China's Military, In Perspective

This column was written by CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen.

This Letter from Asia comes from Beijing.

Just what is the Chinese military up to? Some experts in the U.S. think it's building toward becoming another superpower, and someday there will be a mano-a-mano face-off between the U.S. and China.

Maybe…but just as likely…maybe not.

First, China IS changing its military – making it more of a 21st century force by spending money on technology while actually shrinking the number of soldiers it has.

And if you want to know why – the answer comes from great P.R. by the defense department … our defense department.

When the U.S. showed off its precision bombing technology in Iraq, the Chinese sat up and took notice. This was something they couldn't do, and couldn't defend against.

That's when the Chinese military budget started climbing.

And increased spending is what ruffled the feathers of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who visited China recently…and while here chided the Chinese to their faces, daring them to come clean. Rumsfeld suggested that the actual expenditures by the Chinese are "something like two to three times" of what the official figures suggest.

Chinese say their military budget is $30 billion dollars. Using the Rumsfeld theory, we'll make it three times that … about $90-billion dollars.

And how does that compare to the U.S.? It's about one forth of what we spend. That's right…fellow taxpayers…one forth. Because the US defense budget comes in at about $400 billion dollars.

Which is why a lot of Asian leaders are dubious about alarm bells ringing at the Pentagon over China's military changes. The numbers just don't add up to a crisis.

China's leaders say they have other priorities for spending. They want to make life better. A tough job in a country where there are 900 million peasant farmers and farm families on average earn less than a thousand dollars a year.

And the Chinese will tell you that what they do spend is a lot about protecting their sea lanes and their ships…in a country that now lives on what it exports.

Is the Chinese military getting better, stronger? Absolutely. Will it someday catch up with the U.S.? Not at this rate. Not now, and unless something radical changes…probably not ever.

It never hurts to be prepared, and the U.S. military is certainly that. But in a faceoff, both sides know how badly the Chinese would lose.

CBS News correspondent Barry Peterson is based in Tokyo and has reported on stories all over the world, including China, Nepal, Russia, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia, and the U.S.
by Barry Petersen