Friday, June 02, 2006

Evanescent China Threat

via Matt Yglesias, the Pentagon is still beating the China drum:
Every day and night, hundreds of Air Force generals and Navy admirals must thank their lucky stars for China. Without the specter of a rising Chinese military, there would be no rationale for such a large fleet of American nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, or for a new generation of stealth combat fighters—no rationale for about a quarter of the Pentagon's budget.
Of course, that's not actually the article that Kaplan writes. The article that Kaplan writes - and one I agree with - is that even with China's rising military, there's no justification for US military spending at the obscene levels we see today.

Keep in mind that, as I've argued before, the US probably gets less for its defense dollar than any other country in the world - both because of its political system and its global ambitions. That said, the idea of China winning a fight with the US (today, or in the near future) is hallucinatory.

Matt points to Alex Tabarrok, who argues:
rich, capitalist nations are much less dangerous than poor, communist nations. Consider how well China has treated Hong Kong. Moreover, democracy will not be long in coming to China.
First of all, one rich, capitalist nation has been extraordinarily dangerous to poor, Communist nations like North Korea, Vietnam, and yes, China. (The US Army is estimated to have killed something like 3/4 of a million Chinese in combat in Korea.)

Once again, we see an adherent to the democratic peace theory. But Alex neglects to mention one of the important refinements to DPT: that the most dangerous countries of all are recently authoritarian, now-democratic states. Consider Revolutionary France: They were attacking other countries in Europe before they'd even finished abolishing the monarchy. There are a number of reasons for this - domestic politics, fear of outside attackers, etc.

Of course, I'm an opponent of the DPT in any case - it's either so limited to be useless, or so broad as to be meaningless. To put it more clearly: A theoretically useful version of the democratic peace theory would be: "No two liberal democracies older than three years - who both perceive each other as democratic bodies - will declare war against each other and incur fatal casualties in excess of 1,000 combat deaths." And still, this might not cover Finland.

On the other extreme, there's the broad "democracies are less likely to fight each other." Which is broadly true, but again, useless. In truth, I have problems even with the more theoretically rigorous version, because (as I've said before) it excludes so many activities that, while not "WAR", come pretty damn close. For example, DPT has nothing to say about US assaults on democratic but socialist regimes across Latin America or the Middle East. DPT theorists will say that these weren't wars, or that the US didn't "perceive" Allende as a democratic leader. This, to my mind, is where DPT reaches the absurd - if DPT allows the attacks on Chile, or the death squads in Nicaragua, then it allows everything, and is meaningless.

To bring it back to China, we have some obvious problems with the "Democratic China = Friendly China" theory. First is the obvious one: A new Republic of China, likely facing internal divisions (at the very least, Tibet and the Uighurs want out) may decide to pick a fight with someone nearby in order to silence domestic opposition. But I think more importantly, there's a real likelihood that a democratic China is going to keep doing things that drive the Pentagon batty. This could very well lead to a situation where a democratic Chinese leadership is viewed much the same way that Hugo Chavez is today. In that case, I can very well see the US start a war with a Democratic China.

To finish this post off, I'd like to take yet another swipe at Michael Ignatieff: This is why opposing Iraq mattered. The lies were so transparent before the war began, I now fear that the next time a President - any President - wants to go to war, he'll just need to read the same playbook and get whatever he wants. If Democratic China starts nationalizing US assets and Uncle Sam decided to respond the only way he knows how, he'll just need to follow Bush's script. So when a few hundred thousand Taiwanese are dead in the cross-fire, Ignatieff can at least say he's proud to support their liberation.


Anonymous said...

American exceptionalism as manifested in American aggression is not necessarily a refutation of DPT. I consider Germany unlikely to go to war with France again soon, and that requires explanation. I like economic explanations (trade) at least as much as DPT.

But the US, or part of the US retains an atavistic nationalism far past its usefulness. We have always been a very violent Democracy, and though we had company in the 19th century, we may be the last of the kind.

Bob McManus

Westacular said...

I'm with the previous poster in the view that economic/trade considerations are at least as important as whether or not the players are democratic. Suggesting that war won't occur simply because both nations are democratic is a bit naive. Not that the two aren't related: Democracies tend to have more economic interdependence, which in turn creates a barrier against waging wars. You don't kill your customers, it's bad business.

Hmm. Wikipedia's entry discusses this ( but it seems that there's some recent research that completely contradicts what I just said. Interesting.