defense budget over the previous year. Officially, the defense budget
stands at slightly more than $91 billion–a sum now second in the world
only to what the United States spends on its military.
This is only the “official,” declared budget. China’s real expenditures
for military affairs are far greater, with jets and ships it buys from
Russia, its research and development programs, and its strategic weapons
all “off the books.”
field and pay for the average member of the Chinese military versus
those same costs for an American serviceman or woman, the
“price-adjusted” Chinese military budget may approach $300 billion.
While this figure is at best an estimate and still clearly smaller than
what the United States spends on defense, America’s edge in spending
does not necessarily translate into clear military pre-eminence in Asia.
The U.S. military has global tasks and responsibilities, while the vast
majority of China’s defense expenditures goes toward building up a
capability in this one specific but vital region of the word.
So what has China gotten for its money after two decades of double-digit
increases in military spending? The short answer is a change in the
East Asian military balance.
In 1996, President Clinton sent two American aircraft carriers into the
waters off of Taiwan in response to a series of missile tests and
military exercises by the Chinese designed to intimidate Taiwan as its
1996 presidential election approached.
He did so confident that U.S. naval power was sufficient to control any
crisis and deter further Chinese attempts at military coercion. Today,
faced with a Chinese arsenal of new planes, ships, submarines, and
missiles, no American president could act with such surety.
Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Chinese leaders have long
emphasized that Beijing’s “rise” would be “peaceful.” Alas, the nature
of the Chinese military buildup poses the single most dangerous
challenge to the security of the Asia-Pacific region since that of
Imperial Japan. China’s huge missile arsenal, in particular, is
Nor was this new military imbalance supposed to happen so rapidly. Until
recent years, U.S. defense officials and senior commanders have been
pooh-poohing the Chinese modernization efforts.
Now Adm. Robert Willard, head of U.S. forces in the region, says his
command must “step up efforts to maintain regional stability” in
response to “China’s immense presence in the Pacific Ocean.” He
recognizes that U.S. military supremacy, the defining characteristic of
the regional security architecture, is open to question.
Yet, it is far from clear that Willard will have enough forces, or the
right kind of forces, to maintain stability. The U.S. Navy has shrunk to
less than half its 600-ship, Reagan-era peak, while the Air Force’s
F-22 procurement–and the Raptor would be a key trump card in offsetting
the advantages China realizes with its missile force–was ended with
the purchase of just a quarter of the planned number of jets.
China also presents a challenge to U.S. advantages in space, on which all American forces depend, and in “cyberspace.”
Indeed, no one has been more heartened than strategists in Beijing by
the U.S. defense budget cuts of recent years that have eliminated more
than $325 billion in weapons modernization.
And with the congressional Republicans seemingly poised to reduce the
Pentagon budget requests even further, the Chinese are happy to let
nature take its course.
But if history teaches us anything, it is a course likely to incur
greater costs down the road for both the United States and its allies.