Monday, November 27, 2006

China's global reach

China, obviously, will be our strongest long-term competitor in the world, both economically and militarily. But the form that competition will take isn't always clear.

A lot of alarmists like to point to China's growing military muscle. They're modernizing their army and air force, expanding their navy and improving their missile technology.

But while the numbers can be impressive, most people overestimate China's military strength because they underestimate the effects of technology and the more prosaic arts of transport and logistics, both of which fall under the heading of "force projection."

Let's look at technology. China's air force, for example, contains about 2,000 fighters, bombers and attack planes, and is being modernized. But as you may notice from the link, that's largely because obsolete planes are being dropped from the inventory, not because large numbers of advanced planes are being added. And the technology of those "advanced" planes still trails ours by a generation or more. The backbone of its fighter fleet, for instance, remains the MiG-21, a design that is more than 50 years old.

Similarly, the Chinese navy is trying to build the first Chinese aircraft carrier. Sounds impressive until you realize it's based on the never-finished hull of an old Soviet carrier, the 67,500-ton Varyag. Meanwhile, we've got 12 carrier battle groups, built around 100,000-ton Nimitz-class and CVN-21 ships. That doesn't even count the various minicarriers we've got, like our amphibious assault ships.

And while the Chinese Army musters an impressive 2 million or so, it's mostly infantry, without decent transportation options. And their heavy units are armed with largely obsolete tanks and artillery.

Where does force projection come in? Well, in order to fight a war in the Middle East, for example, a military needs to be able to get the troops there and then supply them with food, ammunition and equipment. That takes a staggering number of ships, airplanes and trucks, not to mention the warships, fighter planes and security troops needed to protect the supply routes.

It's such a staggering job that there is currently only one country with the ability to fight a war anywhere in the world: the United States. China may be growing powerful, but they simply are unable to invade, say, Canada. And they will remain unable to project serious force for a long, long time.

So militarily, China poses only a regional threat. Fight in the Mideast? We win. Fight in countries neighboring China? More of an even match, with quality and long supply lines squaring off against quantity and short supply lines. Invade China? We lose. The initial fighting aside, there's simply no plausible way to occupy and pacify 1.3 billion people.

But if China isn't a serious military threat, it still poses an interesting economic and diplomatic challenge.

There is no way that China can provide a U.S.-style standard of living to all of its people. 300 million Americans consume a quarter of global GDP doing so; lifting 1.3 billion Chinese to that level would take more than the global economy currently provides.

But the Chinese leadership is sitting on a powder keg of divisions: ethnic, regional, rich/poor, rural/urban, coastal/interior. China may look solid, but it's really more of an unstable empire than a unified nation.

That empire is held together with a promise: As long as nobody challenges the ascendancy of the Communist Party, they will provide improved standards of living. The populace has essentially agreed to trade political freedom for economic freedom.

But if the Party cannot keep holding up its end of the bargain -- and it can't, as I explained above -- that agreement will come into question.

So even though it's impossible to keep raising living standards, the Party will try for as long as possible. And that will take resources -- a staggering amount of it.

We've already seen some of the effect of this policy: bottomless Chinese demand has driven up prices for a range of commodities, from oil to steel to shipping. We can expect that to continue into the future, raising the prospect of regional conflicts over scarce resources.

Beyond that, though, Chinese diplomacy is shaping up as a tool China uses to secure the resources it needs to fuel its growth. And that is posing challenges to our interests that go beyond economics.

For instance, China appears to be well on its way to supplanting the West as the biggest aid provider to Africa. How is it doing it? By being cheerfully amoral about how and with who it does business. The West tends to tie aid to structural reform, like transparency, rule of law, elimination of corruption. There are many cogent criticisms of this approach -- not least that it sometimes hurts more than it helps, at least in the short term -- but at least it is attempting to reform broken systems.

China, by contrast, simply doesn't care. They've signed aid and construction agreements with a range of corrupt African governments, pouring billions into the continent, all for two things: business for Chinese companies, and building relationships with countries that have resources China will need in the future.

So China is rebalancing the world. Countries rich in natural resources suddenly find themselves with more negotiating power, as they can play China and the West off against each other while enjoying high prices for their exports thanks to the increased demand.

It can be viewed as a positive thing to see power shift from the developed countries to the Third World. But it can also be viewed less benignly, as power shifting from generally transparent and democratic economies to generally corrupt ones, overseen by tyrants, with very few of the benefits trickling down to the general populace.

That's how the world operated for much of human history, of course. But whatever damage China's rise may do to our own interests, the greatest loss may be the bungled opportunity to reshape the world in a way that increases justice and human happiness.

It may be inevitable. That "opportunity" might have been ephemeral, judged against the long march of history. But as the world plunges back into a modern version of the Great Game -- where the United States and China, along with Europe and possibly India, vie for economic and military supremacy around the globe -- it pays to reflect on how we need to adjust our goals and tactics. Not simply to survive and remain relevant, but also to see if we can achieve some part of that vision even as we compete, bare-knuckled, with a country that doesn't seem to share it.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

You hypocrite American. Does your country care about justice and human happiness? Pfft!

11/28/2006 8:11 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

No, my country doesn't always care about that. But it's a fact that structural reform is usually a condition of Western aid, whereas the Chinese government simply doesn't care.

I don't think China has hostile intentions, or should be suppressed or anything like that. But I do hope that their sense of responsibility grows along with their power.

11/29/2006 2:31 PM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

Brilliant post. Well done.

11/30/2006 12:04 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Wow, Alan. Thanks. Coming from you, that's high praise.

11/30/2006 1:37 PM  

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