Hyping the China Threat

| Fri Jun. 16, 2006 1:44 PM EDT

Well, this is disturbing. As we all know, the Pentagon has a rather alarmist view of China. But where does this view come from? Careful analysis? Maybe not. Gregory Kulacki reports in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that the United States' appraisal of China's intentions and military capabilities is often based on dubious sources—an essay from tabloid newspaper in one case, the writings of an amateur weapons enthusiast in another—that are then wrongly attributed to the Chinese government and deemed cause for concern.

In 2001, for instance, a U.S. commission warned that China was preparing for, quote, a "space Pearl Harbor" and probing for weaknesses in our high-tech infrastructure that could be exploited in a possible war over Taiwan. But much of this assessment was based on an essay written in China by a junior military officer freelancing for an "outlook" magazine, who wrote a piece on U.S. vulnerabilities that exclusively cited U.S. sources, including various Pentagon reports. In no way did the essay reflect China's official intentions, much less its ability to probe for weaknesses. It was just misinterpreted by whatever analyst read it. As Kulacki says, it's "a game of telephone gone horribly wrong."

Now China might in fact be planning some colossal space war against the United States. Or planning to dominate all of Asia. Or whatever nightmare scenario we're supposed to worry about. It's possible. But there's no reason to take the U.S. intelligence community's word on this as final—not least because, according to Kulacki, most of people gathering intelligence on China don't even speak Chinese very well, and so are quite prone to misunderstandings and mistranslations.

Even worse, though, is that a needlessly hawkish view on China can create a dangerous feedback loop. Chinese analysts read U.S. government reports, and in turn write their own analyses for Chinese military journals, which are in turn read by U.S. analysts, and so on. A bit of excess alarmism in those initial reports can be amplified over time, as both sides get increasingly alarmist, and hawkishness can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Already we have a military-industrial complex that has every incentive to hype the Chinese threat in order to justify expensive new weapons systems; we hardly need Chicken Little intelligence based on shoddy translation on top of that.