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June 3, 2006

The Perils of Threat Inflation


by William S. Lind

In the 1980s, when I was on the staff of Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, I traveled regularly to Maxwell Air Force Base (whose claim to fame is not one, but two golf courses) to give the slide-show briefing of the Congressional Military Reform Caucus to Squadron Officers’ School. After one such session, an Air Force captain, an intelligence officer, came up to me and asked, "Does military reform mean we can stop inflating the threat?"

The Defense Department’s annual report to Congress, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2006, released last week, shows that threat inflation remains a growth industry in Washington. Though the report is written in a careful tone, its message is that China is a growing military threat to the United States. Subheads in Chapter Five, "Force Modernization Goals and Trends," point to "Emerging Area Denial Capability," "Building Capacity for Precision Strike," and "Improving Expeditionary Operations." One can almost hear the threat inflation engines pumping away, puffing the dragon up to a fearsome size.

China is, to coin a Rumsfeldism, the threat we want, not the threat we face. By dint of much puffery, China can be made into the devoutly prayed for "peer competitor," an opponent against whom our "transformed," hi-tech, video-game future military can employ its toys, or more importantly, justify their acquisition. Our real enemy, the thousand faces of the Fourth Generation, fails to meet that all-important test and is therefore deflated into "rejectionists" and "bad guys."

In fact, China’s conventional forces are a long way from being able to take the United States on, especially at sea or in the air. The issue is not less equipment – not that China has much of it – but personnel. Chinese ships spend little time at sea, its fighter pilots get few flight hours, and one can hardly speak of a Chinese "navy": it’s really just a collection of ships. In a naval and air war with the United States, China would have little choice but to go nuclear from the outset, which is what I suspect it would do.

A close read of DOD’s China report reveals an interesting twist, one all too typical of the "American Empire" advocates who dominate the Washington Establishment. The main Chinese "threat" the report identifies is defensive, not offensive, namely an improving capability to repel outside intervention in a crisis between China and Taiwan. The report states,

"Since the early- to mid-1990s, China’s military modernization has focused on expanding its options for Taiwan contingencies, including deterring or countering third-party intervention….

"Simultaneously, the (U.S.) Department of Defense, through the transformation of the U.S. Armed Forces and global force posture realignments, is maintaining the capacity to resist any effort by Beijing to resort to force or coercion to dictate the terms of Taiwan’s future status."

Under its "one China" policy, the U.S. recognizes that Taiwan is part of China. So the "Chinese threat" is that China may be able to deter or counter American intervention in a Chinese civil war. Who is the attacker here? If Britain or France had intervened on behalf of the Confederacy after the American South declared its independence, would the Union have seen such action as defensive?

This points to the grand folly DOD’s China report represents, namely America allowing Taiwan, a small island of no strategic importance to the United States, to push it into a strategic rivalry with China. Taiwan is vastly important to China, because the great threat to China throughout its history has been internal division. If one province, Taiwan, can secure its independence, why cannot other provinces do the same? It is the spectre of internal break-up that forces China to prevent Taiwanese independence at any cost, including war with America.

But America has no corresponding interest. A war with China over Taiwan would be, for the U.S., another "war of choice," not of strategic necessity. We are currently fighting two other "wars of choice," and neither is going particularly well.

A strategic rivalry between the U.S. and China points to an obvious parallel, the strategic rivalry between England and Germany before World War I. That parallel should give Washington pause. If the rivalry – completely unnecessary in both cases – leads to war, as it then did, the war will have no victor. Germany and Britain destroyed each other. While Britain finally won, the British Empire died in the mud of Flanders.

A war between China and the United States could easily result in a similar fatal weakening of the U.S. (perhaps after a strategic nuclear exchange), while a defeated Chinese state may dissolve, with China becoming a vast region of stateless, Fourth Generation instability. Is Taiwan worth risking such an outcome? Was Belgian neutrality worth the Somme, Bolshevism and Hitler?

In a 21st century where the most important division will be between centers of order and centers or sources of disorder, it is vital to American interests that China remain a center of order. America needs to handle a rising China the way Britain handled a rising America, not a rising Germany. From that perspective, the proper place for DOD’s China report, the threat inflation it represents and the strategic rivalry it stokes is in the trash can marked "bad ideas."


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  • William Lind is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He is a former Congressional Aide and the author
    of many books and articles on military strategy and war.

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