The People’s Liberation Army in the Land of Elusive Sheen

September 7, 2001

These matters might not loom quite so large if China had not come to assume the importance it has in the last decade. It is today the third largest country in the world, with the largest population (albeit including 100 million illiterates). Despite massive reductions, China’s armed forces exceed the total of the next two largest national forces combined. Its economy in recent years has been growing at a rate close to 9 percent, and its international trade has more than quadrupled since 1989. China’s economy now exceeds the total of the three Benelux countries (Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg) in Europe, or of all five of the Scandinavian states combined, and no other country in the world, other than the United States, receives more foreign investment. From 1996 to 1999 China received investment money from abroad at a rate exceeding six times that of Japan. Some recent estimates have China attaining a gross domestic product (GDP) of half of that of the United States over the next two decades, a level of economic might that no other power has reached for almost a century.

China’s physical girth spans five time zones—from Shenyang province in the east to Xinjian in the west—but its political system remains locked in a tight, selffocused, totalitarian dictatorship in which the entire land runs on Beijing time. Too bad for workers on the periphery who may not like rising in the dark or retiring in broad daylight.

China is the single country which in the new century has been widely identified as a potential peer competitor with the United States, presumably in both economic and military fields. There is little expectation that in the next half-century China will come to pose the sort of broad, global politico-military threat previously identified with the Soviet Union, but a number of analysts have suggested that a more narrow, but nevertheless potent, threat might evolve in the next decade or two.