The China Syndrome

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On February
4, President Bush announced a baseline military budget of $515.4
billion for the next fiscal year, not including funds for operations
in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the largest one-year Pentagon request
in real, uninflated dollars since World War II. This Fiscal Year
(FY) 2009 figure represents a 7.5% increase over the 2008 appropriation
of $479.5 billion and is expected to be the first of many rising
requests supposedly needed to replace equipment lost and damaged
in Iraq and to gear up for the security threats to come. As Chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen explained
last October, "we’re just going to have to devote more
resources to national security in the world we’re living in
right now."

At first glance,
all these additional funds will be used to sustain the Global War
on Terror (GWOT, in Pentagon shorthand) and replace equipment destroyed
or rendered inoperable in the wars now under way. "The Fiscal
Year 2009 Defense budget request sustains the President’s
commitment to growing U.S. ground forces that are needed to prevail
in the current conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan," a Pentagon
press release
notes. Additional funds are allocated for "Operations,
Readiness, and Support" – troop training, replacement
parts and equipment, combat supplies, and so on.

But a close
examination of the FY 2009 request indicates that the principal
sources of future budget growth are not the GWOT or other such low-intensity
contingencies but rather preparation for all-out combat with a future
superpower. Probe a little deeper into Pentagon thinking, and only
one potential superpower emerges to justify all this vast
spending: The People’s Republic of China.


Not that China
is actually mentioned in the public, unclassified budget documents.
Rather, discussion
is limited to the need to "invest in the strategic modernization
necessary to meet current and future threats from land, sea, air,
or space." This entails both the procurement of advanced weapons
and stepped-up research on promising technologies for eventual incorporation
into future combat systems. To achieve these objectives,
$183.3 billion is allocated for "strategic modernization"
in FY 2009, representing the largest share (36%) of the overall

Look closely
at some of the most costly weapons being sought in FY 2009, and
it rapidly becomes apparent that they are not designed to fight
insurgent bands or Third World armies equipped with third-class
weapons. Instead, they are designed to fight some imaginary successor
to the USSR, a "peer competitor" equipped with a full
complement of modern weapons. Among the items highlighted in the
"strategic modernization" category are:

  • F-22
    Raptor air-superiority fighter: The most advanced fighter
    aircraft in the world today. According to the budget request,
    "The F-22 penetrates enemy airspace and achieves first-look,
    first-kill capability against multiple targets. It has unprecedented
    survivability and lethality, ensuring that the Joint Forces have
    freedom from attack, freedom to maneuver, and freedom to attack."
    (FY 2009 request: $4.1 billion for 20 aircraft.)
  • CVN-78
    Advanced Aircraft Carrier: A futuristic replacement for
    the Nimitz-class vessels that now form the backbone of the U.S.
    carrier fleet. It will incorporate many new technologies, including
    a new nuclear propulsion plant, an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launching
    System, advanced radars, and other innovations. Among other functions,
    the new carrier is intended to "carry the war to the enemy
    through multi-mission offensive operations." (The FY 2009
    request of $4.2 billion for the first vessel includes long-lead-time
    items for a second ship of this class, CVN-79.)
  • DDG-1000
    Zumwalt-Class Destroyer: Armed with an array of missiles
    and employing the latest stealth technology, the DDG 1000 will
    be a "multi-mission surface combatant designed to fulfill
    volume firepower and precision strike requirements." It
    will also serve as a test-bed for a new stealth cruiser, the CG(X).
    (FY 2009 request: $3.2 billion for one ship.)
  • Virginia-Class
    Submarine: A nuclear-powered submarine designed to replace
    the existing, Los Angeles-class ships in the U.S. submarine fleet
    and "provide the Navy with the capabilities to maintain
    undersea supremacy in the 21st century." The Virginia class
    vessels "are able to attack targets ashore with Tomahawk
    cruise missiles and conduct covert long-term surveillance of land
    areas, littoral waters, or other sea-based forces." (The
    FY 2009 request of $3.6 billion includes funding for one ship
    plus advance items for several others.)

Against whom
are these super-sophisticated ships and planes intended to be deployed?
Not Iran, which is still largely equipped with aging U.S. arms acquired
in the 1970s during the reign of the former Shah. Not Syria or North
Korea, both still equipped with Korean- and Vietnam War-era Soviet
castoffs. Not any of the other so-called rogue states against which
President Bush has railed so often. In fact, it is impossible to
conceive of any adversary with the capacity to engage the United
States on anything approaching major-power status except

The China

In their efforts
to secure funding for all these costly new weapons, U.S. military
officials – and their allies in Congress and the corporate
world – have begun highlighting the China threat. When China
successfully tested what Washington described as an anti-satellite
missile last January, the threat-mongering kicked up a notch. Secretary
of Defense Robert Gates also cited this test as justification for
an increase in Pentagon spending on space technology. "The
department’s heavy reliance on space capabilities is clear
to potential adversaries, some of whom are developing anti-satellite
weapons," he declared
on February 6, in an obvious reference to China. "Protecting
our assets in space is, therefore, a high priority."

of the F-22 program have also hyped the China threat. "I’m
trying to look beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m trying to
look at what is the threat down the road," said
Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, chairman of the Defense Subcommittee
of the House Appropriations Committee at an industry meeting in
February. Murtha favors increased spending on the F-22, and he left
no doubt in the minds of his listeners that China is the most likely
"threat down the road" against which the extra fighters
would be needed. In his efforts to promote the F-22, Murtha recently
met with Secretary Gates, who told
members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 6
that the fighter "is principally for use against a near peer
in a conflict, and I think we all know who that is."

Just as the
Department of Defense and its corporate allies often touted the
"Soviet threat" during the Cold War period to stampede
Congress and the American public into supporting ever-increasing
spending on advanced weapons, so a hypothetical "China threat"
will now be conjured up to achieve the same purpose in the post-Cold
War era. With the U.S. public concerned over the rising costs of
the Iraq war and other national priorities – health care,
education, alternative energy development, the mortgage crisis,
and so on – such threat amplification will become indispensable
to ensure adequate funding for the Pentagon’s favored weapons

Indeed, an
early indication of this inevitable phenomenon was revealed on March
3, when the Department of Defense released its annual
on the Military Power of the People’s Republic
of China. Compared to previous reports of the same title, it
trumpeted a heightened effort by China to challenge America’s
supremacy in a wide variety of military capabilities, especially
naval, missile, and space warfare. In particular, the report warned
of China’s "continued development of advanced cruise
missiles, medium-range ballistic missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles
designed to strike ships at sea, including aircraft carriers, and
the January 2007 successful test of a direct ascent, anti-satellite
weapon." The report further chided the Chinese leadership
for shielding the details of its military budget from scrutiny.
"The lack of transparency in China’s military and security
affairs poses risks to stability by increasing the potential for
misunderstanding and miscalculation. This situation will naturally
and understandably lead to hedging against the unknown" –
an unmistakable call for increased U.S. military spending.

As the national
debate over U.S. military spending intensifies, these sorts of claims
are certain to be repeated with ever greater regularity and sense
of alarm. It is not that Pentagon officials dislike the Chinese
or believe that war with China is inevitable or even likely –
they don’t. It’s just that they want to deploy ever more sophisticated
weapons, and the only way to justify the acquisition of such costly
munitions is to posit the existence of a superpower-like enemy.
Because only China fits that role, it must be demonized
as a potential adversary. Thus, even as U.S. trade with China increases,
we could be thrust into a New Cold War simply to satisfy the institutional
and financial objectives of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower
once termed the military-industrial complex.

6, 2008

T. Klare is a professor of peace and world-security studies at Hampshire
College, a Foreign Policy In Focus
columnist, and the author of the forthcoming Rising Powers,
Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy (Metropolitan
Books, 2008). Reprinted with permission of Foreign Policy in Focus.

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