The rapid rise of China on the world stage has caused a lot of recent debate on the new superpower as a global security threat. It cannot be denied China has engaged in a military buildup for years now, and that they have expressed some troubling aims, particularly on the subject of Taiwanese independence.
However, before calling China the "next big threat," there are several factors to consider. First among these is that while the People's Liberation Army has certainly been building up technology and material in an effort to compete with other countries in the region, the United States is still far and away the big dog in that kennel. The fact is, the PLA's "modernization" program really kicked into gear after the Gulf War in 1991, when the Chinese military establishment realized they were 20 years behind the United States--no doubt as they watched footage of laser-guided bombs obliterating targets on CNN.
By 1999, after some eight years of investment, the PLA was still described by Robert A. Manning of the Council on Foreign Relations as "the world's biggest military museum," as most of the 2 million soldiers on-call in the Chinese military were ill-trained and equipped with 30 year-old weapons. Moreover, the PLA's navy still doesn't have the capacity to drop off its untrained troops anywhere even minimally distant and certainly doesn't have the capacity to face the combined US and Taiwanese navies. The only thing the PLA really has going for it is its respectable size and enough nuclear weapons so no one would ever seriously consider an invasion of China, not that they would, as that idea has been considered ludicrous since the Korean War in 1950-53.
Clearly then, China's capacity as a military threat is somewhat overstated. The other factor to consider when discussing how much of a threat China poses is simple economics. Deng Xiaoping (who succeeded Mao Zedong as leader of China) once said: "To be rich is glorious," and given China's economic boom lately, it would seem that Chinese people got the message. China has transformed itself into a manufacturing juggernaut. For instance, some 70 per cent of the products sold at Wal-Mart are made in China. Also, China holds a large amount of US debt, receiving massive annual payments on it. The Chinese also rely heavily on foreign investment to further their development program. Simply put, it's highly unlikely China would risk rocking the boat when it would mean crippling their economy.
But why, given the decrepit state of the Chinese military and their economic linkages that depend on maintaining the good will of the international community, have people like Donald Rumsfeld been spewing prophecies of doom and gloom? The simple answer is "money." As it's become clear that terrorism is the biggest challenge for modern militaries, all the big-ticket goodies that defense departments want, like ultra-sophisticated fighter jets, which have little use against terrorists, are suddenly not in the budget. This wasn't a problem during the Cold War, because all you had to say was: "the Reds have X number of planes, we need twice as many or they're going to burn our children in nuclear fire" and out came the government chequebook. With the Soviet Union gone, it would seem defense department hawks all over the world are using China as an excuse to pad their procurement budgets.
The next time CNN tries to sell you China as the new global bad guy, don't believe the hype.