Pentagon Hyperventilates About China's Military 'Intentions'

The Pentagon is hyperventilating about China. It recently issued a report accusing China of understating its military spending and of not clearly stating its "intentions."

"China's military buildup has been characterized by opacity," David Sedney, deputy assistant defense secretary for East Asia, told reporters, and "by the inability of people in the region and around the world to really know what ties together the capabilities that China's acquiring with the intentions it has."

Excuse me while I laugh.

The proposed Bush military budget for the coming fiscal year is close to $600 billion. By some estimates, the United States is already spending close to a trillion dollars on defense if you take into account add-ons for Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as military-linked expenditure by other departments, plus debt incurred due to past Pentagon spending.

"Hardly anyone appreciates that the total amount of all defense-related spending greatly exceeds the amount budgeted for the Department of Defense," wrote Robert Higgs of the libertarian Independent Institute last March. "Indeed, it is roughly almost twice as large."

Higgs estimated the grand total as $935 billion, and Christopher Hellman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation calculated in October overall defense spending at $989 billion. No prizes for forecasting that we'll finally break the $1 trillion mark this year.

China, by comparison, is proposing to spend $59 billion in the coming year. And yet we have a Pentagon functionary complaining deadpan about its military intent.

True, China's double-digit defense spending increases are a matter of concern, primarily for its people, who get less in badly needed expenditure on basic needs such as health and education. (The United States under Bush has had sharp hikes in the budget, too, though, with a proposed 7.5 percent increase for the coming year.) And there's no denying that fact that China is a repressive regime with close ties to various other wretched governments, such as Burma and Sudan.

But this isn't a Manichean morality play. The U.S.-China rivalry is instead a strategic game about who can project power most forcefully. And, here, the United States has, by far, the upper hand. It has built a cordon around China with tens of thousands of troops in countries like Japan and South Korea to the east, close military partnerships with countries such as India and Indonesia to the south, and increasing ties to the "stans" in the West, including U.S. troops in Afghanistan. What would the U.S. reaction be if China had such close military ties with Canada and Mexico?

One factor primarily drives China's actions outside its neighborhood: commerce. This is the reason for the government developing ties with Latin American countries (an excuse for more fulmination among U.S. national security circles), and is also the explanation for its cozying up to the butchers of Sudan. Unlike the Mao era, when it tried to foment revolution throughout the developing world, China's is less an ideological campaign than a commercial one.

Ultimately, all the hyping about the Chinese threat tells us more about its arch-rival.

"Blinded by its own putative imperial glory and thinking of the world only in boxing-ring terms, Washington is the real wild card," John Feffer writes in The Nation. "In the contest for world leadership, the United States is the more likely one to come out swinging -- and end up knocking itself out."

Keep that in mind the next time you hear the security establishment frothing at the mouth about the supposed threat from the Middle Kingdom.

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