Those Americans who grew up in the superpower-vs.-superpower world of the Cold War tend to view China’s growing power and military arsenal with concern.
But those who fear a burst of Chinese aggression typically underestimate the degree to which China’s military is actually focused on upgrading outdated equipment and keeping order internally, according to Security Studies Program faculty member M. Taylor Fravel, an associate professor of political science.
Governing a Vast Population
China’s leaders are preoccupied with the enormous challenge of governing a fifth of the world’s population in a country roughly the same size as the United States. “There are no economies of scale in government,” Fravel said. “When you’re governing people, the marginal costs go up and up.”
Fravel, who examined 60 years of Chinese disputes for his 2008 book Strong Borders, Secure Nation, found China’s use of force in territorial disputes has typically been quite restrained. “In the U.S., we tend to focus on the potential for China to project power,” Fravel said. “China has multiple different goals.”
Borders, Stability, Status
These goals include securing its long borders, achieving unification with Taiwan, and maintaining regional stability. China also sees a modern military as a sign of great power status, Fravel said.
China was embarrassed that it had no ships to send to assist following the 2004 tsunami, for example. The United States, by contrast, led the relief effort through the deployment of more than 20 naval vessels. Some Chinese aid workers were transported to disaster zones on U.S. helicopters.
Responding to Natural Catastrophies
Other recent events that highlight the government’s domestic problems include the devastation of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and collapse of shabbily constructed schools, a January 2008 ice storm that crippled nationwide transportation networks, the widespread poisoning of milk with melamine, and the global embarrassment of exporting lead-tainted toys.
“Domestic issues such as these are occupying 90 percent of the attention of China’s leaders,” Fravel said. “You can see why they’re internally focused.”