Foreign Policy

China’s Army Is Outmatched

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Why the Quad should take an honest look at the Chinese military’s capabilities, Beijing and Washington gear up for bilateral meetings in Alaska, and China’s government punts on setting a five-year GDP growth target.

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The Quad Takes on the PLA

The leaders of Australia, Japan, India, and the United States will meet on Friday in a virtual summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, otherwise known as the Quad—the informal forum largely directed at possible Chinese threats. Recent congressional testimony by U.S Adm. Philip Davidson has drawn attention ahead of the meetings, particularly in India, which remains nervous about conflict with Beijing. Davidson testified that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) hasn’t withdrawn from several positions in the disputed Ladakh region, despite recent agreements.

But portrayals of China’s overwhelming force are misleading—at least if you’re in Washington rather than New Delhi, which is genuinely outmatched. Even using outside estimates of China’s military budget, its spending—roughly $200 billion—is less than one-quarter of the annual U.S. defense budget of around $934 billion. Even as the United States takes Beijing’s increasingly aggressive stance seriously, that reality shouldn’t be forgotten.

What makes the PLA a challenge for the United States isn’t its size or capabilities in absolute terms, but its concentration in a relatively narrow field: anti-access/area denial, or missile and electronic technology designed to raise the costs of military intervention anywhere close to China itself. For example, Chinese missiles, launched from bases along the coastline, could make it nearly impossible for the United States to move ships through local waters. This presents a serious problem for U.S. strategists, especially given growing Chinese aggression toward Taiwan.

But there is also a tendency to overestimate the PLA because outsiders can’t see inside it. Although China has updated its military technology, severe weaknesses likely remain—from corruption to poor systems maintenance. PLA propaganda and secrecy makes it hard for these problems to be examined or discussed within China itself and hard for outsiders to obtain the information, unlike in the United States or Taiwan.

As for the attempt this week by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton to conjure up the specter of Chinese “nuclear overmatch” when questioning Davidson? It’s even more absurd than the false belief in a missile gap with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Although China has plans to double its current stock of around 200 warheads, that would still leave it far behind the vast U.S. arsenal. China is also the only major power to maintain an explicit “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons.

Bilateral meetings in Alaska. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan are set to meet Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Politburo member Yang Jiechi in Alaska next week to discuss a range of issues, including the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and Hong Kong. Real progress seems unlikely at the relatively brief and wide-ranging meetings.

Instead, Wang and Yang will probably reiterate existing positions—but at least Blinken can say he tried. The secretary of state may also be signaling to China that he, not climate envoy John Kerry, is the person to talk to on climate change. It’s a testimony to just how tense relationships between Beijing and Washington are that the meetings are taking place at this geographical halfway point rather than at either capital.

Shrinking Chinese state. A new report from Gavekal, a well-known research firm, shows that China’s central state spending has decreased slightly in recent years, as Yukon Huang and Joshua Levy write in Foreign Policy. But the key may be that the coercive power of the state has grown, meaning that some of its effective power functions through nominally private companies. For example, private firms are required to spend time and manpower maintaining their own internal censorship systems to not fall foul of official state censors.

Squabbles with the U.K. Another week, another low in relations between Beijing and a foreign capital. This time it was the United Kingdom’s turn in the barrel, with the British ambassador summoned over an article she posted on the embassy’s WeChat account discussing China’s censorship of and attacks on foreign journalists.

Media relations are particularly sensitive between London and Beijing after Ofcom, the U.K. regulator, revoked China Global Television Network’s broadcasting license in February and followed up this week with new fines for broadcasting propaganda, including forced confessions.

Stock market rout. Stocks in China’s heavily regulated market dropped 14 percent in just 14 trading days, ending a post-Lunar New Year rally. The Chinese stock market isn’t anywhere near as important as in the United States, with property the preferred investment vehicle, but the fall was still a shock—and one that state intervention did surprisingly little to stop.

The fall cast a cloud over the annual two sessions, the rubber-stamp legislative meetings currently being held in Beijing. So did the bad air quality index in the capital, which came as a surprise to Beijing’s residents who are used to factory shutdowns and cloud seeding that create clear skies for government events.

GDP skipped. The Chinese government’s decision not to set a single GDP figure for the next Five-Year Plan period (2021-2025) led some analysts to wonder whether the state was shifting its priorities. Not so, said senior official Hu Zucai, who emphasized that GDP growth was still a priority. The state has still set a goal of 6 percent growth for 2021.

The lack of a clear Five-Year Plan target, however, may indicate growing uncertainty about Beijing’s midterm economic future, which doesn’t want to be left with an embarrassing miss. (Even in China, there’s only so much data massaging you can do.)

Researcher sued. Chinese firms in Xinjiang are suing Adrian Zenz, whose research has been an important part of exposing atrocities in the region, in Chinese court. Chinese media has previously singled out Zenz in a series of personal attacks. The academic was one of more than 50 experts consulted for a major report this week on the genocide in Xinjiang.

On the legal front, Missouri’s attempt to sue the Chinese Communist Party over the coronavirus pandemic remains stalled in court. The case may seem wacky, but it raises interesting questions over whether the party—and party-controlled institutions—enjoy sovereign immunity in U.S. legal cases. (Soviet era precedent seems to suggest it does.)

Beijing and Shanghai’s 47 million people make up 3.6 percent of China’s population, but they dominate coverage of the country. There are more than 100 other cities in China with more than 1 million people. China Brief will profile some of them here.

People walk on a commercial street during the Lantern Festival, which marks the end of the Lunar New Year celebrations in Taiyuan, China, on Feb. 26.

People walk on a commercial street during the Lantern Festival, which marks the end of the Lunar New Year celebrations in Taiyuan, China, on Feb. 26.STR/AFP via Getty Images

Taiyuan, Shanxi: 4.2 million people

For decades, locals couldn’t hang laundry outside in Taiyuan, the capital of northern China’s Shanxi province (not to be confused with Shaanxi province next door). Its reputation as one of the most polluted cities in China was a comedown for a town with more than 2,400 years of history. Taiyuan was an important power base in the north and the capital of brief-lived kingdoms like the Northern Han.

Like many northern cities, it became a center of heavy industry and manufacturing in the 20th century. Air pollution from Taiyuan’s heavy coal usage was so bad that white sheets would come back covered in black filth. Shanxi’s coal barons (brutally portrayed in the 2003 thriller Blind Shaft), who made millions from illegal mining, built mansions in their hometowns, including Taiyuan.

Today, after two decades of environmental efforts, the skies have cleared somewhat—but the average air quality index still lingers over 100—in the unhealthy range.

That’s it for this week.

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