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Architect of China's Quest for Military Dominance
By Bill Costello
Education Columnist
What if Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s economic rise, was also secretly the architect of China’s quest for military dominance? It’s not a far-fetched theory.

Two decades ago, Deng advised his colleagues to “hide your brightness, bide your time.”

The way to move stealthily would be to focus on economics first. A strong economy is a prerequisite for a strong military.

By personally handpicking all of the top leaders who have succeeded him—Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao—Deng increased the
likelihood that his long-term plan would be carried out.

Deng’s plan would have been shaped by the large body of historical evidence that supports the concept that empires rise or fall based on their economies.

Take the British Empire, for example. Over a century ago, it expanded from economic to military to political power. At its height, the British Empire accounted for roughly a quarter of the world’s land surface. However, Britain’s global dominance ended when its economy deteriorated.

Fast forward to present day China. China’s economy is the world’s second largest in terms of purchasing power parity and the third largest based on current exchange rates.

If China overtakes the U.S. to become the world’s largest economy in the near future—as is widely predicted—then China is also likely to overtake
the U.S. in terms of military spending.

China is already causing concern among the U.S.’s top military leaders because its military spending has roughly doubled over the past decade.

U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, recently said he is “genuinely concerned” about China’s “heavy investments” in sea and air capabilities.

Deng’s plan, if he had one, would seem to be working thus far.

In fact, an outside factor seems to be contributing to its fruition: the U.S. financial crisis. The U.S. debt is threatening not just the nation’s economy, but also its national security.

“Our financial health is directly related to our national security,” explained Admiral Mullen during a recent interview.

During a speech at the Brookings Institution, U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said: “Spain under the Habsburgs, France under Louis XVI, the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, the British Empire in the 20th—all of them were crippled by borrowing, by interest payments, by debt. We are not exempt. In every era, these fiscal issues are questions of national security and national success.”

To address this dilemma, President Obama’s deficit-reduction commission is considering recommendations to reduce military spending. While this would help bring the U.S. deficit under control, it would also afford China the opportunity to close the gap in military spending.

Currently, the gap is substantial. In 2009, military spending was $661 billion in the U.S. and $100 billion in China.

However, the moving picture may be more telling than the snapshot when considering that China is the world’s fastest-growing major economy and the U.S. is facing a financial crisis.

The degree to which U.S. military spending can be reduced without undermining national security is a delicate balancing act. Reduce spending too much, and the military loses dominance. Reduce spending too little, and the economy declines, bringing the military with it.

Whether or not Deng was secretly the architect of China’s quest for military dominance is not certain.

However, if Deng were alive today, his advice to a nation lacking a road map to greater economic and military power would be to “cross the river by feeling the stones.”

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Bill Costello, M.Ed., is a U.S.-based education columnist, blogger, and author of Awaken Your Birdbrain: Using Creativity to Get What You Want. He can be reached at






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