China has the second-largest economy in the world, second only to the U.S. The country also has the second most billionaires in the world, again trailing only our country. But the country is not only an emerging economic power, as China’s military is also experiencing a significant upgrade and growth.
This growth that China is experiencing has many experts dubbing them as the next superpower of the World. And the country is exerting that power any chance it gets. In early October, the world witnessed how China is exercising its economic might to try and pressure international companies to bend to their will. The country is currently exercising its military might in the South China Sea, displaying its power, as it tries to supplant the U.S. as the dominant military in the region.
But should we be concerned with this display of economic and military might? Is China really a threat to the U.S.?
In this article, we’ll discuss these concerns along with other aspects of China you should be aware of.
How Americans Perceive China’s Threat
When people think of China as a threat, most think of the country’s military capabilities. Last July 2019, General Mark Milley said that China could remain as the country’s top military threat for as much as 100 years.
The general noted that China has watched and studied how the U.S. performed in the first and second Gulf War, adopting some of the doctrines and organizations that our country used. China also invested heavily in upgrading and strengthening its military to challenge U.S. military dominance, particularly in the South China Sea.
General Milley said that China rapidly improved its military capabilities in the air, land, sea, and space. He also added that the U.S. would need to “make sure we do not lose our advantages” to other countries, especially to countries like China.
That sentiment about China was echoed by the citizens when a Pew Research Center survey released last August showed that 81% of the responders think that the growing military of China is bad for the country. But their military is just one of the many threats that the country poses to America. There are also other potential threats China has that we’ll look at deeply. Apart from concerns about their military growth and development, China also poses possible threats relating to cyberattacks, nuclear attack, their holdings of our debt, and the ongoing U.S.-China trade war.
Growing Military of China
The main threat that most Americans attribute to China is their growing military strength. The country has been increasing their budget upgrading and modernizing its military power. And as mentioned earlier, most of the structures that China is incorporating in its military are taken from the U.S. But how strong is the country’s military strength anyway and is it capable of countering and defeating our country’s own military strength?
How strong is their military, really?
Let’s look at the raw numbers. Since China is the most populated country in the world (currently at 1.4 billion people), the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is currently the largest military force that consists of 2.035 million active soldiers, the biggest navy fleet in the world, the second strongest land strength, and the third strongest aircraft fleet. The country has also built up its conventional missile force that is said to rival or even outperform America’s own stockpile of missiles.
China has also upgraded the PLA’s nuclear capabilities, having ballistic missile submarines that are capable of firing nuclear missiles. Overall, China is considered as the third strongest country in terms of military, closely behind only the U.S. and Russia.
Is China’s growing military capable of countering and defeating America’s own military?
Though China has spent billions to upgrade and strengthen its military, is it enough to counter our own military and even defeat it?
According to a report from the United States Centre at the University of Sydney, the U.S. doesn’t have the dominance it once possessed in the Indo-Pacific Region and its ability to have a favorable balance of power in the region is also uncertain. The report even mentions that China is capable of achieving a fait accompli victory (which means an outcome that is already decided before those affected can hear about it) in the region before the U.S. can even respond.
The report mentions several reasons for this assessment and one of those reasons is that the U.S. military has thinned its strength with the continued and ongoing war in the Middle East. It doesn’t help that the military also experienced a budget austerity and there are underinvestments when it comes to advancing the country’s military capabilities. The country’s “liberal order-building agenda” also contributed to making the military ill-prepared to deal with an equal or greater competition.
On the other hand, it’s major rival in the region, which is China, has continued to strengthen its own military capabilities, the report adds. It also helps that the country has studied how America conducts its wars, which is “premised on power projection and all-domain military dominance.” China used these lessons to arm itself with an array of precision missiles, as well as put counter intervention systems that can undercut the U.S. military in the region.
The report added that the measures and systems that China placed will allow it to achieve a fait accompli victory, even with the use of limited force, since U.S. forces will have difficulty operating within the range of the missiles.
What this basically means is that China already has a strategy in place to allow it to win smaller and “limited wars” (like taking over the disputed islands or retaking Taiwan) instead of a big conflict against the U.S. It also doesn’t help that the U.S.’s defense strategy is to prepare for one great war instead of the multiple smaller conflicts that China has prepared for.
Should conflict break out between the two countries in the region, China has the upper hand. The report recommends for the U.S. to fortify the operating bases of its military as well as its allies military, especially those within range of Chinese missiles. Bolstering ties with allies, mainly Japan and Australia, to strengthen regional deterrence can also help in countering China.
Cyberattacks from China are not new since the two countries have been going at it against each other for years. In February 2019, a report came out that groups that are based in China have increased their efforts last year to try and hack into the systems of American businesses. The report stated that the spike in cyberattacks is likely related to the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China.
The companies that were mostly targeted were pharmaceutical companies, telecom operators, and hotel chains. The likely reason for these attacks is for hackers to steal business trade secrets, as well as information. The report adds that the strings of cyberattacks will likely continue in the foreseeable future.
But American companies are not the only ones being targeted for cyberattacks related to information theft, as universities around the world, including several in America, were targeted for phishing attacks. The report said that the University of Washington, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the University of Hawaii were among the 27 universities around the world that Chinese hackers targeted.
It is said that the attacks were aimed at stealing maritime technology that the different universities have. It is believed that the stolen technology and information will be used for military purposes. The latest cyberattack occurred in July when Chinese hackers targeted U.S. utility companies believed to steal data and take operational photos.
The group responsible is said to be the notorious APT10, which is believed to be a hacking group that is sponsored by the state. Though the cyberattacks coming from China are mostly focused on cyberespionage and information theft, their attacks will likely change, after the country has partnered with Iran.
Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, the ICT Minister of Iran, said that their partnership with China is “to confront U.S. unilateralism and hegemony in the field of IT.” Jahromi also criticized the U.S. for its actions against Huawei and ZTE and accused our country of “spreading hegemony on new strategic technologies”, namely, artificial intelligence.
With our country’s ongoing cyber warfare with Iran, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if China’s cyberattacks on our country increase further and go beyond just cyber espionage and information theft.
Another threat from China that is causing concern is a nuclear attack. I mentioned earlier how China has submarines that are capable of carrying and delivering nuclear warheads. But that’s not the only nuclear-related threat that China poses. Early in October, the People’s Liberation Army displayed its new hypersonic ballistic nuclear missile that is said to be capable of breaching all the existing anti-missile shields that the U.S. and its allies currently use.
Analysts are calling the new weapon a threat to regional stability since its speed will make it hard for countries to decide whether to launch a nuclear attack as a response. China also unveiled a DF-41 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile that can travel between 7,400 and 9,320 miles, the longest in the world. It is said it can reach the U.S. in 30 minutes.
But the probability of a nuclear attack coming from China is not that high due to the Mutual Assured Destruction strategy or MAD. This theory was developed to deter the use of nuclear weapons. The theory is that since nuclear weapons are so destructive, using them in war will mean everything and everyone gets destroyed. For example, if China decides to bomb several U.S. cities with a nuclear attack, the government will respond by bombing their cities with nuclear attacks as well. This will just result in massive destruction on both sides where no winner will come out on top, a zero-sum game.
Another reason for not bombing us is because we are the number 1 trading partner of China. The U.S. accounts for 19.2% of all Chinese exports in 2018, 7.1% more than its second top trading partner, Hong Kong. Their country earned $479.7 billion from us, so from an economic standpoint, it’s really not a smart move to hit our country with a nuclear bomb.
Human rights violations
As China emerges as a superpower country, more attention is being given to their country resulting in new things being discovered: their traditions and culture, their economic and military might, how they achieved their power, and much more. But as China thrusts itself into the limelight with its emerging superpower status, people are also starting to take notice of the country’s atrocities, particularly in regards to its human rights violations.
Many people are beginning to learn that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), under President Xi Jinping, uses an oppressive and totalitarian rule. This means that the Chinese citizens don’t have the freedom of speech to criticize or oppose their government or they risk getting thrown into jail, getting tortured, or worse, disappearing. China has shown that it doesn’t put too much value into human lives, especially if it meant protecting “national interest”.
The most well-known example of this Tiananmen massacre in 1989, where it is believed thousands of pro-democracy protesters were killed after Chinese troops opened fire on civilians, including students. About 10,000 people were also arrested during and after the protests. But these human rights violations are not only reserved for Chinese citizens since there are also cases where the government is arresting foreign nationals to try and pressure other governments or as a response to an action taken by the other government.
Though this also happens in western countries, China doesn’t really respect fair trial rights, or provide access to free media, making it harder to get information other than what the Chinese state provides. Often times, detainees in China don’t have access to counsel of their choice or even to their families. The country also doesn’t have an independent judiciary and politicizes verdicts. There are also cases of ill-treatment and torture, even to foreign prisoners.
Though China’s human rights violation and disregard for human life don’t directly affect us here in the U.S. for the moment, it is important that you are aware of it, especially if you plan to visit the country. Should something happen, don’t expect the Chinese government to respect your rights and freedom, even if you are a foreigner.
China’s Holdings of U.S. Debt
As of July 2019, China holds $1.11 trillion worth of U.S Treasury Securities. This makes them the country with the second-highest holdings of U.S. debt, next only to Japan. Prior to that, China actually held the most U.S. debt before the country started to lessen its U.S. debt holdings.
There are concerns that holdings of U.S. debt can be weaponized. The founder of Bridgewater Associates, Ray Dalio said that he won’t rule out the possibility that China will weaponize the U.S. debt. He mentioned that the two countries could reach a point in the trade war where their goal is to just deal “maximum harm” to each other.
Analysts said that one of the major impacts that a large-scale selling of U.S. Treasury Securities by Beijing could push down the prices of U.S. Treasuries and can cause interest rates to rise. An increase in interest rates would also mean an increase in U.S. borrowing costs, making it more expensive for our country to pay back its debt.
Since the yields on U.S. Treasuries are the benchmark for business and consumer credit, a rising interest rate will also result in an increase in interest rates for home mortgages and corporate bonds. This will make it more expensive for people and companies to borrow, thus slowing the economy. A massive selloff of U.S. debt could also affect global confidence in the U.S. dollar as the top reserve currency.
Though these are frightening risks for our country that could plunge us into a recession, analysts believe China won’t do it. This is due to the fact that there are also risks to China if they dump U.S. debt. The country uses U.S. Treasuries to stabilize the yuan within a certain range against the dollar. China will also feel the effects of a slowing U.S. economy since we’re the number 1 buyer of their exports. As mentioned earlier, we accounted for 19.2% of their exports last year. If our economy slows down or if we enter into a recession, our import of Chinese products will likely lessen, thus providing a big blow to China.
The U.S. – China Trade War
Another potential threat from China is their ongoing trade war with our country. Though the effects and consequences of the tariffs imposed would be minimal on the economy if it is kept for the entire year, consumers and small businesses are actually the ones who are feeling its effects the most.
The tariffs placed was supposed to help mitigate the imbalance that U.S. companies are experiencing. But it had a negative impact on small businesses as it increased the cause of doing business. About ⅓ of small businesses across the U.S. said that it is now more expensive to do business for them. They are forced to increase prices of their goods and services, which in turn results in them losing customers.
It is great news that there are signs the U.S.-China trade war is nearing its end, as the latest trade talks have resulted in both countries agreeing to Phase 1 of the trade deal. There weren’t a lot of details on the announcement, but the partial deal covers currency, agriculture, and some intellectual property protections.
Should the deal be put on paper and the next round of talks are positive, the trade war could soon end.
Is there a Reason for us to be Concerned about China?
After looking at all the possible threat scenarios that China poses, I would say that, yes, there is a reason for us to be concerned. Particularly, when it comes to the country’s growing military and cyberattacks.
China’s heavy investment in upgrading and advancing their military, as well as studying how the U.S. conducts its war, have given them an advantage in the Indo-Pacific region. The country has developed strategies and systems on how to engage with the U.S. should a conflict break out. Unless the U.S. makes the necessary changes, it could see its interests in the region gets taken away by China.
When it comes to cyberattacks, its recent agreement with Iran is what’s concerning since we are currently in cyber warfare with a Middle East country. Should China decide to get involved, dealing with the cyber threat would things more difficult for our country.
The other threats are also concerning, but the probability of them happening or having a great impact on us are slim, so it’s important that we are aware of them. Though China does pose a threat, the mutual benefits of having good relations between the two countries should still far outweigh any advantage gained by eliminating or suppressing one another. But should that economic benefit cease to exist, all bets are off.
There’s no denying that China’s emergence as a superpower country is causing unrest in the U.S., especially since the country is not afraid to flex its might. There are some changes and adjustments that our country needs to do, particularly when it comes to its military and cybersecurity measures.
But the probability of an all-out conflict happening is not that high, considering there are more benefits to be gained if both countries would work together instead of trying to outdo each other.
What do you think?
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As always, stay safe out there.