Why China might be exaggerating their military’s development

by Chris Zappone

Anyone who cares about China’s potential military threat should read this article by Gregory Kulacki, who raises the possibility that China is exaggerating its military power to gain a strategic advantage over the US. While some believe China uses ‘un- witting’ pro-Beijing US analysts to manipulate policy, it’s just as likely other analysts in the US are overestimating China’s military power.

Kulacki helpfully divides the US analysts into a “blue team” that “claim they see through” China’s deceptions to a much larger military, and a “red team”…”of U.S. experts who are either coerced or duped into downplaying the China threat.”

He then gives the example of an ancient Chinese strategist Zhuge Liang who used “straw boats to catch arrows,” and by tracing the provenance of a particular piece of “exclusive” US reporting on China’s defense capabilities, shows how threats can be hyped.

I have long wondered about this possibility. Obviously, secrecy is central to the authoritarian regime, and what one leader says, may not necessarily be so.

But there are three other things at work with Kulacki’s ideas that make his hypothesis possible.

1) There is a natural US tendency to overemphasize a country’s military hardware threat, while underplaying the political resolve of an adversary. You can see this in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan right back to Vietnam. All of those countries inferior militaries and hardware and look what happened.

2) China’s top leadership is reportedly obsessed by not making the mistakes the Soviet Union made leading to its collapse.

One of those mistakes would surely be plowing too much money into the military at the expense of the domestic economy. If China wants to avoid that outcome, they would need to assure they don’t overspend on a military, particularly when 500 million people are still waiting to move up on the economic later.

3) Conversely, studying the downfall of the USSR, one can’t help but make parallels to the US whose government is hugely indebted after two long and costly wars. It could be possible that the Chinese, by telegraphing huge new weapons capabilities, would hope to dupe the US into costly spending that would eventually weaken it permanently.

It could be a case that China realizes its power is actually greater by not spending too much on the military. Ironically, the exact same is true for the US.