Monday, November 05, 2012

Politicization and Misalignment of Chinese Defense Priorities

China's break-neck increases in military expenditure, generally estimated at around a 10% budget increase per year for the past two decades, have established the People's Liberation Army as one of the best funded military forces on Earth, at least in aggregate terms. Interestingly the People's Liberation Army-Navy has been the very public beneficiary of much of this largess with a substantial improvement in both the size and capability of the PLAN. As a result an increasing number of analysts and pundits find the Chinese military budget threatening. Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, both insightful figures in the study of the Chinese military, have begun to sound warnings about Chinese defense industries, particularly in the shipbuilding sector. Although these warnings come with the a number of reasonable caveats, a variety of the strengths discussed by Collins and Erickson will likely prove to be weaknesses rather than strengths. More importantly the increasing factionalization of the Chinese political system may threaten even a well-funded PLAN with incoherent strategies and poorly chosen equipment. 

The advantages of increasing technical savvy in design and construction techniques, particular the move to modular assembly practices, present little downside to Chinese military aspirations, whatever they may be; cheap, reliable and standardized equipment is useful for just about everyone. Roughly the same can be said from China's cost advantage in manufacturing warships and the possibility of selling relatively cheap systems to others. Sharing resources across differing shipyards, however, may prove a different story. One of the advantages of producing goods in non-monopoly circumstances, after all, is the insulation of markets as a whole from the foibles of a few producers; close cooperation between nominally independent organizations can spread faulty assumptions and engender group-think at least as easily as it spreads innovative ideas or drives techniques to an efficient standard.

More importantly, the ability of the Chinese shipyards to manufacture aircraft carriers may prove to be a serious strategic problem for the PLAN. Aircraft carriers, particularly of the kind that the PLAN could realistically field in the next decade, would have little use against the US or any of the major East Asian maritime states but could lead those states to increase balancing behavior aimed at China (as Collins and Erickson note). This also cuts against the ability of the Chinese to export their maritime military hardware; Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia seem unlikely to tie themselves to a rising and possibly hostile maritime hegemon by buying that hegemon's warships. As a result a great deal of China's maritime procurement strategy (aircraft carriers, large surface combatants, continued development of nuclear attack submarines) appears less focused on extant Chinese security concerns and more with prestige-building and producing ships that make the major ship-yards look good to the Chinese public.

A move towards a prestige-oriented military fits with the rumblings of elite political turmoil in the People's Republic. With a record number of well-to-do Chinese citizens sending their money and even their kids abroad, and large numbers of Chinese professionals immigrating for ultimately political reasons, the continued economic expansion has become more precarious than in the past. As large numbers of skilled and educated workers head for abroad the technical capacity of Chinese defense industries will become difficult to maintain much less expand. Most importantly the structure of elite politics in China, and particularly the corruption and cronyism in vital projects such as the high-speed rail network, raise concerns about aligning the Chinese state's ends and means. 

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