It is Time for a Fresh Look at the Middle Kingdom
By Michael Tanji | December 1, 2007
Several reports have emerged over the last few years that discuss a massive on-going Chinese military build-up. In parallel, numerous reports of Chinese espionage efforts against the US and our interests have also been released. More recently it was revealed that US intelligence assessments on Chinese issues have consistently fallen short, to the detriment of US readiness against the potential threats China may pose. Is a confrontation with China imminent or are there other factors we need to consider when assessing this situation?
There is no disputing the military growth China has undertaken. China's military has grown in both capacity and quality, as well as in reach - though still not as forward capable as that of the US. Is the massing of tens of thousands of troops and the pointing of hundreds of short-range ballistic missiles at a "renegade province" – as China views Taiwan - simply for show? While the military threat to Taiwan may be unambiguous, China remains in no position to directly threaten the US in such a manner - aside from the potential escalation of a conflict to a nuclear exchange. The primary threat remains an indirect one. To challenge the US by attacking an ally, and thusly force the US to either defend Taiwan or not. The Chinese understand fully that the decision to defend Taiwan would not be a simple one for the US.
Key factors to consider when assessing the growth and evolution of Chinese military capabilities are: their increasing overseas presence and the need to defend their national interests. It is worth noting that – actual shooting wars aside – when the US sends its military overseas to do things like train the military forces of nations struggling to fight terrorism or insugencies, and to perform civil affairs missions, we do so not in a quest for empire, but simply to preserve our national interests.
The espionage issue is more clearly defined in our eyes. Inasmuch as every capable nation keeps an eye on both friend and foe, there is a difference between intelligence operations designed to track known and emerging threats and a full-court-press designed to undermine the security of another nation. Could one argue that, in the pursuit of its own national interests, Chinese espionage against the US is warranted? To an extent the answer is "yes" but by that same token we cannot view their actions as friendly. The focus of much of their espionage work is commercial "dual-use" technology: discoveries that have both civilian and military applications. We protect the latter applications as a matter of course, but commercial enterprises would be happy to sell the more benign versions to almost anyone. Espionage may be cheaper than a licensing fee, but then one should forfeit their right to complain that we view their actions as hostile.
The issue of our own intelligence services consistently underestimating assessments on China is perhaps the most troubling of all of these developments. For all the recent flailing over the alleged politicization of intelligence related to Iraq, there is perhaps no clearer indication that a political point of view has its grip on key members of the intelligence community. That military and intelligence activities carried out by the Chinese are apparently always viewed in the most innocent light suggests that those who accuse the national security establishment of being soft on China are not far off the mark. These analysts could very well be drawing what they view as accurate conclusions based on the data at hand and their own expertise, but when one's conclusions are so consistent, anyone viewing the situation objectively has to wonder why the work related to a target as hard as China is almost formulaic in nature. If your author has learned anything in two decades in the intelligence business it is that no problem is so straight forward.
The importance of accurate intelligence and impartial analysis on a potential adversary cannot be understated. Decisions about the size and composition of our own forces are made based on such information; it is also relied upon when making decisions about research and development of national security technologies, as well as for lobbying Congress to support new weapons systems. With flawed intelligence leading us down the primrose path about what China is doing, we could find ourselves woefully ill-prepared to deal with a very serious threat. Caught short in the face of a threat to our allies or national interests, we are left with two highly undesirable courses of action: effectively doing nothing for lack of an adequate response capability, or taking actions that could lead to an irresponsible escalation of the situation - going far beyond a proportional defense of our interests.
We do not know if an armed conflict with China is a foregone conclusion, but we do know that as China continues to strive for superpower status, the probability that tensions between our nations will rise at various times over various points is inevitable. Not planning for clashes of varying scale and nature with China would be extremely foolish and as long as the conventional wisdom holds that we have nothing to fear at all, we should prepare to lose those disputes. The time for a more independent, even-handed and clear-headed look at what we need to be doing to avoid unnecessary conflicts with China, and what we need to do to win the inevitable ones, has long since passed. A Center for Threat Awareness report will begin filling that gap soon.