The speaker, Dr. Michael Pillsbury, has served as special assistant for Asian Affairs at the Net Assessment Office of the Secretary of Defense, Assistant Secretary of Defense for policy planning in charge of preparing scenarios for long-term defense planning, and edited the books China Debates the Future Security Environment and Chinese Views of Future Warfare.
The words of a man with such insights into China’s military horizon should not be important to retirees alone.
The "T" Word
The major streams of thought regarding China in American circles, be they economic or military, tend to diverge on the question of China’s motivation for growth. The dichotomy isn’t the normal glass half-full or half-empty debate as one of, "Are we about to drink lemonade or sulfuric acid?"
In a world where the major target of American military might is so diffuse that we call its units "cells" and refer to their mitosis as if terrorism were the bird flu, it may be comforting to revert to the days of Evil Empire, submarine standoffs and enemy soldiers who actually don uniforms in battle.
For Cold Warriors like Dr. Pillsbury, this is a deceptive appeal, drawing on a historical analogy most wish to avoid.
Dr. Henry Kissinger, as Nixon’s secretary of state, was responsible for the easing of tensions between China and the U.S. in the early 1970s. In a recent Washington Post column, Kissinger wrote, "The center of gravity in world affairs is shifting from the Atlantic…to the Pacific," and that "the rise of China – and Asia – will lead to a substantial reordering of the international system."
Kissinger’s words do not appear to be conjecture but advance notice, giving the sense that he has seen China’s rise in binoculars, not in a crystal ball. Anyone witnessing China’s increase in strength can confirm the inevitability of their continued ascent. What we make of that rise is up to us and our attitudes. This was the point of Dr. Pillsbury’s speech.
Pillsbury announced that he would not use the word "threat" to refer to China. The opportunities for shared growth outweigh the trepidation we should feel about this changing tide.
Though China’s military budget has increased at a steady double-digit pace since the late 90s, its economy has been burgeoning at a similarly meteoric rate, so the allocation of increased funds to national defense only makes sense.
And, even factoring in the undervaluation of the Chinese currency (which most exchange rate aficionados say is about 25% too cheap), the People’s Liberation Army is spending less than a quarter of what the U.S. military is allocated this year.
"T" is for Technology, Too
When I asked Dr. Pillsbury about the climate of attitudes toward China within the defense department, he told me that most veterans of Soviet-era containment, like him, are not eager to cast China in the same light.
He urged mutual cultural understanding and coordination of economic interests as the best safeguard against mutual belligerency.
The Chinese military-industrial complex employs some 10% of the population in all aspects of production. At its peak, the Soviet counterpart employed at least 1/5 of the USSR’s workforce.
Across the board, Chinese research and development is surging. This of course includes dual-use technologies that have civilian and military applications, but keep in mind that the Cold War was essentially responsible for the state of the world’s satellite system, having been pioneered by a fearful Uncle Sam.
The Chinese military isn’t the only investor in domestic high-tech. American firms like AMD, which licensed its x86 Geode technology to China, encourage innovation and the development of Chinese industry that will not be rooted in cheap, unskilled labor alone.
Technology should also be the linchpin of a new sort of containment, where China’s own interests govern the bounds of its military flexing. China and Taiwan are both wooing American PC manufacturing operations, evincing a relationship that is more suited to a standard capitalist scuffle between competing enterprises than an exchange of missiles.
China requires microchips from Taiwan to build computers on the mainland, which are then exported to retailers in the U.S. or used in China’s myriad internet cafes and office parks. The recent public offering of shares in major Chinese ports located near Taiwan provides further proof of China’s drive to a maritime presence whose defensive strength is protective of a larger commercial concern.
As the situation continues to unfold and the balance slides from west to east, China will have greater reason to safeguard its wealth through peaceful growth, not wishing to jeopardize it all over irredentism and regional hegemony that its own constitution prohibits.
It falls to the generations who still have colored hair to grasp the opportunity and the risk together, understanding that we have much at stake in the dragon’s continued sustenance.
– Sam Hopkins