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U.S.-China-Taiwan Military Relations.

Despite frequent alarms about the supposed China threat, China is not an emerging superpower. Although it has experienced rapid economic growth, militarily China has been in relative decline since the 1970s. China's high economic growth rate is now slowing, and its pattern of growth has actually undermined its ability to become an autonomous military power able to manufacture its own weapons systems and sustain a war effort without support from abroad. China does not, and will not in the foreseeable future, pose the kind of military threat to the U.S. that the Soviet Bloc did (exaggerated though that threat often was). Nor is China an irritating "rogue state": it has cooperative commercial and diplomatic relations with most of its neighbors and with the United States.

From the 1950s until the late 1970s, Chinese leaders felt besieged--initially by the struggle with the U.S. over Korea, Taiwan, and Indochina, later by tensions with the Soviet Union. Though a poor country, China managed to devote over 10% of its GDP to the military during this period, more than four times the current percentage. This massive effort made China a major producer of tanks, artillery, submarines, war planes, and other weaponry, though all of 1950s Soviet design. This huge, obsolete arsenal still constitutes the overwhelming bulk of China's military hardware. Since Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, production of weaponry has fallen drastically.

Many policymakers have voiced concern that an influx of U.S. dual-use technology into China could facilitate military modernization. However, in industries such as aerospace, the trend has been for foreign involvement to relegate Chinese manufacturers to merely subcontracting low-tech components rather than manufacturing entire systems. The country's incapacity to design and manufacture most modern weapons has forced it to rely, like most developing countries, on arms imports. China's limited acquisition of modern foreign weapons (mostly Russian) is a tiny fraction of what would be needed to replace its aging arsenal.

China's armed forces are the world's largest, but smaller per capita than those of many countries, including the United States. The Chinese military's size is actually a hindrance to modernization, because it cannot afford adequate pay, training, or modern weapons for most of its forces. China will not be able to develop modern military forces unless it either greatly increases military spending (which seems unlikely) or drastically cuts the size of its forces. China can defend its territory, but its capacity for external aggression is minimal.

Although China has disputes with most of its neighbors, it has not resorted to force to resolve them since its defeat in the 1979 war with Vietnam (except for a brief 1988 dash with Vietnam over the Paracel Islands). China and Russia have demilitarized their common border, and China has extensive trading relations with all of its neighbors, including Taiwan and both North and South Korea. Even where there is tension, as in China's relations with Taiwan, India, and Vietnam, relations have improved considerably since the armed clashes of decades ago.

The most persistent remaining problem is China's threat to use armed force against Taiwan if it declares itself to be what it de facto is: an island country independent of China. Beijing has refused to recognize the government of Taiwan as a sovereign government with standing equal to China itself. Taiwan's moves toward claiming that status are met with threats of force, most recently in Beijing's warnings to the Taiwanese people not to elect Chen Shui-ban president. China's warnings failed to prevent Chen's victory, however, as similar warnings failed in 1996 to prevent the election of President Lee Teng-hui.

Beijing's threats against Taiwan are hollow, because China lacks the military capability to inflict damage on Taiwan without suffering immense damage to its own economy and coastal regions. For example, Taiwan's air force, though much smaller than China's, has been completely reequipped with modern aircraft, outnumbering China's few modern Russian-built fighters by more than six to one. China is now much more dependent on foreign trade than it was during the Taiwan Straits crises of the 1950s, and its economy would consequently suffer much more in the event of any armed conflict than it did then. Taiwan is today more powerful relative to China than it was in the 1950s. The Taiwanese could defend themselves adequately even without U.S. intervention. Although China and Taiwan could inflict mutual injury on each other, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which this would facilitate China's goal of reunification with Taiwan.

Key Points

* China remains militarily weak despite rapid economic growth--the pattern of which is actually undermining the old military-industrial state.

* China has been demilitarizing since the 1970s, and its military capabilities have been declining relative to those of the U.S. and most of its Asian neighbors.

* China's relations both with its neighbors and the U.S. have been improving, though hollow threats continue regarding Taiwan.

James H. Nolt, Senior Fellow, World Policy Institute
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Article Details
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Author:Nolt, James H.
Publication:Foreign Policy in Focus
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 10, 2000
Previous Article:Toward a New Foreign Policy.
Next Article:Problems With Current U.S. Policy.

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