Can China translate its industrial strength into military might?

By Du Yanghong
0 CommentsPrint E-mail, March 29, 2011
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After overtaking Britain, the former workshop of the world, at the start of the 20th Century, US manufacturing industry was without serious rivals for an entire epoch. The US owed its victory in World War II, and its subsequent hegemony, to the strength of its manufacturing base. But today, many research organizations have concluded that China is gradually replacing the US as the world's number one industrial power. The question is what effect this change will have on the military balance. Will the US follow the pattern of Britain, the former number one power, and lose its military preeminence along with its industrial ascendancy? Will China be able to follow the US example and build up its military power to match its industrial strength?

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine on March 16, Abraham Denmark of the Center for a New American Security gave his answer to this question. Denmark believes there is no reason to be pessimistic about the future of US military power. He gave three reasons:

Firstly, the US has an extraordinary ability to mobilize its industrial power in time of war. In the Second World War the US was able to convert its civilian industries to produce military supplies on a huge scale, with astonishing results.

Secondly, in the 21st Century, warfare is very different from in the 20th Century – an era in which massive mechanized armies clashed, and industrial strength was the decisive factor. On today's battlefields the decisive factor is not mass produced weaponry but speed, agility, coordination and precision. These are precisely the areas in which the American military excels and outclasses its rivals. And there is no prospect of the US losing this lead in the foreseeable future.

Thirdly, although China's defense industry is improving in terms of quality and technology, it still lags far behind and will not overtake the US in the near future. In the meantime, China's military will not be able to make up in quantity for what it lacks in quality.

Abraham Denmark's point of view has widespread support, but I believe it is not too difficult to find objections to it. Below, we will examine some of these objections point by point.

Firstly, although in World War II the US was able to rapidly convert its civilian industry to military use, the same does not hold true today. On the eve of the Second World War, America, the world's factory, faced economic difficulties because its productive capacity outstripped effective demand. Military orders solved the problem of excess capacity. But since the seventies of the last century, US manufacturing has been in secular decline. And its problems do not flow from excess capacity but, on the contrary, from low productivity. In Detroit, car production lines have closed because of their lack of competitiveness. How is it possible to imagine they could one day be retooled to produce tanks? In 2008 US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said "the United States is the only declared nuclear power that is neither modernizing its nuclear arsenal nor has the capability to produce a new nuclear warhead." The US lacks the necessary design and technical personnel to develop new nuclear weapons, and that in itself is a sign of its industrial decline. "The problem is the long-term prognosis, which I would characterize as bleak," Gates admitted.

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