Not terrorism–China drives up U.S. military spending

Ostensibly, the growing threat of international terrorism is responsible for the Bush administration’s proposed 2007 military budget, of $439 billion: a 7-percent increase from last year’s record tally. Higher spending, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has indicated, would ensure U.S. success “in the long war against terrorist extremism.”

But only a small share of the increase would cover specialized anti-terror and counter-insurgency systems. The biggest and costliest items–such as nuclear-powered submarines and long-range bombers–are intended for use against an entirely different enemy: the People’s Republic of China. Although official U.S. ties with Beijing have remained overtly friendly, Pentagon officials apparently hold a much darker view of the future.

The U.S. Defense Department isn’t exactly forthcoming about its perception of the China threat. Rather, it speaks of unnamed future challengers that might someday contest American military dominance. The United States “must hedge against the possibility that a major power could choose a hostile path in the future,” says the Pentagon’s four-year-strategy review. It’s to deter–and, if necessary, defeat–such challengers that the Defense Department wants to bankroll pricey new military systems.

The Pentagon has spelled out its rationale for this “hedging strategy” in its Quadrennial Defense Review of 2006. A comprehensive assessment of military policy conducted every four years, the review shapes the Pentagon’s long-term strategic planning. This year’s version accords equal weight to “defeating terrorist networks,” “defending the homeland,” and “shaping the choices of countries at strategic crossroads.”

The first two of these priorities are obvious enough, but what is meant by the third? The answer, if one reads between the lines, is that the United States should splurge on super-sophisticated weapons to prevent any aspirants to super-power status from ever catching up, or even trying.

For those familiar with the evolution of U.S. strategic thinking over the past 15 years, this sounds very similar to the perpetual-dominance posture, first articulated in the famous “Defense Planning Guidance” document leaked in 1992, shortly after the Soviet Union’s collapse. “Our first objective must be to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival,” comparable to the U.S.S.R., said the top-secret document. To this end, “we must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.”

At the time, U.S. leaders–including the first President Bush–repudiated this outlook as overly militaristic. But it has clearly made a comeback in the current Bush administration. And while the principle was first stated in purely abstract terms, as applying to any conceivable challenger, it’s now focused on China.

“Of all the emerging powers,” states the Pentagon’s current four-year review, “China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States.” With its booming economy, China has increased its military spending and acquired new weapons, putting “regional military balances at risk.”

Yet there’s no evidence that China actually seeks to compete with the United States on equal military terms, or to close the gap in advanced military technology. The Pentagon’s own assessment of Chinese capabilities, “The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,” highlights China’s many weaknesses, including its lack of aircraft carriers and long-range aircraft.

Still, this hasn’t stopped the Pentagon brass from seeking costly new weapons to fight a hypothetical greatly enlarged Chinese threat. Among the costliest items in the Bush administration’s proposed military budget are the F-22A Raptor air-superiority fighter ($2.8 billion); the multi-service F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ($5.3 billion); the futuristic DD(X) destroyer ($3.4 billion); and the Virginia Class nuclear-attack submarine ($2.6 billion). Additional billions are included for a new class of aircraft carrier and a next-generation long-range bomber.

It’s hard to imagine that these costly, super-sophisticated weapons would be used to fight bands of lightly armed guerrillas in Baghdad or Tora Bora. The only adversary that might conceivably pose a potent enough threat to justify use of such systems is a beefed-up China. It’s to fight this imagined Chinese threat that the administration wants to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into unnecessary military programs.

Spending all this money might discourage China from building up its military and thereby avert a future U.S.-Chinese clash. But it’s just as likely that it would have the opposite effect. To defend itself from the implicitly anti-Chinese weapons, Beijing might develop countervailing systems, and so become the heavily armed power that we sought to avoid in the first place.

Congress will examine the rationale for increased defense spending. It’s essential that lawmakers and members of the public question the Pentagon’s justifications–and reject proposals that would have the effect of triggering a new Cold War, one with the People’s Republic of China.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world-security studies at Hampshire College, a Foreign Policy In Focus scholar, and the author of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum (Metropolitan Books, 2004).