Beyond the Rim---We ignore China's growing military power at our peril.
Wall Street Journal
By MARK HELPRIN
December 13, 2004; Page A16
From the beach at Santa Monica on a clear day in fall, with 3,000 miles of this country invisible at one's back, the Pacific horizon is a precisely
etched line empty of event and set in alluring color. But beyond the rim lie two things now tightly interwoven: China, and the destiny of the United
There never was and never will be a "unipolar" world. The existence of one pole being conditioned upon the existence of another, the notion of such
a thing is as sloppy conceptually as the thinking of the "leading international relations specialist," recently quoted in the Washington Post, who
lamented that "The border . . . is becoming a dividing line."
The short unhappy life of whatever passed for unipolarity is emphatically over not merely because the strategy of the moment has allowed a small force
of primitive insurgents in Iraq to occupy a large proportion of American military energy, but because China is now powerful and influential enough, at
least as a "fleet-in-being," to make American world dominance inconceivable. And in the longer term, China is bent upon and will achieve gross
military and economic parity with the United States.
China is methodically following the example of Meiji Japan in moving from a position of inferiority to one of military equality with far superior
rivals, by deliberate application of a striking phenomenon of economics that is to the military relation between states what the golden section is to
architecture. Consider a hypothetical country of 10 million people, and a $1 billion GNP, that devotes 10% of its $100 per capita GNP to defense. The
people are left with $90/year, suffering one day in 10 to support a $100 million military outlay. But after 18 years of 8% economic growth and 2%
population increase per annum, it becomes a hypothetical country of 14 million souls, a GNP of $4 billion, and a per capita GNP of $285. If the people
retain only three-quarters of this, they are still almost two and a half times richer than they were before, and the military budget can safely rise
to $1 billion. Thus, the GNP increases by a factor of four, per capita GNP more than doubles, and defense outlays swell by a factor of 10.
The Meiji called their variant of this, Fukoku Kyohei, "rich country, strong arms." To contemporary Americans and Europeans accustomed to
low-single-digit economic growth and periodic recession, an 8% annual growth rate over 18 years might seem too hypothetical. But between 1980 and the
present, China's GDP has grown at an average annual rate, like the 9.7% of 2004's first half, of just under 10%. It is probably safe to say that any
diminution of real growth as a result of inflation is roughly offset by gains in the unreported black economy, and clearly ironic that while in China
a bunch of former Maoists appreciates the potentiality of high growth, in America the left thinks it unworthy of putting the nanny state at risk.
China's steady expansion is impressive enough, but of greater significance is the 16.2% growth, in 2003, of the industrial/technical sector that has
made China a mercantile power and not only contributes to social stability by providing consumer goods but assimilates and replicates Western military
technology. Though the data vary according to source and time, they are all of the same complexion. In the CIA's reasonable analysis, China's is the
world's second largest economy, with a GDP, expressed in purchasing power parity (PPP), of $6.5 trillion. The resultant $5,000 per capita PPP GDP,
given the risks of China's transition to a market economy and the concomitant instabilities to be avoided, leaves less room at the margin for
military expenditure than if stability were not in question, and China in 2003 devoted only 3.5% of GDP to defense. This moderation is simultaneously
an effort to preserve social peace and a realistic view of the effective pace of military reform and technological transformation. Nonetheless, in
2003 at least $60 billion went to defense, thrice the expenditure of 10 years before.
That sum, while less than a fifth of American outlays other than the costs of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, does not reflect adjustment for
PPP, which, though not as powerful a multiple as in the civilian sector (due to the nature of military goods, and procurement abroad) should boost
equivalent Chinese military spending to at least $100 billion. Imagine then if China, as it easily could, were to double its GDP in the next eight or
nine years, and, taking advantage of a parallel increase in gains per capita, double the defense share of GDP. It would then have (PPP) defense
outlays roughly equivalent to ours.
China, however, moves with great deliberation, and many signs suggest that it is aiming for parity in 20 or more years time and in synchrony with
advances in technology and military doctrine.
China is at risk if, as is its wont periodically, it runs off the rails into civil war, anarchy, or revolution. But the true counter-revolutionary
import of the 11th Party Congress reforms of 1978 is that, unlike the former Soviet Union, China is making its transition to the free market in
careful strides so as not to be forced backwards. Though neither ideal nor democratic, its incremental economic and policy choices are carefully
calibrated, redolent of compromise, and configured for the survival and stability of the state. And the more time that passes, the more the
development of its internal markets will protect its now mercantile economy from the gyrations of world markets.
With its new economic resources China has embarked upon a military traverse from reliance upon mass to devotion to quality, with stress upon war in
space, the oceans, and the ether -- three areas of unquestioned American superiority. China is establishing its own space- based assets and developing
the means to counter others. It would neutralize American strategic superiority as the aging U.S. arsenal is reduced and it augments its own. Its
submarine program is directed to the deployment of its strategic force and denial of successively greater bands of the Pacific -- eventually reaching
far out into blue water -- to the safe transit of American fleets. It sees America's advantage in informational warfare both as something to be
copied and as a weak link that, by countermeasure, can be shattered. In short, it harbors major ambitions.
When China was great, it sent out military expeditions by land and sea into a large part of what was for it the known world, and despite robotic
protestations to the contrary it will do so again. It has already begun what it itself might at one time have called imperial expansion, driven not by
ideology but the need for markets and raw materials. Major crude oil importation, begun only recently, is one-quarter the volume of U.S. crude
imports, leading China to compete for petroleum not only in the Middle East but in South America and at least six countries in Africa. This it can do
with its immense $400 billion balance of payments reserves and ability to supply high quality manufactured goods at all levels to its potential oil
An example of China's growing power to interfere with crucial U.S. interests is the new Sino-Persian $100 billion trade agreement, the perfect
complementarity of which -- manufactures and military goods in exchange for oil and Islamic endorsement -- is echoed by the fact that, at present, the
chief American counter to Iranian nuclear weapons development is the threat of a trade embargo, which China need not observe, through the Security
Council, over which China has a veto. A clue to how the world may yet divide is China's willingness, like America's in the Cold War, to take
less-than-perfect states under its wing without a care for their moral improvement. In fact, China must be delighted (what rival would not be?) that
America's war aims in the Middle East are conditioned upon reordering the Islamic world, the most inconvertible of all divisions of mankind. Although
U.S. intervention is obviously required, the nature and scope of the enterprise as stated is a gift to China worth many years of effort.
This and a persistent blindness in regard to China's probable trajectory are wounds gratuitously self-inflicted, for no country, ever, has had both
the mass and income at the margin that the United States has now, but rather than anticipate, meet, and discourage China's military development, as
it easily could, the U.S. has chosen to ignore it. America's métiers are the sea, the air, and space, and with one exception our major allies in Asia
are island nations. These factors could be combined to keep China on the straight and narrow for generations longer than otherwise, but America's
vision has been knocked out of focus by its ideals, and when China does develop the powerful expeditionary forces that it will need to protect its
far- flung interests, the U.S. will probably have successfully completed transforming its military into a force designed mainly to fight terrorism and
Though the dangers of epidemics and terrorist nuclear attacks are now obviously pre-eminent, rising behind them is a newer world yet. This century
will be not just the century of terrorism: terrorism will fade. It will be a naval century, with the Pacific its center, and challenges in the
remotest places of the world offered not by dervishes and crazy-men but by a great power that is at last and at least America's equal. Unfortunately,
it is in our nature neither to foresee nor prepare for what lies beyond the rim.
Mr. Helprin, a Journal contributing editor and senior fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, is
the author, most recently, of "The Pacific and Other Stories," just out from Penguin.
Corrections & Amplifications:
China's crude oil imports are one-quarter the volume of U.S. crude imports and its balance of payments reserves is $400 billion. Due to a
transmission error, both of these figures were misstated in an earlier version of this commentary.