With the United States fully emerged in the midst of the ongoing War on Terror and the military stretched to the brink on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan—fights that will continue for the foreseeable future—signals of increasing Chinese military strength have largely slipped through the cracks of the American public, according to a panel of experts on China.
When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Beijing last month, much of the focus surrounded China’s role in confronting North Korea. (Just recently China was able to draw an early indication that North Korea may agree to multilateral talks on their nuclear development program). What came as a bit of a surprise, however, was the open level of suspicion with which Rice regarded the Chinese military: “There is no doubt that we have concerns of about the size and pace of the Chinese military buildup.”
Rice refused to label the buildup “a threat,” but indicated the United States would have little tolerance for Chinese aggression that may militarily provoke its neighbor Taiwan, which has long resented the its reality of Chinese dominance.
China’s military acceleration indeed is far from a recent development. From the twilight of the Cold War to Sept. 11, 2001—when military spending was drastically reduced in nearly all developed nations as part of the “peace dividend”—China continued an effort to upgrade its military in the form of increasing funding for their military double-digits annually, according to David Finkelstein, director of Project Asia.
Finkelstein said the technology of the Iraq War sent a wakeup call that the Chinese army was about 20 years behind most developed militaries. This spurred more than a decade-long transformation of the Chinese military to create a “more professional” and “more capable” military.
According to Finkelstein, the “metamorphosis” completely shifted the makeup of the Chinese military from one based on quantity to one of quality. A 500,000-man force reduction ending in 2000 along with another 200,000-man reduction concluding this year have coincided with steep military spending hikes that seek to create a more mobile and technologically savvy force capable of excelling in modern warfare.
While China’s military reform is part of a much longer process, what has changed of late is the level of public concern within the administration. Rice’s stern warning for China differs from the cooperative tone the U.S. had tried to maintain with China as allies in the War on Terror.
The message Rice has sent is, however, consistent with the most recent U.S. actions that reveal a fear of growing Chinese military power. Earlier this year U.S. government officials balked at the European Union’s plan to lift its arms embargo on China and talked Israel out of a lucrative radar equipment deal with China just last week.
As an ally whose influence will be imperative in negotiations with North Korea, China must first remove doubts within the administration of its own military intentions.