SINCE the mid-1990s, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has been identified as a looming strategic threat. Some have asserted that China is “on the warpath.” There have also been concerns about a Chinese military buildup – rising defense budgets, reported actual or attempted purchases of foreign military hardware, as well as indigenous defense research and development efforts. In terms of military capabilities, most experts contend that China poses only a modest challenge to the region and the world – at least in the short term. Others see more serious problems posed by China's military modernization.
Even if one goes by the modest assessments of China's military modernization, this does not mean Beijing can be written off as essentially harmless. Recent events demonstrate that China is more than capable of disrupting regional stability. During the 1995–6 Taiwan Strait Crisis, for example, troop exercises and missile tests by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) forced the rerouting of international air and sea traffic in the region. The crisis sent tremors throughout East Asia, and the United States felt it necessary to dispatch two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area. For some analysts, the strait crisis confirmed that China's military is a “nuisance threat.” But any threat from China is likely to be a big nuisance; even a weak or modestly armed China can cause major disruptions. And weak states, as Arthur Waldron notes, do start wars.