Evaluation of the balance of military capabilities of the two leading global players (the US and China) has long been in the focus of global “think tanks.” At the beginning of October this year, RAND Co. published a report titled, the U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography and the Evolving Balance of Power 1996-2017.
It was prepared by a large team of researchers led by Eric Heginbotham, professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, who is currently considered one of the leading American experts assessing the strategic situation in the Asia-Pacific Region (APR).
As soon as the report was published, semi-official Chinese Global Times, responded with an article titled Rand Report Echoes Cold War Mind-set, Overstates Threats.
The article was accompanied by a picture not devoid of subtle humour (its author has a proven record of the creation of artistic images accurately portraying the core ideas of the illustrated articles).
This illustration depicted a well-groomed hand of, apparently, an American intellectual, who is trying to insert a thermometer into the mouth of a fire-breathing dragon, an image which traditionally denotes China.
The monster has jumped out of the global magician’s hat rather unexpectedly (by historical standards), and its intentions are not quite clear yet. The intellectual intends to draw a conclusion about the degree of danger the dragon poses for the United States from the temperature of gas spewing from the dragon’s mouth.
But this picture shows only part of the goal-setting research done by RAND Co. In the second part they attempt to articulate preliminary practical recommendations on how the US military development program should be adjusted to address the “temperature reading.”
A mathematical method developed during the First World War for the comparison of two opponents’ military potential was used by the researchers as an allegorical “thermometer,” symbolising the tool for measuring China’s military capabilities.
As for the “geography,” the RAND Co. limited its research to the area that is very well known to those who are paying at least some attention to the developments in the Asia-Pacific region. It includes the South China Sea (SCS) and the Taiwan Strait, which collectively constitute half the area of modern “Balkans” of the emerging world order (the second half includes the East China Sea with the Senkaku / Diaoyu Dao islands and the Korean Peninsula).
As it was repeatedly noted in the articles published in NEO, it is the situation in the SCS that has recently turned into a bone of contention (from the political and military prospects) for the two major world powers.
Therefore, the area of SCS (in particular the region of the Spratly Islands, which are the subject of territorial disputes between Vietnam and the Philippines, on the one hand, and China, on the other) and the Taiwan Strait has been chosen by the researchers as the most representative sub-region, exemplifying the development of the balance of military capabilities of the United States and China.
The evolution of their military potential in the period from 1997 to 2017 was estimated based on ten “Scorecards” reflecting the trends for the development of certain types of weapons as well as some aspects of the strategic situation in the Taiwan Strait and the Spratly Islands.
The assessment was done based on the following “Scorecards”: China’s capability to attack US Air Bases; Air campaigns over Taiwan and the Spratly Islands; Potential U.S. Penetration of Chinese Airspace; U.S. Capability to Attack Chinese Air Bases; the PLA’s capability to destroy or damage U.S. aircraft carriers; the U.S. capability to destroy Chinese amphibious ships; the U.S. capability to deny or inhibit China’s use of satellites; China’s capability to deny or inhibit U.S. use of satellites; the relative capability of U.S. and PLA forces to gain a military advantage from cyber operations; the U.S. and Chinese strategic nuclear capabilities.
The set of criteria clearly shows that researchers paid particular attention to the trends for the development of those weapons systems, which would have the greatest impact should an armed conflict be sparked between the US and China in the geographical areas mentioned above.
Researchers stated that they based their assessment on both publicly available data (published, for example, by the London Institute for Strategic Studies) and their own assessments substituting unavailable data.
Thus, what we have here is a scientific work done with such a precision that anybody can verify its accuracy through the application of the same methodology.
It should be noted in this regard that the product of the illustrator’s artistic imagination (the illustration to the above-mentioned article in the Global Times) reflects the content of RAND Co’s research more accurately than the article’s headline because it is based on some abstract methodology and available data and has no political underpinning. In such cases they often say, “What you see is what you get.”
And “what you get” is a quite expected general and detailed picture of evolution of the United States and China’s military potential.
As for the main findings, their general outline is described by the lead of the team of researchers in his online profile in the form of the following two quotations from his previous works:
“Chinese power and reach has grown steadily and rapidly over the last 20 years. They can do more things, and they will use their power to try and cement their territorial claims.”
“Although the United States probably will not have the resources over the next decade to prevent all further erosion in the balance of military power [in Asia], it can adjust … in ways that will slow the process and strengthen deterrence.”
To explain these quotes and the results of RAND Co’s research work in most general terms, it would be appropriate to make a few observations first.
The first observation concerns the problem, which is always associated with this type of research, namely, the reliability of the chosen methodology as well as the extent to which the factors whose evolution is accompanied by a high level of uncertainty have been accounted for. These include, primarily, the uncertainty associated with the forecast assessment of the development of the political situation in the Asia-Pacific region.
Perhaps the authors of the study have better understanding the problem than anybody else, since they suggest to treat the report as a pretext for a discussion rather than a source of final conclusions and recommendations.
The second observation relates not so much to RAND Co.’s report, as to the time of its publication. It could hardly be a coincidence that it appeared just a week before the first official visit of China’s President to the USA.
RAND Co.’s report was one of several cautionary messages the United States “texted” to its main geopolitical opponent on the eve of the visit. It is contained in the second of the aforementioned general conclusions. It is noteworthy that Chinese reacted to the publication of RAND Co.’s report only after Xi’s visit.
Finally, the very subject of the research conducted by a leading American “think tank” confirms the earlier conclusion that the participants of the recent US-China summit were discussing anything and everything except real-life vital problems associated with the relations of the world’s two leading players.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“