BEIJING – When American analysts talk of China’s military, they often describe it in terms of the looming threat of the future, a rapidly modernizing and expanding force that could one day rival, or even worse, overtake the United States.
Such anxieties were fanned further this week with China’s announcement of yet another year of double-digit growth in military spending. The news prompted public alarm from the Pentagon to Manila and Tokyo.
But when China looks at its own army, it is often with fears that it is not big enough and is lacking in competence, modernization and the sheer hardened will of a well-trained force.
Chinese soldier are wimps, bemoaned a prominent Communist Party organ, describing them as “male soldiers with female characteristics.”
“Dangerously corrupt,” wrote a famous Chinese colonel in a recent book, describing brothers-in-arms who had been fattened on bribes and grown complacent.
The polar extremes are a reflection of the complex, paranoid and intertwined state these days of the U.S.-China relationship as frenemies.
China’s Foreign Ministry scoffed on Wednesday at the alarm among the United States and its Pacific allies at China’s increased military budget.
“The moderate growth … is totally reasonable and justifiable, and there is no need to feel surprised,” said Qin Gang, the Foreign Ministry spokesman.
He added with unusually colorful language and sarcasm: “I want to reiterate that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is not a children’s army equipped with red-tasseled spears. Some outside China hope to see China stay as a Boy Scout who never grows up.”
His reference to child armies and red-tasseled spears drew chuckles online in China, where such images remain as relics from decades gone by.
To Westerners, what’s especially notable is that China’s rapid expansion has occurred right as the United States and its NATO allies have grappled with cuts.
China’s budget announcement Wednesday came just one day after the Pentagon announced plans to cut the U.S. Army to its smallest size in decades.
Chinese military spending now ranks second in the world. But analysts say its official budget – $131.56 billion for 2014 – doesn’t include billions spent in secret.
This year’s 12.2 percent increase in China is “just what we can see,” Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said in testimony to Congress this week. “There’s much more that, I’m told, lie below that.”
The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimated that China’s real sum for last year could be as high as $240 billion, double the official number.
And IHS Jane’s, a defense analysis company, projects that by 2015, China will be outspending the United Kingdom, France and Germany combined.
Not only is China’s army growing in an abstract sense but also literally as well, according to an odd-but-fascinating military report last month. The People’s Liberation Army’s official newspaper said that the average Chinese soldier has grown two centimeters (about 0.8 inches) taller and five centimeters (about two inches) thicker in the waist in the past two decades.
The bigger soldiers have brought with them problems as well as praise, the military newspaper said. Tanks three decades old are now suddenly too snug and rifles butts too short, causing accuracy problems.
But for all the talk these days of China’s bigger, beefier and expanding force, Chinese analysts clamor that its budget remains dwarfed by that of the United States. The U.S. military spending for fiscal year 2014, for example, stood at $526.8 billion, four times that of China.
“China is not as strong as the West describes,” said Song Xiaojun, editor of an online Chinese military magazine, who likened its army to a sickly child still on the mend. “I actually don’t think the current increase is enough; it should be accelerated.”
Analysts here often point out that China’s army soldiers haven’t seen combat since 1979.
In a scathing piece two years ago, the Communist Party’s influential Study Times newspaper said the Chinese army lacked a manly, martial spirit. It blamed China’s one-child policy for raising a generation of entitled, soft little emperors unready for war.
An even bigger problem is corruption, according to Col. Liu Mingfu, a former professor at China’s National Defense University. In a 2012 book, he called corruption “the No. 1 danger and No. 1 opponent for the People’s Liberation Army” and compared China’s current weaknesses to its corruption-riddled forces in 1894 who were soundly defeated by a modernized Japanese military.
Some U.S. experts also subscribe to this alternative narrative of China’s army as a bumbling, still nascent force. Ian Easton, a researcher at the Virginia-based Project 2049 Institute, recently catalogued a long list of embarrassing, Keystone Cops behaviors, such as missile-launch readiness drills that he said include movie and karaoke breaks.
“China’s military is in many ways much weaker than it looks,” Easton wrote. But what should be frightening to Western powers, he argues, is how China is looking to make up for that weakness with increasing investments in asymmetrical, non-traditional tools of war such as space weapons, ballistic and cruise missiles and cyber warriors.
The message Chinese officials have tried to convey this week is that those underestimating China’s military as well as those who simply wish it wouldn’t expand quite so fast are equally mistaken.
At the Foreign Ministry briefing – flogging his metaphor of child armies and red-tasseled spears – spokesman Qin said, “Even if China were a Boy Scout, he will grow taller and his feet will grow larger year by year. You cannot simply have him wearing the same small clothes and shoes, can you?”