July 26, 2002

What Military Might?

Not many countries have benefited as much from 9/11 as China has. For almost a year, China stayed off of the US Most Wanted list and stayed on the Best Places to Put Your Cash list. While the US economy faltered amidst scandal, the Chinese economy gained strength from the executions and imprisonments of top business executives and Bank of China heads.

Europe and the Middle East continue to do business with China and tiny island nations continue to forsake Taiwan's meager bribes for the Mainland's lure of big payoffs. Since Old Deng first got the ball rolling in 1979, Chinese business savvy and the stranglehold of the Chinese Communist Party have set the nation sailing on prosperous seas. And if it's not the businessmen making money or the politicians initiating crackdowns, it's the Chinese athletes jumping into the mix: women's soccer and hockey, Wang Zhi Zhi and the future flop (you heard it here) Yao Ming, the World Cup, the Olympics.

Eventually the US has to step in and make sure that the world doesn't start falling in love with a bunch of warmongering, spying, money-hungry Commies. So the Pentagon spits out a report on the growing might of the Chinese military while a Congressional Inquiry Committee brings up Wen Ho Lee's ghost and warns of the danger increased economic ties with China poses to our national security.

I don't trust the statistics China's government puts forth any more than anyone else should believe the numbers the US government puts forth. Or the business of either nation for that matter. Numbers lie when put into the hands of mere mortals.

And the numbers the Pentagon throws around concerning China's military budget, between $20 billion and $60 billion, are still several hundred billion less than the US military budget. So why should the US be worried at all? Could it be that the tough guy on the block doesn't have the stomach to fight anything but barefoot men with no uniforms and stolen old weapons?

Actually, why are we discussing the military "rise" of China anyway? What role, pray tell, has fighting and/or soldiering played in China's success over the past 20 years? Let's see, the last major conflict seems to be the Battle of Tiananmen Square. Of course fishing boats have been fired on sporadically in the Spratlys and an Uighur or two has been shot. But, the real contributions the military has made are economic and political.

The People's Liberation Army has large stakes in state owned enterprises as well as owning a few of its own the military is currently restructuring or selling off dead state enterprises and extending its business ties across borders. Politically, the PLA is indispensable. The CCP can carry out reforms, scour the land for "criminals," quell disturbances and demand respect as long as the PLA wants it to. So far, the PLA is content, so the CCP is safe.

Even if the PLA had no business holdings whatsoever, what possible gain would China have from using military force to pry land or concessions from anyone? The only country which should feel threatened is Taiwan. But Taiwanese don't feel too threatened. China's military is improving itself in the light of recent bombings and the presence of US forces in Central Asia, but the PLA is still a defensive force more than an offensive own. In the case of Taiwan, the PLA is a negotiating tool.

Besides, ask any Mainlander and they'll tell you Taiwan is China. And in the same breath they'll say Taiwanese are Chinese and very good businessmen.

In Taiwan, many politicians realize that the probability of reunification is good and growing and they want to be able to shape the process, as Hong Kong did. Hence the arms deals and the posturing on both sides of the strait. If either side were to show a weakness, the other would be able to dictate terms.

Eventually, China will be rich enough that Taiwan's interests are best served as a part of the Mainland. Even now, older Taiwanese reminisce of the days when they spent $1000 dollars a night on dinner. Those days are over, now these old men are all over the Mainland trying to rekindle the glory days. But the time has not yet come and as my one-time Taiwanese boss put it: "Why would a rich man want to share his house with a beggar?"

If China ever did decide to invade Taiwan, it would do years of careful and patient negotiating, destroy China's still-precarious international standing, start a war with the mighty US and to top it off Beijing would be stripped of the 2008 Olympics. Why would a nation that has a tiny arsenal of nukes for defense/retaliation only suddenly change its mode of thinking and go on the offensive? Short answer is: It won't.

Unless they're invaded of course.

Besides, I read earlier today that the dominant power focuses on the military while the challenger focuses on money.

As for the warnings about China's insidious economy taking away our jobs and tech secrets, these are the grumblings of one shop-owner about another. Did we go to war with Japan over cars? Will we invade Mexico because good ol' American boys can't find jobs as cooks anymore?

Must the US whine about threats and dangers from the Far East as it wages war in the Central and Near East?

Text-only printable version of this article

Sascha Matuszak is a teacher living and working in China. His articles have appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Minnesota Daily, and elsewhere. His exclusive Antiwar.com column (usually) appears Fridays.

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