Sunday, January 27, 2008

China's Military to Match the US in 10 Years?


I am highly skeptical of this claim:

Chinese Internet use grew over 50 percent last year, to 210 million users. In a few months, China should surpass the United States, which has 215 million users (and a quarter of China's population). The rapid acceptance of the Internet in China is a mixed blessings. Despite a huge bureaucracy dedicated to policing the Internet, there are still problems...

But the Internet also spreads technical knowledge, and the growth of higher education, and the economy (which continues to expand at 10-11 percent a year) is being used to provide China with more military power. The government believes that, in the next few years, China will surpass South Korea in technical abilities, and Germany in GDP. While China is still a minor player in the world of military high tech, the government is putting lots of money and effort into changing this. Expensive, and long term, efforts are being made to produce high tech items like jet engines, missiles and military electronics. At the current rate of progress, Chinese military technology will match that of the United States in a decade or so.

Below are some reasons why I find this claim highly dubious:

1) HUMAN CAPITAL: If China is still behind South Korea in technical abilities today, how will they equal the US in technical capability in just a decade? It will take at least four of those years to train new engineers at the most basic level -- without imparting advanced aeronautical engineering, materials science, computer engineering, etc. Skills vital to the continual progress of military (and other) technology. It's one thing to steal secrets and copy technical designs. It's another to innovate and develop the technology yourself. China may have access to some US military designs, but not all. It will be some time before China develops sufficient human and organizational capital to compete with the US on this level. I am no expert on China, but I suspect it will take at least two to three decades (or more) to rise to this level.

2) ASSUMES LINEAR GROWTH: The statement above said "at the current rate of progress...". This seems to imply China can maintain a linear growth in their technological development. Right now, they are mostly playing catch-up to the West. This phase of growth can be relatively quick as they adopt proven, wide-spread technologies from other nations. It will become much more challenging to continue this rate of growth as they start to see diminishing marginal returns for newer technologies.

3) STATIC ANALYSIS OF THE US: While it is not stated in the article, I suspect this analysis fails to take into consideration the continued growth of the US economy and military technology. Is this article trying to say China's military in 10 years will equal the military of the US today? That is a more plausible claim than saying China's military in 10 years will equal the military of the US in 10 years.

4) IGNORES ARMS RACE: If China starts to approach the level of the US in terms of military power, I suspect this will make Americans increasingly fearful of Chinese power and trigger an arms race similar to that of the Cold War. I suspect this analysis assumes relatively high levels of military spending on the part of China and lower levels on the part of the US. These levels will likely either converge or at least equal each other in relative terms. As long as the US economy is larger than that of China's, the US should be able to outspend China on technological development.

5) CHINA MUCH POORER THAN WE THOUGHT: The Asian Development Bank recently presented official survey results indicating China's economy is significantly smaller than previously thought:

The Asian Development Bank presented official survey results indicating China's economy is smaller and poorer than established estimates say. The announcement cited the first authoritative measure of China's size using purchasing power parity methods. The results tell us that when the World Bank announces its expected PPP data revisions later this year, China's economy will turn out to be 40 per cent smaller than previously stated......The number of people in China living below the World Bank's dollar-a-day poverty line is 300m - three times larger than currently estimated.

If China is much poorer than we thought, that means it will take significantly longer for their economy to grow nearer the size of the US. It also means China will have few resources to invest in their military and, if they maintain a high level of military spending as a portion of their GDP, will grow slower than commonly estimated. In the foreseeable future, this means the US will likely continue to outspend China on military expenditures (in absolute terms), maintaining its technological lead.

I am not arguing that China's military will not become an increasing threat, however. They currently far exceed the capabilities of the US in sheer manpower. Even with their one-child policy, China should have a much higher supply of young men for the foreseeable future. The one-child policy may actually increase the threat of war as there is currently a gender imbalance in China (more boys than girls). This shortage of women will mean there will be many young men ages 18-25 in the future with no wives. As Walter Williams once told us in class -- "Men are born barbarians and it takes women to civilize them." If there are not enough women to "civilize" the most violence prone segment of society, war may be one outlet for channeling this aggression.

In economic jargon, China's high population will allow them (to a certain extent) to substitute for capital with labor. In other words, China can make up for high-tech equipment with sheer volume of people and lower-tech equipment. To draw on another Williams analogy, "when labor is cheap, one way to take out a machine gun that shoots 500 bullets a minute is to send 501 men with pitchforks in to take it out."

Additionally, China's military will almost certainly get closer to that of the US in terms of technological prowess. As China military becomes technologically closer in capability to that of the US, China will likely become increasingly bold in world affairs. The more it feels it can go head-to-head militarily against the US, the more likely China will take bolder risks in foreign affairs.

All of this signifies the importance of increasing economic ties between the US and China in order to build a peaceful relationship between the two nations. The more interdependent their economies become, the larger cost and smaller benefit there is for going to war against each other.

Read more on the Chinese military here and here.

1 comment:

D. Greene said...

The reality is that China is 30 years behind us militarily, and the fact is that they will never catch us. They can't win a war that will never be fought.