This week's U.S. visit by People's Liberation Army Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde has sparked an outpouring of conventional wisdom about the alleged "Chinese threat." One summary of the pertinent points came in a Reuters piece published last week:
The United States, and others in the region, have watched with concern as China's military has extended its reach in Asia and built up its military prowess. In one display of military muscle, China confirmed it had held its first test flight of the J-20 stealth fighter jet during a January visit to Beijing by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. It is also possible China will launch its first aircraft carrier later this year.
Sounds scary. Until one realizes that China has no stealth fighter worthy of the name, that its aircraft carrier is a remodeled version of a ship it bought from Ukraine in 1998, and that the United States spends five to nine times what China does on its military, depending on whether one uses the Pentagon's figures or those provided by independent analysts.
On the "stealth" fighter, aircraft expert Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group told the Wall Street Journal that the plane looked like it was "cobbled together" to make it look stealthy, even though it had obvious features that would make it highly visible on radar. He estimated that Beijing could be a decade or more away from developing a genuine stealth aircraft, by which time the U.S. will have moved on to the next generation of fighters.
There is one area in which China is outspending the U.S. by a wide margin -- infrastructure, in the form of high-speed trains, urban transit systems, port facilities, and other fundamental elements of a modern economy. This is not to say that all is well with China's economic rise. Pollution, mass population dislocations, and growing inequalities of wealth and income all pose threats to the sustainability of the Chinese model. But it is clear that the Chinese leadership is far more interested in putting resources into its economy -- a planned $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over the next five years -- than into an arms race with the United States.
In short, the hawks and the representatives of the military-industrial complex who are hyping the Chinese threat to justify record military budgets are fighting the wrong war, to the detriment of our security, which is ultimately based on the strength of our economy and the health and education of our people.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation Books, 2011). For more information go here.