Thursday, August 25, 2011

The China threat

In the 1980s, defense hawks working for the Pentagon launched a series of annual reports on "Soviet Military Power."  The reports drew on intelligence assessments, but packaged them in the most alarming way. The Soviet forces were always depicted as 10 feet tall, with no mention of of weak knees or chronic alcoholism. Of course, the reports never indicated the likely collapse of the Soviet empire either.

I understand. Military analysts have to consider worse cases. They emphasize capabilities, regardless of evidence of intentions. But we on the outside have to sprinkle some salt on their analyses.

In the late 1990s, defense hawks were searching for a new enemy to justify large Pentagon budgets. Instead of noticing terrorism, however, they fixated on China -- the "near peer competitor."  A fashionable faction grew up, urging "contain China now," for they expected an eventual power struggle and confrontation. They ignored the bipartisan counter argument that adopting such an approach would become a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy.

In 1999, they succeeded in adding a reporting requirement to the defense authorization bill that makes the Pentagon produce an annual assessment of Chinese military power. The latest one was released this week. In truth, I haven't read it yet. And I doubt that it distorts the classified intelligence estimates.  While knowing China's military capabilities is important, it is not the only factor to consider when developing policies toward China.

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