When will China emerge as a military threat to the U.S.? In most respects the answer is: not anytime soon—China doesn’t even contemplate a time it might challenge America directly. But one significant threat already exists: cyberwar. Attacks—not just from China but from Russia and elsewhere—on America’s electronic networks cost millions of dollars and could in the extreme cause the collapse of financial life, the halt of most manufacturing systems, and the evaporation of all the data and knowledge stored on the Internet.
by James Fallows
The practical lesson was to not point a camera toward uniformed groups of soldiers or police. The broader hint I took was to be more careful when asking about or discussing military matters than when asking about most other aspects of modern China’s development. I did keep asking people in China—carefully—about the potential military and strategic implications of their country’s growing strength. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and consequent disappearance of the U.S. military’s one superpower rival, Western defense strategists have speculated about China’s emergence as the next great military threat. (In 2005, this magazine published Robert Kaplan’s cover story “How We Would Fight China,” about such a possibility. Many of the international-affairs experts I interviewed in China were familiar with that story. I often had to explain that “would” did not mean “will” in the article’s headline.)
Without meaning to sound flip, I think the strictly military aspects of U.S.-China relations appear to be something Americans can rest easy about for a long time to come. Hypercautious warnings to the contrary keep cropping up, especially in the annual reports on China’s strategic power produced since 2000 by the Pentagon each spring and by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission each fall. Yet when examined in detail, even these show the limits of the Chinese threat. To summarize:
• In overall spending, the United States puts between five and 10 times as much money into the military per year as China does, depending on different estimates of China’s budget. Spending does not equal effectiveness, but it suggests the difference in scale.
• In sophistication of equipment, Chinese forces are only now beginning to be brought up to speed. For instance, just one-quarter of its naval surface fleet is considered “modern” in electronics, engines, and weaponry.
• In certain categories of weaponry, the Chinese don’t even compete. For instance, the U.S. Navy has 11 nuclear-powered aircraft-carrier battle groups. The Chinese navy is only now moving toward construction of its very first carrier.
• In the unglamorous but crucial components of military effectiveness—logistics, training, readiness, evolving doctrine—the difference between Chinese and American standards is not a gap but a chasm. After a natural disaster anywhere in the world, the American military’s vast airlift and sealift capacity often brings rescue supplies. The Chinese military took days to reach survivors after the devastating Sichuan earthquake in May of 2008, because it has so few helicopters and emergency vehicles.
The Chinese military’s main and unconcealed ambition is to someday be strong enough to take Taiwan by force if it had to. But the details of the balance of power between mainland and Taiwanese forces, across the Straits of Taiwan, have been minutely scrutinized by all parties for decades, and shifts will not happen by surprise. The annual reports from the Pentagon and the Security Review Commission lay out other possible scenarios for conflict, but in my experience it is rare to hear U.S. military or diplomatic officials talk about war with China as a plausible threat. “My view is that the political leadership is principally focused on creating new jobs inside the country,” I was told by retired Admiral Mike McConnell, a former head of the National Security Agency and the director of national intelligence under George W. Bush. Another former U.S. official put it this way: “We tend to think of everything about China as being multiplied by 1.3 billion. The Chinese leadership has to think of everything as being divided by 1.3 billion”—jobs, houses, land. Russell Leigh Moses, who has lived in China for years and lectures at programs to train Chinese officials, notes that the Chinese military, like its counterparts everywhere, is “determined not to be neglected.” But “so many problems occupy the military itself—including learning how to play the political game—that there is no consensus to take on the U.S.”
The authorities I spoke with pooh-poohed as urban myth the idea that an electronic assault was behind the power failures that rippled from the Midwest to the East Coast in August of 2003. By all accounts, this was a cascading series of mechanical and human errors. But after asking corporate and government officials what worried them, I learned several unsettling things I hadn’t known before.
First, nearly everyone in the business believes that we are living in, yes, a pre-9/11 era when it comes to the security and resilience of electronic information systems. Something very big—bigger than the Google-China case—is likely to go wrong, they said, and once it does, everyone will ask how we could have been so complacent for so long. Electronic-commerce systems are already in a constant war against online fraud. “The real skill to running a successful restaurant has relatively little to do with producing delicious food and a lot to do with cost and revenue management,” an official of an Internet commerce company told me, asking not to be named. “Similarly, the real business behind PayPal, Google Checkout, and other such Internet payment systems is fraud and risk management,” since the surge of attempted electronic theft is comparable to the surge of spam through e-mail networks.
At a dinner in Washington late last year, I listened to two dozen cyber-security experts compare tales of near-miss disasters. The consensus was that only a large-scale public breakdown would attract political attention to the problem, and that such a breakdown would occur. “Cyber crime is not conducted by some 15-year-old kids experimenting with viruses,” Eugene Spafford, a computer scientist at Purdue, who is one of the world’s leading cyber-security figures (and was at the dinner), told me later via e-mail.
It is well-funded and pursued by mature individuals and groups of professionals with deep financial and technical resources, often with local government (or other countries’) toleration if not support. It is already responsible for billions of dollars a year in losses, and it is growing and becoming more capable. We have largely ignored it, and building our military capabilities is not responding to that threat.
No doubt because I’ve been so preoccupied for so long with the implications of China’s growth, I thought I heard a familiar note in the recommendations that many of the cyber-security experts offered. The similarity lies in their emphasis on openness, transparency, and international contact as the basis of a successful policy.
In overall U.S. dealings with China, it matters tremendously that so many Chinese organizations are led or influenced by people who have spent time in America or with Americans. Today’s financial, academic, and business elite in China is deeply familiar with the United States, many of its members having studied or worked here. They may disagree on points of policy—for instance, about trade legislation—but they operate within a similar set of concepts and facts. This is less true of China’s political leaders, and much less true of its military—with a consequently much greater risk of serious misunderstanding and error. The tensest moment in modern China’s security relationship with the outside world came in January of 2007, when its missile command shot one of its own weather satellites out of the sky, presumably to show the world that it had developed anti-satellite weaponry. The detonation filled satellite orbits with dangerous debris; worse, it seemed to signal an unprovoked new step in militarizing space. By all accounts, President Hu Jintao okayed this before it occurred; but no one in China’s foreign ministry appeared to have advance word, and for days diplomats sat silent in the face of worldwide protests. The PLA had not foreseen the international uproar it would provoke—or just didn’t care.
While trying to build bridges to the military, McConnell and others recommend that the U.S. work with China on international efforts to secure data networks, comparable to the Chinese role in dealing with the world financial crisis. “You could have the model of the International Civil Aviation Organization,” James Lewis said, “a body that can reduce risks for everyone by imposing common standards. It’s moving from the Wild West to the rule of law.” Why would the Chinese government want to join such an effort? McConnell’s answer was that an ever-richer China will soon have as clear a stake in secure data networks as it did in safe air travel.
We’re naturally skeptical of abstractions like “cooperation” or “greater openness” as the solutions to tough-guy, real-world problems. But in making the best of a world that will inevitably be changed by increasing Chinese power and increasing electronic threats from many directions, those principles may offer the right, realistic place to start.