China’s Military – The Real Thing or A Potemkin Village

As far back as 1279 AD, under the rule of Khubila Khan, the Chinese have been conquered and ruled by foreign powers. China’s early experience with foreign governments left a bad taste of economic colonialism in its mouth. Autonomous regions and concessions, which carved up China’s sovereignty, led to forced trade and an opium war. Territory was lost and the national treasury depleted to indemnify the victors for war reparations. China, historically, has been harried by foreign powers-exposing its industrial weakness and national vulnerability. Where self-importance once reigned, doubt and a national inferiority complex permeate the Chinese consciousness.

Today, while maintaining the largest standing army of approximately 2.3 million soldiers (contrast with America’s 1.4 million) and a comparatively credible nuclear arsenal, China has taken another “Great Leap Forward” in the modernization of its security forces to counteract this national psychosis.

There are two schools of thought as it concerns China’s regional and global intentions. The first suggests that China has no hegemonic interest-that she has never ventured, for conquest, outside her borders and any interest she might communicate in this arena are for regional stability and noninterference, and to impugn China in any other fashion or to paint China as a regional/global menace-is to make her a regional/global menace. “… [B]elligerent policies risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy-treat China as an enemy and it will be one.” (Ross 33)

The second suggests that China has always had revenge in mind, for historic indignities, and an evil/godless resolve to eventually dominate the world. Every shift she makes in policy, strategic or economic, must be viewed with this intent in mind. “… [C]hina’s willingness, even eagerness, to improve the Sino-American mood represents a tactical gesture rather than a strategic one… Beijing has tempered its confrontational rhetoric and retreated from some of the actions that most annoyed Washington… ‘For a relatively long time it will be absolutely necessary that we quietly nurse our sense of vengeance,’ General Mi Zhenyu, Vice Commander, Academy of Military Sciences in Beijing wrote. ‘We must conceal our abilities and bide our time.'” (Bernstein/Munro 20)

To further this objective, China has made every attempt to acquire technological advantages the United States might offer into its military portfolio. To this aim, accusations of espionage, dubious, if not illegal, Chinese campaign contributions, and a fifth column at the White House reverberate throughout the conservative political spectrum. Waving this bloody shirt of political corruption the opposition party has conjured images of a Manchurian Candidate with the inscrutable Chinese as the queen-of-diamond protagonist.

Against this backdrop the questions are manifold and the assessment difficult as to the military course China has plotted. Towards which two objectives has her ship of state’s compass been boxed? Is China’s military buildup warranted as a regional power or does she have global ambitions? Is China’s military capability commensurate with her strategic interests and does it represent a threat or legitimate growth? A definitive answer to these questions would require the deftness of Houdini and the clairvoyance of Kreskin; however, a culling of the two positions might ferret out suppositions that could lead to reasonable conclusions.

Position one hypothesizes that China, for centuries, has remained within its borders, and has never posed a threat to any of her neighbors. The Great Wall, built to prevent the Mongol hordes from entering China, exemplifies her defensive posture. Moreover, China has historically shunned contact with the outside world, neither desiring nor seeking trade or the capacity for exploration on the high seas. China’s egocentric thinking can be underscored by her name-the Middle Kingdom. Where all roads once led to Rome, China simply believed itself to be the center of the world with no need to venture out from its shores.

Ironically, because China enjoyed her isolationist position with no penchant for empire expansion, she unwittingly opened herself to foreign devils looking to expand their global tentacles. The opium war of the 1840s was such an example. The British, suffering from a trade imbalance due to their insatiable appetite for Chinese tea (through their East Indian holding company), sought to traffic in opium with the intent of creating such a demand by addicting enough people to a substance that could be easily manufactured for trade; thereby, reversing a disastrous trend of trade deficit to a trade surplus. When China interdicted this drug trafficking of British opium, her inferior junks were no match for the superior steam-propelled British frigates resulting in the defeat of China’s fledgling fleet. As punishment, the Chinese were compelled to indemnify the British, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, and transfer possession and control of Hong Kong to England.

In 1860, further humiliating land losses were forced upon China with the loss of the Kowloon peninsula (to the British) and the territories north of the Amur River and east of the Ussuri (to the Russians). China’s weakness to defend her territory was further exposed by the Japanese in 1895 when the two countries clashed on the Korean peninsula. The resulting defeat shrunk China’s territory even more-from the loss of Taiwan, the Pescadore islands, and the New Territories. All this territory was lost on the imploding Qing Dynasty watch of 1644 to 1911.

Smarting from these historic indignities, China has sought to match the military strength of her would be conquerors. Position one promotes China’s military buildup/modernization program as defensive and reasonable while presenting no regional/global threat-especially in the context of past humiliations. This is borne out by China’s inferior weaponry both quantitatively and qualitatively.

“Various experts estimate the Chinese are spending somewhere between $24 billion and $87 billion a year on their military (depending on the complicated ways this can be calculated). But, if we use one of the more plausible figures of $36 billion, that means China spends less on its military than does Japan-constitutionally a pacifist state, forbidden to maintain offensive armed forces.” (Burnstein and Keijzer 2) And whether China can pass the quality control giggle test is uncertain. Is China’s military cash outlay getting the most bang for its buck? “When China in 1996 conducted missile tests into the Taiwan Strait in a transparent effort to intimidate Taipei. The gravest danger was the munitions’ obsolescence. Robert Ross notes: ‘The missiles were so primitive that they could have veered off course and hit Taiwan.’ China’s most advanced domestically produced fighter, the F8-11, is the equivalent of a late-1960s U.S. warplane, Ross adds, and even this primitive plane has yet to enter fully into production. The Su-27 aircraft China has bartered from Russia are less advanced than what the U.S. sells to Taiwan, and far less advanced than what Japan co-produces with the United States for its defense. Two Kilo-class submarines China purchased from Russia in 1995 were laid up in the harbor two years later with serious problems stemming from poor maintenance… Some believe China is moving to develop an aircraft carrier, but developing and outfitting even a single 1970s vintage aircraft carrier is a decade-long undertaking.” (Burnstein and Keijzer 2)

The above quote suggests China to be far behind in sophisticated weaponry not only as it relates to Japan, Taiwan, and smaller regional nations in general, but also, as it relates to the United States, specifically. China’s inability to match first world military know-how exposes her flank to strategic assaults. What is China’s modern war experience? The twentieth century has presented her with border skirmishes, such as, India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979, where she was for all intents and purposes able to prevail. What modern military strategies did she employ, other than her predictable antiquated human-wave assaults, in these theaters that would concern a first rate world power? And sea power, what credible navy does she have? “The Chinese navy would lose a battle in this region against Singapore, Malaysia, or Indonesia, all of which possess advanced American or Bristish aircraft.” (Ross 37) In what naval battle has she demonstrated her prowess? “China lacks the ability to conduct sustained military operations more than 100 miles from the Chinese shoreline. China is a formidable land power, but in maritime Southeast Asia, where U.S. interests are most at stake, China is militarily inferior even to such countries as Singapore and Malaysia.

Fast forward to the 21st Century reveals that China has made vast technological strides in its so-called inferior military. She also has a burgeoning space program with the not so subtle name and message for its booster rockets–the Long March, which symbolizes an historical one year march by Mao Zedong and his army into the mountains fleeing Chiang Kai-shek and his army allowing a rag-tag defeated army time to regroup and prevail over a more modern equipped army. In a further demonstration of China’s improved military prowess, for the first time in its history, China has outfitted an abandoned Soviet aircraft carrier enabling it to project its military might far from its tethered shores. China’s gains, economically and militarily, have allowed it to modernize in all facets of its military. She appears, for the time being, to be content with improving its defenses, making money while simultaneously improving the quality of life for its people.

Works Cited (MLA)

Bernstein, Richard and Munro, Ross H, “China I: The coming conflict with America,”

Foreign Affairs, March/April 1997, V76, No. 2, pg. 18

Robert S. Ross, “China II: Beijing as a Conservative Power,” Foreign Affairs,

March/April 1997, V76, No.2, pg 33.

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