The Wrong China Hedge


I think it’s pretty uncontroversial to say that the only country one could really imagine becoming a serious military competitor to the United States on any kind of foreseeable time horizon would be China. The first-best approach to military competition with China is to try to avoid military competition with China, recognizing that a fundamentally cooperative relationship between the two countries would be better for the overwhelming majority of Chinese people, better for the overwhelming majority of Americans, and better for the overwhelming majority of people who are neither Chinese nor American. But I think everyone agrees that there’s some logic to the idea of “hedging” against a deterioration in relations. At the moment, that’s one of the rationales for investing vast sums of money in maintaining Cold War-style weapons systems.

I’ve long felt that was somewhat counterproductive insofar as it doesn’t so much hedge against the possibility of a deterioration in US-Chinese relations as it does make such a deterioration more likely. But Ilan Goldbenberg uses the column I published this morning as the jumping off point for the more provocative point that spending so heavily now is likely to counterproductive even in terms of the military balance:

The economy acts as the base of military power. It can be transformed into immediate military power at any time but at a long-term cost of reducing your military power. A country can invest in its economy in the short-term causing long-term economic growth, which creates a bigger base from which it can invest in military power. Or, it can invest in military power in the short-term understanding that this will have a cost to it’s economy and thus long-term military effectiveness.

The problem right now with the Bush administration sreategy is that we are investing well over $500 billion per year in defense once you include Iraq and Afghanistan, while China, the country most likely to present a significant long-term strategic challenge to the U.S., invests only $60 billion. That is a pretty dramatic handicap that we are creating for ourselves, especially when most of the spending is for weapons programs that might be obselete by the time the Chinese really are ready to compete and the fact that we still hold a dramatic military advantage.

He quotes Richard Betts offering a smarter strategy:

The correct way to hedge against the long-term China threat is by adopting a mobilization strategy: developing plans and organizing resources now so that military capabilities can be expanded quickly later if necessary. This means carefully designing a system of readiness to get ready — emphasizing research and development, professional training, and organizational planning. Mobilization in high gear should be held off until genuine evidence indicates that U.S. military supremacy is starting to slip toward mere superiority. Deferring a surge in military production and expansion until then would avoid sinking trillions of dollars into weaponry that may be technologically obsolete before a threat actually materializes. (The United States waited too long — until 1940 — to mobilize against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. But starting to mobilize in 1930 would have been no wiser; a crash program in aircraft production back then would have yielded thousands of ultimately useless biplanes.)

I believe that the experience of Italy during the 30s and 40s illustrates some of the problems with rearming too early (in order to pursue silly imperial ambitions in East Africa) only to find yourself fighting a war with outdated equipment.