There is no question that the pace of military modernization by the People’s Republic of China is increasing. Investments are being made in all the areas that would support military actions against its neighbors. These include a massive increase in theater ballistic missiles targeted against Taiwan, Japan and U.S. bases in the Pacific, anti-satellite weapons, advanced air defenses, several fifth-generation fighters and an expanded Navy that includes one aircraft carrier — with more to be built — and numerous different classes of conventional and nuclear submarines. Numerous independent studies in the United States and elsewhere have warned that in another decade or so, China could achieve military superiority in the Western Pacific, particularly if it chose to do a “Pearl Harbor” and strike without warning.
However, China may be creating a brittle military, one that it could feel compelled to use or lose in the future. The military Beijing is building will be more and more expensive over time, not just to create but also to sustain. As Western militaries have discovered much of the cost is in the highly qualified manpower needed to operate and maintain advanced military systems. Moreover, even as the size of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) shrinks and quantity of forces is replaced by higher quality, the costs associated with this military will rise.
In addition, the U.S. and its allies and friends in the region are beginning to take measures that could limit the military effectiveness of the PLA’s new toys. Obviously, there is the new U.S. defense strategy with its pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. and its allies are investing in a number of advanced military capabilities that will counter those by the PLA. These include the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter which not just the U.S. but also Japan, Australia and, possibly, South Korea and India may acquire. Advanced Aegis, THAAD and Patriot missile defense systems are being deployed. The U.S. is building the new Ford-class nuclear powered aircraft carrier as well as the Virginia-class submarine and the more capable DDG 51 Flight II destroyer. Then there are future procurements of the unmanned carrier launched airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) platform and the Air Force’s long-range strike system, both of which will have features enabling them to penetrate Chinese defenses.
Finally, competing demands for government funds may make continuing investments in defense difficult for the Chinese government. China is facing a need to spend significantly more on domestic needs, including public health, old age services and pensions and the environment. Having talked to a number of Chinese of all ages and backgrounds I was surprised to learn how little stock they put in the value of a stronger military and how much they wanted to see improvements in their way of life. In focusing the attention and energies of the Chinese people on working hard and getting richer, the government has created a problem for itself. Anything which interferes with the work and earn ethos, including foreign ventures by Beijing itself, may cause a popular backlash against the regime.
So the Chinese government may actually have a small window of time in which it will have the opportunity to use its military power for aggressive purposes. There are more things the U.S. and others in the region could do to undermine Beijing’s confidence in the utility of its new military toys. Making forward deployed forces less vulnerable to attack is an obvious low cost/high payoff move. If China is building a use it or lose it military, the best thing the U.S. can do is to make it clear to the regime in Beijing that an attempt to use it will only result in losing even more.
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