Fallows tries to separate "China threat" fact from fiction

In an Atlantic article on Chinese electronic warfare, James Fallows argues we have little to fear from China militarily but a lot to fear in terms of cyber attacks.

Fallows offers this disturbing corruption anecdote:

by all accounts, corruption remains a major challenge in the Chinese military, rather than the episodic problem it is for most Western forces. One example: at a small airport in the center of the country, an airport manager told me about his regular schedule of hong bao deliveries—“red envelopes,” or discreet cash payoffs—to local air-force officers, to ensure airline passage through the sector of airspace they controlled. (Most U.S. airspace is controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration; nearly all of China’s, by the military.) A larger example is the widespread assumption that military officials control the vast Chinese traffic in pirated movie DVDs.

And Fallows shares yet another story reflecting poorly on Chinese leaders' grasp of the world outside China:

The tensest moment in modern China’s security relationship with the outside world came in January of 2007, when its missile command shot one of its own weather satellites out of the sky, presumably to show the world that it had developed anti-satellite weaponry. The detonation filled satellite orbits with dangerous debris; worse, it seemed to signal an unprovoked new step in militarizing space. By all accounts, President Hu Jintao okayed this before it occurred; but no one in China’s foreign ministry appeared to have advance word, and for days diplomats sat silent in the face of worldwide protests. The PLA had not foreseen the international uproar it would provoke—or just didn’t care.

Fallows says “it matters tremendously that so many Chinese organizations are led or influenced by people who have spent time in America or with Americans” but worries because “This is less true of China’s political leaders, and much less true of its military—with a consequently much greater risk of serious misunderstanding and error.”

Of course, most American politicians and government officials have only cursory knowledge of China. The blame runs in both directions, but that only increases the mutual danger.

Posted by James on Wednesday, March 17, 2010