Endless money forms the sinews of war
. – Cicero
By moral influence I mean that which causes the people to be in harmony with their leaders, so that they will accompany them in life and death without fear of mortal peril… When one treats people with benevolence, justice, and righteousness, and reposes confidence in them, the army will be united in mind and all will be happy to serve their leaders. –
Will China have the last laugh?
The new year may visibly mark for the many what has been observed by only a scorned few for several years now: the shifting of the correlation of forces away from the U.S. towards the People’s Republic of China.
During the height of the Cold War, the old Soviet Union achieved an economic output equal to about 55 percent of the U.S. The Soviets invested heavily in their military, including nuclear weapons, military applications in space, and a few specific technologies, such as lasers. Soviet military spending consumed as much as 17 percent of their economic output compared to about six percent for the U.S. In spite of their military spending, the Soviet Union was never able to achieve a favorable enough correlation of forces to conquer Western Europe or credibly threaten to do so.
The People’s Republic of China now has the world’s second-largest economy. According to the CIA World Factbook
, China’s economy hit $8.8 trillion in 2009, compared to America’s $14.1 trillion, about 62 percent of America’s output. And, unlike the former Soviet Union, most international economists believe that China’s economy will surpass America’s – the question is not “if” but “when.”
There are three very large differences in the strategic challenge posed by China to America versus that of the former Soviet Union.
The first is China’s burgeoning economy and massive foreign currency holdings, abetted by its modern mercantilist policies. Unlike the old Soviet Union, China has cash, lots of it. This cash gives Beijing leverage in ways that the Soviet Politburo could only dream of. Chinese monetary inducements may become the future equivalent of gunboat diplomacy via the American carrier battle group.
The second divergence China presents from the Soviet threat is their determination not to repeat the Soviet’s mistakes. China’s leaders understand that a strong economy leads to a strong military, not the reverse. As China’s economy grows steadily, their military expenditures increase – how much is the question, as it is very difficult to determine China’s exact military spending (by design, as the Chinese are very secretive and more successful than the former Soviet Union in hiding the true nature of their military buildup). Conversely, America’s ballooning public debt and social welfare, pension, and health obligations will act to hobble U.S. military and basic research investments for the foreseeable future.
What the Chinese spend their military renminbi on is just as important. China appears to be preparing for the next conflict, rather than attempt to match America, carrier-for-carrier. In this, the Chinese present their third challenge to America and throw the traditional calculation of a correlation of forces into disarray. China has the world’s largest Army, and it is modernizing it, placing special attention on a highly trained and well-equipped subset of the People’s Liberation Army – a subset about as large as the entire U.S. Army active force. China is also modernizing its navy and air force. And China’s space industry launched as many orbital missions as the U.S. did in 2010. But, what is more troubling to American strategic planners are China’s asymmetric dimensions of power. For instance, China’s fascination with assaulting the Internet is intensely unsettling, with Wikileaks reporting that Chinese officials ordered an attack on Google last month
. Rather than build a dozen aircraft carriers, China may be perfecting ways to destroy the $6 billion ships with suborbital, hypersonic ballistic missiles. And, China is extremely interested in directed energy and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons designed to render the massive American investment in high-tech weaponry useless, turning it from an asset to a liability with one flick of a switch.
As America remains completely engaged in fighting bands of Islamist terrorists and their supporters in Afghanistan and Iraq, China quietly prepares. Additional conflicts that may draw an already stretched American military loom, such as instability in Pakistan and Egypt (nations massively larger and more difficult to deal with than Afghanistan and Iraq), threats from the Islamic Republic of Iran and their Hezbollah terror proxies in Lebanon, and any number of nation states, such as North Korea and Syria, sitting on the hair trigger of chaos. China’s strategic planners would welcome the inevitable American commitment to calm these regions at great cost in American blood, treasure, and focus.
A last word about the coming Chinese ascendancy: it’s built on a fragile foundation. China’s Communist Party, as with all political monopolies, appears unable to reform itself. Corruption is still the norm. Rule of law is spotty, at best. And the long-suffering Chinese people are growing impatient. Beijing may someday assume its role at the world’s center, its “Middle Kingdom” – or, China may see a convulsion of violence from its vast peasantry, as has happened dozens of times in its long past as rulers have exhausted their moral influence with the ruled.