Information Warfare: The Great Chinese Arms Race

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February 11, 2010:  China likes to use its generals for diplomatic missions, as the "bad cop" end of a "good cop, bad cop" game. Usually, the Chinese officer will be overheard (by the media) calling for something like nuking Los Angeles (which is about all the meager Chinese ICBM force can manage), or getting ready to take on, and defeat the U.S. Navy, in order to advance Chinese interests. But Chinese diplomats quickly rush in offering less drastic alternatives.

The latest gambit has some Chinese officers calling for an arms race, along with unloading some of the 800 billion dollars of U.S. Treasury Securities (American government debt) held by China. All in an effort to stop America from selling new weapons to Taiwan.

While the  Treasury Securities ploy could backfire badly on the Chinese, the arms race angle is something some Chinese generals and admirals have actually been asking for. That's because China has been rapidly acquiring, and successfully using, American military technology (much of it stolen) during the last few decades. The Chinese military, like most Chinese, are well aware of their nation's history, and how China had been weak, partly because of Western interference, in the last few centuries. Chinese take great pride in the economic achievements of their nation in the last few decades, and many in the Chinese military want to use the new found money and technology to create armed forces that are a match for any on the planet. To do that, one must match the United States.

There's a sense of déjà vu to this. Before World War I (1914-18), Germany sought its "place in the sun" via an enormous arms race with the other nations of Europe. This included an attempt to match the British Royal Navy by building dozens of new battleships (a super weapon that didn't appear until 1906). Germany had not become a united Germany until 1871, and the realization of this long sought dream got people going. The U.S. was also a new economic superpower that was building a large fleet, but the U.S. had no claims on European real estate, or any interest in fighting the Royal Navy. World War I would not have been possible without the German arms buildup.

In 1964 Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the Soviet Union, was overthrown in a coup backed by the Soviet military. Khrushchev got eased into retirement because his fellow communist politicians believed he was "weak". For example, Khrushchev had backed down when the U.S. opposed the installation of Russian ballistic missiles (armed with nuclear warheads) in Cuba two years earlier. But Khrushchev was popular with Russians in general, because he spent more money on building things people needed (housing, consumer goods and so on). His opponents in the Communist Party found an ally in the military. Khrushchev was paying for all this domestic spending by sharply cutting the military budget, and reducing the size of the armed forces. Khrushchev believed that nuclear weapons, especially those delivered by ICBMs, a sufficient guarantor of Soviet independence. This idea was popular in the West, where there was a willingness to match Russian cuts, and depend on nukes to maintain the balance of power.

But the Russian generals, and their political partners, saw a powerful armed forces as a necessity, if only in terms of job security for hundreds of senior generals and admirals. The military drove a hard bargain, and demanded what amounted to a blank check for military expansion. Not an unlimited amount of money, but first dibs on government spending. Khrushchev's rivals agreed, Khrushchev was quietly deposed and sent into retirement (and not killed, lest his many fans in the general population get too angry), and the arms race was on. The U.S. was distracted by Vietnam for the first decade of this Russian buildup, but quickly caught up in the 70s and 80s. By then, too late, the Russians realized that this insane policy, which gave some 20 percent of the GDP to the military, had bankrupted the Soviet Union. Thus the Cold War, and the Soviet Union, ended with a whimper, not a nuclear holocaust, in 1991.

The situation in China is quite different. Noting what did in the Soviet Union, the Chinese reformed their economy, while still maintaining a communist police state. Some diehard communists now call the China the "last fascist dictatorship." No matter, the communist politicians remain firmly in control in China, and have kept military spending down to about three percent of GDP. The Chinese know well what an arms race did to their erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, and there is no desire to repeat that mistake. So they let the generals talk about it, because that's as far as the Chinese leadership will ever let it get.

 

 


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