A 2021 photo shows people learning to use smartphones at a senior citizens' university in Taiyuan in China's Shanxi Province.

A 2021 photo shows people learning to use smartphones at a senior citizens' university in Taiyuan in China's Shanxi Province. Photo by Wei Liang/China News Service via Getty Images

Stop Building a Military to Attack China

Concentrate instead on deterring Beijing, and keeping a Chinese invasion force from going anywhere.

Scenes of thousands of Chinese citizens protesting the government’s draconian COVID restrictions must be a dagger in the heart of the D.C. establishment. For years now, members of Congress, government officials, military leaders, and think-tank talking heads have been issuing dire warnings about the imminent and existential threat posed by China. These warnings are frequently followed in the same breath with appeals for more military spending to keep pace with the “pacing challenge” of the 21st century. 

Theirs is a well-known tactic used by the military-industrial-congressional complex called threat inflation. As we seemed to be finally putting the War on Terror behind us, the shadow of a rising China came along at just the right time for the defense spending hawks. Much like the Soviet Union before it, China now serves as a useful menace to be trotted out at hearings and press conferences while lawmakers and defense officials work to nudge defense budgets ever higher. 

Just this past week, the House and Senate agreed to a deal that would add $45 billion to President Joe Biden’s already record-setting post-World War II defense budget. “Democrats and Republicans in both chambers backed large increases on the premise of addressing high inflation and keeping pace with China,” Politico wrote. 

They want this extra money to continue building a force that can project military power right up to the Chinese coast and beyond. Rarely mentioned is the fact that it would be nearly impossible to contain such a conflict beneath the nuclear threshold. Official Washington needs to focus on alternative approaches, like building a force intended to deter aggression from China.  

China’s top military goal appears to be keeping foreign powers, especially the United States, as far away as possible. The Chinese government calls this strategy “active defense”; Western strategists generally call it anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD. Its major manifestation is a network of land-, air-, and sea-launched weapons, including shore-based missiles with 4,000-kilometer ranges and an anti-ship missile with a range of 1,500 kilometers, to keep naval forces at a distance; and air-defense missiles with a range of 170 kilometers.   When combined with the People’s Liberation Army Navy fleet and the Chinese Air Force, it does provide a formidable defensive system.

What the system is not suited for is projecting military power forward. The Chinese naval fleet has more ships than the U.S. Navy, but they are smaller and less capable than their American counterparts. The Chinese can get away with that because their fleet operates under the protective blanket created by the A2/AD system. Should the Chinese fleet venture beyond the shore-based covering forces, their ships would be extremely vulnerable. 

Moreover, the current protests show that Chinese society is not quite as stable as the threat inflators would like you to believe. In fact, China faces several economic and demographic challenges that will temper military adventurism. 

The once-booming Chinese economy, which the World Bank says has now stalled, remains heavily dependent on imports and exports. The Chinese import at least $1.55 trillion worth of goods such as petroleum products, iron ore, and food. Any disruption to global shipping would devastate not just  the Chinese but also the global economy. Chinese leaders know this. In April, the Chinese Ministry of State Security warned that if Western sanctions were imposed in response to a Taiwan emergency, the resulting food crisis would likely force the government to roll back economic reforms and reinstitute the planned economy of the mid-20th century. 

The Chinese population is aging fast. According to the United Nations, the median age in China will rise from 20.8 years in 1980 to 50.7 years in 2050. (The median age of Americans is expected to rise from 29.1 to 43.1 years over the same period.) The population will also shrink, largely because of the now-discontinued One Child policy. It will become increasingly difficult for the relatively smaller number of young workers to care for the expanding elderly population—and for Chinese leaders to entertain their current ambitions. 

With all this in mind, the United States should reconsider our monumentally expensive military plans; we should focus instead on ways to build a force that can deter aggression and, failing that, work with allies in the region to craft a force that can fend off any Chinese assault force that attempts to leave its territorial waters. Such a strategy would involve more submarines, including non-nuclear boats, which could be purchased in quantity at a cost far below current budget projections. 

A clear-eyed look at China’s weaknesses and defensive military posture punctures its portrayal as a 10-foot behemoth. There is no reason that United States taxpayers should be left footing the bill for costly systems that will do little to confront the real problem. It is time to adopt a more realistic approach to confronting China. 

This op-ed is based on a December 2022 report from the Project On Government Oversight detailing efforts to inflate the threat posed by China.

Dan Grazier is the Senior Defense Policy Fellow at the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight.