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Evolution of the China Threat

Charles Horner

Fifty years ago, the China Threat was a new thing. It appeared suddenly in 1949, after Mao Zedong and his Communist Party ousted Chiang Kai-shek and his national government. Chiang had been a popular figure in America, a co-combatant in the war against Japan, and a willing ally in the Cold War against Stalin. But, in the space of five years, by 1955, Mao’s New China had sent an army into North Korea to save the collapsing regime of Kim Il-song (father of the present North Korean dictator) and had helped Ho Chi Minh defeat the French in Indochina. 1955 was also the year that Mao sent his Foreign Minister, Zhou Enlai, to the famous Bandung Conference in Indonesia, to try to organize the peoples of the Third World against the United States.

Forty years ago, the China Threat became part of the work of university departments and think tanks. In 1965, Mao’s acolyte and disciple, his defense minister Lin Biao, proclaimed the worldwide applicability of Mao’s guerrilla tactics, and threatened “to drown the West in a sea of People’s War.” The issue was joined in Vietnam, and also in nearby Thailand, where three insurgencies were underway, and in Laos, Cambodia, and Burma also. 1965 is now famous as “The Year of Living Dangerously,” when Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson, cinematically of course, witnessed an attempt by China to engineer, along with Indonesia’s Communist Party, a coup d’etat which would have installed a pro-Beijing regime in Jakarta. It was a close thing. 1965 was also the year that began The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, whose nihilism and energetic iconoclasm seemed to flow into world’s “youth culture.” The Beatles thought about it but, in the end, rejected Mao. But that was also a close thing. Supposing Paul, John, Ringo, and George had opted for the Barricades instead of the Ashram?

Thirty years ago, in 1975, Richard Nixon’s earlier diplomatic ploys were succeeding in turning the China Threat into the China Card. The Sino-American alliance against the Soviet Union slowly began to take shape. Nixon himself was of office in 1975, having been forced out of the White House the year before; 1975 was also the year the US forces were driven out of Vietnam, a widely publicized failure of U.S. efforts at counterinsurgency. But China was not happy about the victory of its former proteges. In fact, in l979 Deng Xiaoping sent China’s army into North Vietnam on a brief punitive expedition to show his displeasure at the behavior of the Vietnamese Communists.

Twenty years ago, in 1985, Ronald Reagan was playing the China Card, part of his soon-to-be-successful effort to bring down the Soviet Union. To be sure, he had been purchased the card with a tall stack of chips; early in his first Administration, Reagan embraced the reform plans of Deng Xiaoping and the United States aided immeasurably in China’s economic takeoff. Only 10 years ago, in l995, there was neither a China Threat to fear, nor any great strategic game worthy of a China Card play. This year, in 2005, the China Threat is here again, but it stands alone, without any offsetting benefits, because we can yet not report the return of the China Card.

The China Threat of today has been much discussed but not adequately analyzed. It is seen as a trade and commercial threat of a particular kind. The most common perception is that China is a place of low-end (because low wage) manufacturing, a country that produces a seemingly limitless supply goods to fill the shelves of Wal-Mart stores. True enough. But this misses a major transition now underway in China’s economy, a transition from lower-order to higher-order production.

My colleague at Hudson Institute, Ernest Preeg, an experienced economist, has looked closely at Chinese economic strategy since 1995 and has documented how it is now centered on the development of advanced technology industries, a self-sustaining research and development infrastructure and, most of all, a massive pool of human capital-mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. But when Preeg speaks of “the advanced technology superstate” that China is building, he as more than power turbines in mind. He has observed the closer integration of civilian and military high technology as both have come under more civilian control, and he describes in revealing detail how this is leading to militarily-relevant design and manufacturing of an increasingly greater sophistication and effectiveness.

Another colleague at Hudson, Mary FitzGerald, a long-time analyst of military affairs, also has looked at this rapid rate of military system modernization, but in conjunction with a now-enormous collection of writings by Chinese military analysts that has been accumulating since l991. They all drive home the same point: China’s future military capabilities must rely on a mastery of the highest of high-tech weapons for information warfare, space warfare, deep-sea warfare and, beyond that, weaponry based on advances in the biological and life-sciences. For these Chinese strategists, it is the only way for China to leap ahead, and neutralize the substantial advantages the United Sates now enjoys in already-existing weaponry. The Chinese, enormously impressed by the Revolution in Military Affairs they saw after the l99l Persian Gulf War, now want to get in on the ground floor of the next such revolution. The military leadership supports the transformation of the civilian economy precisely because it has concluded that it is the only way that China can develop the requisite technology.

The idea that a country’s security in the twenty-first century rests on its ability to keep control of the highest technological ground is very familiar to Americans. It is the doctrine that informed the first Bush administration’s ideas abut “transformation” and “modernization” when it first took office. But since the War on Terrorism began with the attacks on New York City in 2001, these same terms have come to be applied to necessary improvements at the opposite end of the “spectrum of conflict” special forces, urban warfare, post-stabilization operations, and the like. Traditionally, the Defense Department’s formal statements about military challenges have spoken of more than one war “two” or “two-and-a-half” that the United States may have to fight at one and the same time. These terms connoted conflicts in different places. But in the twenty-first century, the notion of “two wars” can just as easily be applied to two different kinds of war-the intense and vicious man-to-man war being fought in Iraq and elsewhere, but also the war of complex technologies that others may be planning to fight against us. That war, for all our other military challenges right now, also requires “transformation” and “modernization” and, most of all, attention.

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