Crouching Tiger or Paper Dragon?

When a senior defense expert recently testified before a US Congressional commission on China's military capability, he detailed the extraordinarily robust weapons program the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has been pursuing. He pointed particularly to the PLA's increasing number of short-, intermediate- and even long-range ballistic missiles. But the expert concluded that, despite the alarming number of missiles, they did not constitute a ``buildup.''

Baffled by that conclusion, the Congressmen began asking one question relentlessly: if the existing PLA missiles did not constitute a ``buildup,'' then what number of missiles would? The inability to answer this question clearly exorcised and angered both the senior expert and the committee.

But this episode illustrates a fundamental and frustrating problem: the more we know about what is going on in China the less we are sure about whether China has actually become a threat. We know China has doubled and redoubled its defense budget for, among other things, a massive weapons development program, including modernizing a deterrent and second-strike nuclear capability. Yet we cannot decide whether this build-up is menacing.

The prevailing consensus is not to regard China as a threat. But there are several serious conceptual flaws in this reasoning. It fails, for example, to take into account the hostile strategic culture against the US--and against US strategic goals in the Asian and Pacific regions-- that has long been ingrained within the PLA.