Porpoise vs Hair

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.

2 Responses to Porpoise vs Hair

  1. robot economist 14 March, 2007 at 11:32 am #

    When the average PLA soldier has the equivalent of a 9th grade education, doesn’t the Chinese military need to increase its budget by more than 18% just to keep up with the West?

  2. Wong Tze Hwang 12 January, 2009 at 5:13 am #

    You looka t history. The English defeated the Dutc,Portugus,the Frenc .They lost to the Japs althouhg if Churcill had ordered more troopss to Malaya is another storey.
    Now the US. Since ww2 the US has defeated allmostt every countryy.Of corse if Washintonn wanted it could have used nulcear
    weaponns in Vietnam and winned.
    Now China is different. It is big and for the first history in US history if the President were dumb to use nuclear weapons on China, the PLA can wreak havoc on US.Of course the US will win.But the cost fo vvictory will bbe very great.
    I believe thta the Chinese are not trying to matcch the US gun for gun missile for missile butmake sure the US minds its own business.
    Of course the Americans will say thy are defending freedom that is attack China. Similar to Iraq .War of terrror is hang Sadam.
    From now it is not going to be easy for the US. If they sent the navy to the taiwan straist they will be barbequed. Think aboutt itt.

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