, with a doctorate in Soviet studies and years of experience in the White House during the last days of the Cold War, would not use the term 'superpower' lightly.

It remains to be seen whether Chi-na’s now massive stake in the global economy will result in Beijing be-coming a responsible stakeholder in global affairs, but Beijing seems poi-sed for true global status as a 'mili-tary superpower.' The latest figures from the econometricians at the Central Intelligence Agency—whose data come from the World Bank—peg China’s 2006 GDP, adjusted for purchasing power parity, at $10 tril-lion, with a nominal exchange-rate value of $2.5 trillion.[9]

Despite the Chinese Communist Party leadership’s espousal of China’s 'peaceful rise,' the unprece-dented peacetime expansion of China’s military capabilities betrays a clear intent to challenge the United States in the Western Pacific and establish itself as the region’s pre-dominant military power. With China’s massive GDP and military spending at an estimated 4.5 percent of GDP, the resources that Beijing now devotes to its armed forces surely make it a top global power.[10] The exact methodology that U.S. intelligence agencies use to arrive at this estimate is classified, but it reportedly takes into account the fact that China’s budget figures do not include foreign arms pur-chases, subsidies to military indus-tries, any of China’s space program (which is under the command of the Central Military Commission), or the costs of the 660,000 strong 'Peo-ple’s Armed Police.'[11] It appears that some defense spending sectors that are not counted in the defense budget have increased much faster than the budget itself.[12]

At a time when The Heritage Foun-dation is encouraging sustained U.S. defense spending of 4 percent of GDP in an initiative called 'Four Percent for Freedom,'[13] China’s military budget could be called 'Four-and-a-Half Percent Against Freedom' due to its involvement in countries like Burma, Sudan, Zim-babwe, North Korea, Uzbekistan, and Iran, not to mention its actions against freedom in Taiwan and, of course, in China itself.

U.S. intelligence agencies can plainly see where the money is go-ing. China is assembling a blue-water navy, with a submarine fleet of 29 modern boats, including 13 super-quiet Russian-made Kilo class subs and 14 Chinese-made Song and Yuan class diesel electric subma-rines that are reportedly improved versions of the Kilos. At least 10 mo-re of these submarines are in China’s shipyards, together with five new nuclear ballistic missile and attack boats.[14] China’s surface fleet is also undergoing a similar moderni-zation.[15]

China’s power in the air and in spa-ce is also on the rise. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force has about 300 Russian-designed fourth-generation Sukhoi-27 Flank-ers and a number of Chinese-built Jian-11 planes and 76 Sukhoi-30 multi-role jets. With Russian and Israeli assistance, the PLA Air Force has acquired an additional 50 or so Jian-10 fighters based on U.S. F-16 technology and reportedly plans to build 250 more.[16] China’s rocket forces are also expanding at an un-precedented pace, with production and deployment of short-range bal-listic missiles targeted at Taiwan increasing from 50 per year during the 1990s to between 100 and 150 per year today.[17] Presumably, output from Chinese ICBM factories is expanding at a similar pace. Most recently, China’s January 12 test of highly sophisticated direct-ascent 'kinetic kill vehicle' (KKV) technol-ogy, coupled with attempts to blind or laser-illuminate a U.S. reconnais-sance satellite in 2006, are convinc-ing evidence of the PLA’s intention to neutralize the United States’ mili-tary assets in space in any conflict.

Indeed, China’s 2006 'White Paper' on national defense describes a China that is moving onto the offen-sive:

The Army aims at moving from re-gional defense to trans-regional mobil-ity, and improving its capabilities in air-ground integrated operations, long-distance maneuvers, rapid as-saults and special operations. The Navy aims at gradual extension of the strategic depth for offshore de-fensive operations and enhancing its capabilities in integrated maritime operations and nuclear counterat-tacks. The Air Force aims at speed-ing up its transition from territorial air defense to both offensive and de-fensive operations, and increasing its capabilities in the areas of air strike, air and missile defense, early warning and reconnaissance, and strategic projection. The Second Artil-lery Force aims at progressively im-proving its force structure of having both nuclear and conventional mis-siles, and raising its capabilities in strategic deterrence and conven-tional strike under conditions of in-formationization.[18]

The ultimate question must be whether Beijing’s leaders have any purpose in assembling a military machine worthy of a superpower other than to have the strength to challenge the United States’ strategic position in Asia. It is time to take China’s military expansion seri-ously.

John J. Tkacik Jr., a retired State Department officer who served in Taipei, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou, is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.


[1] See Edward Cody, 'China Boosts Military Spending; Senior U.S. Official Presses Beijing to Clarify ‘Plans and Intentions,’' The Washington Post, March 5, 2007, p. A12, at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/04/AR2007030400401.html.
[2]This was the biggest increase in yuan terms and the biggest annual percentage in-crease in dollar terms. The biggest previous yuan-denominated increases were 20.3 per-cent in 1994 and 18 percent in 2001.
[3] Jim Yardley and David Lague, 'Beijing Accelerates Its Military Spending,' The New York Times,
March 5, 2007, p. A-8, at www.nytimes.com/2007/03/05/world/asia/05military.html.
[4] Office of the Secretary of Defense, 'The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,' May 23, 2006, p. 20, at www.defenselink.mil/pubs/pdfs/China%20Report%202006.pdf.
[5] Russia plans to spend 4.939 trillion rubles (about $185 billion) by 2015. See Oleg Vladykin, 'Russia’s Defense Spending Gradually Taking Off,' The Moscow News, January 21, 2006, at english.mn.ru/english/issue.php?2006-21-1.
[6] Bill Gertz, 'China expands sub fleet,' The Washington Times, March 2, 2007, p. A-1, at www.washingtontimes.com/national/20070302-012440-4462r.htm.
[7] John D. Negroponte, 'Annual Threat Assessment of the Director of National Intel-ligence for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,' February 2, 2006, at intelligence.senate.gov/060202/negroponte.pdf.
[8] Neil King, Jr., 'Rice Wants U.S. To Help China Be Positive Force,' The Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2005, Page A-13, at online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB112001578322872628,00.html.
[9] For World Bank figures, see World Bank, 'World Development Indicators 2006 (2004 data),' at devdata.worldbank.org/wdi2006/contents/Table1_1.htm.
[10] See Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook 2006 (Washington, D.C.: CIA, 2006), at www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/ch.html. The CIA defines 'a nation’s GDP at purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates [as] the sum value of all goods and services produced in the country valued at prices prevailing in the United States.' The CIA’s estimate that 4.5 percent of China’s GDP is devoted to the military suggests a PPP figure of $450 billion for China’s 2006 military budget. Add onto this 2007’s 17.8 percent increase, offset somewhat by a 10 percent GDP increase, and a 5 percent U.S. dollar-RMB Yuan exchange rate increase.
[11] See, e.g., Mark Magnier, 'China announces military budget hike' The Los Angeles Times, March 5, 2007, p. A-01.
[12] See Information Office of the State Council, People’s Republic of China, 'China’s National Defense in 2006,' White Paper, December 29, 2006, at www.fas.org/nuke/guide/china/doctrine/wp2006.html. For example, 'In 2005, the out-put value, added value and gross revenue of the entire spectrum of defense-related sci-ence, technology and industry increased by 24.3 percent, 20.7 percent and 21.6 percent, respectively, over the previous year.'
[13] See Baker Spring, 'Defense FY 2008 Budget Analysis: Four Percent for Freedom,' Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2012, March 5, 2007, at www.heritage.org/Research/Budget/bg2012.cfm.
[14] Bill Gertz, 'China expands sub fleet,' The Washington Times, March 2, 2007, p. A-01, at www.washingtontimes.com/national/20070302-012440-4462r.htm, and Vivek Raghuvanshi, 'Leased Akulas Advance India’s Blue-Water Plans,' DefenseNews, March 5, 2007, p. 12.
[15] For a comprehensive survey of China’s naval buildup, see Ronald O’Rourke, 'Chi-na Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for
Congress,' CRS Report to Congress, Congressional Research Service, June 2, 2006.
[16] Benjamin Kang Lim, 'China unveils indigenous fighter jet,' Reuters, January 6, 2007.
[17] SRBMs were deployed against Taiwan at a pace of 50 per year between 1996 and 2002. Bill Gertz, 'Missiles Bolstered Opposite Taiwan,' The Washington Times, April 29, 2002, p. A12. By the end of 2006, new SRBM deployments had reached a rate of at least 100 per year. The Pentagon estimates that deployments of M-9 and M-11 missiles increased from 500 to 690 in the Taiwan Strait theater between 2003 and 2004. See Office of the Secretary of Defense, 'The Military Power of the People’s Republic of Chi-na,' May 23, 2006, p.3, at www.defenselink.mil/pubs/pdfs/China%20Report%202006.pdf. Previous reports are available at http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/china.html.
[18] Information Office of the State Council, People’s Republic of China, 'China’s Na-tional Defense in 2006' (emphasis added).