The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Fat Generals a Sign of China’s Weakness?

In an article on the vast wealth enjoyed by China’s top elites, the Financial Times included the following striking passage:

Some western diplomats estimate that as much as 40 per cent of China’s military budget is siphoned off through corruption.

As a phalanx of senior PLA officers ascended the steps of the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square this week, many of them sported generous pot bellies, leading one party member to comment wryly to the Financial Times that nothing displays structural weakness like overweight generals.

Forty percent is no small number! If things are really this bad, it could suggest that moral and social decay among China’s ruling elite is undermining the country’s strength faster than growth can make it powerful.

Japanese nationalists study China very closely. It’s possible that a belief that China’s elite is weak and corrupt, and that the country is much less formidable than it looks, explains why they are pushing back so hard against China’s regional assertiveness. Are we looking at the world’s biggest and most imposing paper tiger?

We’ll see how this plays out. As the FT points out elsewhere in the article, the deaths of Chinese dynasties have easy to predict, devilishly difficult to time.

Japanese brinkmanship may end up paying dividends, but it may also prove to be reckless. As we’ve written earlier this week, America’s interest lies in helping its ally help secure peace in the region, not being pulled by its allies into a confrontation with China that would be dangerous and destabilizing even if China is in fact a good deal less powerful and more fragile than it wants the world to think.

Published on November 15, 2012 9:00 am