Richard Bush joined the International Affairs Forum to discuss China’s increased military spending, Taiwan, and Chinese nationalism on display as the Beijing Olympics near. Bush concludes by offering suggestions to the next president of the United States regarding a future approach toward East Asia.
International Affairs Forum: In March, China announced plans to increase military spending by 18% this year. What do you make of China’s military build-up, and is it anything its neighbors, or indeed the United States, needs to be worried about?
Richard C. Bush: The budget increase in March is consistent with the long term trend. It is designed, in part, to make up for the long term neglect of the People’s Liberation Army in terms of long term resource allocation. It reflects a significant reorientation of their strategic outlook, away from the Eurasian interior, on which they spent resources for a couple of decades, and towards the western Pacific. All of that is terribly expensive. They have to spend a lot on payroll and military education in order to keep people in the military, because there a lot of other attractive opportunities. So, in that sense, this spending should not be that alarming.
Another possible explanation for the increase is that some items that may have been off-budget are gradually being put on-budget, so if there’s greater transparency, that’s a good thing as well. But there are a couple of areas where we shouldn’t be so complacent. Number one is that the primary reason for China’s acquisition of power projection capability, which is one of the purposes of this spending, is to deter what China perecived as a move towards indpendence by Taiwan. To some extent this has been a misperception on China’s part, or an over reaction to what has been going on in Taiwan.
There may well be good news in that the election of Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan president, and his more moderate policies toward the mainland, may allow China to become more relaxed about Taiwan trends, and therefore spend less on capabilities that were designed for a Taiwan contingency. Whether they do so is another question, but one can hope that political change on Taiwan will lead to a reduction, to some extent, of China’s military build up.
But it is unlikely to lead to a total reduction, because the Chinese have made clear that Taiwan is not the only reason they were acquiring power projection capability. They see the need to expand their strategic space into the western Pacific to create a strategic buffer. And that, sooner or later, could bump up against the deployments of Japan and the United States, unless political steps are taken by all concerned to draw the right rules of the road. That is being done to some extent, but it is going to take great care on the part of all concerned, and leadership on the part of those who guide the future course of China, the United States and Japan to ensure that military planners in their respective countries don’t just operate on autopilot and create a dynamic of defense spending and acquisitions that leads to a downward spiral.
IA-Forum: How much of a shift in policy do you expect with Ma’s election?
Mr. Bush: It’s very much a work in progress. Beijing is certainly happy to see the end of the Chen Shui-bian era, because they regarded him as a trouble maker and they had to devote a lot of time and effort to blocking his initiatives, which they saw as a challenge.
They have put forward a number of ideas for greater cooperation and stabilizing the situation in the Taiwan Strait. They will want to be certain that Ma’s long term intentions are compatible with their own. So I expect there to be signaling between the two sides, starting with Ma’s inauguration on May 20th. And actually it’s already begun a process of mutual reassurance that can pave the way for a stabilization of cross-straits relations. But the situation is very complicated, and there are a lot of ways in which a legacy of mistrust could undermine this positive process. There are ways in which some substantive issues could get in the way and block progress. We’ll have to see, as the process is just beginning.