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The Bunker: Bull in the China Shop

The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.


This week in The Bunker: a questionable claim about the strength of the U.S. military; how the sagging Chinese threat echoes the Soviet menace of a generation ago; and more.

WEAKLING HAVOC

Study brands U.S. military “weak”

For the first time in nearly a decade of annual reports, the Heritage Foundation says the U.S. military is “weak” and its “ability to fulfill its primary mission is in jeopardy.” That’s quite a claim, even for a conservative foghorn like Heritage. As usual, more money is the answer — for a force that already costs more than the world’s next nine most-expensive militaries combined.

How can this be possible for a military slated to cost nearly $850 billion(PDF) this year?

Well, it isn’t.

While the U.S. military may be guilty of planning to fight the last war, the military-industrial-threat-complex is forever hyping the next one. Only in a fantasyland that worst-cases U.S. military power and best-cases that of prospective foes — working together — could the United States be challenged. You know, the same way we fought Germany, and then Japan, in World War II (when the United States knew how to win wars), and Afghanistan, then Iraq, then Afghanistan again after 9/11 (not so much).

Here is how Heritage grades the U.S. military:

Army: Marginal (2023 budget request: $178 billion)

Navy: Weak (2023 budget request: $180.5 billion)

Marine Corps: Strong (2023 budget request: $50.3 billion)

Air Force: Very Weak (2023 budget request: $169.5 billion)

Space Force: Weak (2023 budget request: $24.5 billion)

Nuclear Capability: Strong (2023 budget request: $34.4 billion).

Even since the collapse of the Soviet Union — and the pitiful performance of its husk, Russia, in Ukraine — the long pole holding up the U.S. threat-tent has been China. And Beijing is front and center in Heritage’s 2023 Index of U.S. Military Strength(PDF):

China has invested in an arsenal of missiles designed to target U.S. warships, has upgraded its fleet of fighter jets, and is fielding advanced equipment that is rivaling the U.S. military’s in quality. U.S. intelligence experts gauge that China has surpassed the U.S. in hypersonic missiles, space systems, and naval shipbuilding.

But on second thought, Heritage says, China’s military really doesn’t matter that much: “Even if China had no hard military power, its rancid ideological ambitions, demographic urgency, and institutionalized technological aggression would make it our most dangerous adversary.”

That sounds a lot like a new Cold War (albeit with one of the U.S.’s biggest trading partners). Yet China can only be our “most dangerous adversary” if its “rancid ideological ambitions” have traction. Otherwise, China as we know it today is unsustainable. And, just like the Soviet Union, it’s simply convenient cover for ever-increasing U.S. defense budgets. (As Dan Grazier, our in-house Marine at the Project On Government Oversight, explains here.)

CHINA SYNDROME

Cracks appear in Beijing’s might

It seems like the Heritage report has been ignoring recent news out of China, as well as a lesson from the past. The Bunker lived through the Cold War and reported on it for more than a decade before the Soviet Union fell apart. Americans were terrified about the prospect of war with Moscow. That’s because Red Army troops, according to U.S. officials, were 10 feet tall. And they were outfitted with super weapons highlighted in Soviet Military Power(PDF), which, with its spy-inspired artwork, served as kind of a Playboy magazine for the 1980s military-industrial-complex crowd.

It all came crashing down with the Berlin Wall.

The Great Wall undergirding China’s military might is also crumbling.

China’s population of 1.4 billion has peaked, or it will soon. Given current trends, the UN projects the Chinese population will decrease by 46% over the next 75 years. “Based on political, social, and technological circumstances, China’s limited ability to react to this demographic shift will likely lead to slower growth outcomes in the next twenty to thirty years and impact its ability to compete on the world stage with the United States,” Julia Fadanelli of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in August.

China’s “economy is in a real mess,” Axiosreported in September. “The Chinese Communist Party’s state-directed economic system is facing some of the toughest struggles it’s ever seen” because of a perfect storm of economic ills. China has seen its average annual growth plummet from more than 9% since 1978 to less than 3% this year. Until recently, economists predicted China’s annual economic output would eclipse the U.S.’s sometime this decade. But that’s now in doubt. “The sharp slowdown in China’s growth in the past year is prompting many experts to reconsider when China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy — or even if it ever will,” the Wall Street Journalsaid last month.

Highlighting China’s increasingly brittle power structure, President Xi Jinping tightened his authoritarian grip after winning his third five-year term on October 23, making him the nation’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

Yet in some corners, China’s demographic woes, economic troubles, and political rigor mortis are — hold on to your helmet — cause for concern. “A weak [there’s that dang word again!] China may be more warlike than a strong one,” The Economistopined last month in a review of a new book by “two American geostrategists” affiliated with the hawkish American Enterprise Institute.

This is the old “heads I win, tails you lose” argument. “The basic argument for a hyper-hawkish policy toward China has been that China was rising fearsomely and that is what made it so dangerous,” Fareed Zakaria wrote October 20 in the Washington Post. “Prepare yourself for a new argument: China is declining precipitously and that is why it is so dangerous! So even if the facts are the opposite of what was previously asserted, the conclusion somehow remains the same.”

The Palace of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors doesn’t stand a chance against a military-industrial-complex filled with smoke and mirrors.

SO WHAT’S NEXT?

Beware of bull in the China shop

China is a threat to the United States, but it’s a threat that must be kept in perspective. Beyond the not-disinterested views of the Pentagon and its suppliers, the odds clearly favor the U.S. and its allies. We should start acting like it.

WHAT WE’RE READING

Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently

Is this any way to invade?

Retiring Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) reveals a peculiar and clandestine U.S. push for the 2003 war with Iraq, in this excerpt from his new memoir published in Politico October 21.

More than one way to spell “defense”

The Pentagon released the list of its 10 biggest contractors in 2021 on October 20. The roster includes COVID vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna, which it noted “were both new to the list and are anomalies for traditional defense spending.”

The cat’s meow…

Congress is considering paying up to $4,000 per household pet to ship them to U.S. troops assigned to overseas posts, Karen Jowers reported in Military Times October 18. One way.

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