China announced last week that it will spend 18% more on defense in 2007, the largest one-year jump in a decade for the People’s Liberation Army.
It’s an arms race!
Finally, sixteen years after the Soviet Union went to that great "ash heap of history" in the sky, the Pentagon’s big-spenders have a reason to justify … well, everything, in the name of preserving military superiority, of course.
Or perhaps not.
The PLA has announced that it intends to spend about $45 billion on defense this year. Double this figure if you prefer, as some experts quite rationally believe that China significantly under-reports defense expenditures. So, just suppose, the PLA spends, say, $80-90 billion a year on defense.
Ok, that’s a lot of change. But let’s keep this in perspective, shall we? The US Department of Defense is seeking to spend $600 billion this year, which is quite nearly an actual order of magnitude more than the PLA.
If this is an arms race, this isn’t even the tortoise and the hair. This is more like a porpoise and the hair — on land.
That said, there are some things China’s PLA is doing that deserves some calm, rational levels of concern. Blowing up space satellites, for instance. Bulking up their submarine fleet is another. Designing a new, moveable, long-range nuclear missile — not good.
But let’s put this in perspective. Using the term "arms race" conjures up an image of the old Soviet-US/NATO competition. That was a high-stakes power struggle over the spread and denial of influence and power on a global scale.
Comparing that to the current PLA military build-up does the Cold War a monumental disservice.
The strategy of the PLA build-up is focused almost exclusively on the Taiwan Strait. Yes, China certainly wants to exert more influence in its region. But the military build-up of the past decade is all about Taiwan. The PLA was embarassed in 1996 when President Clinton ordered two carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait, and the PLA knew it had no ability to respond. Its entire modernization effort since that time has been focused on that one scenario.
It is reasonable for the US to respond to this as a new challenge, and the US Navy already is. A sophisticated anti-submarine warfare system is being designed. Ship-based defenses against a new class of Chinese tactical ballistic missiles — potentially with a new maritime strike capability — are being tested. All these things are logical and proper.
But, everyone, just stop calling it an arms race.