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China's army is outdone

Welcome to the China Foreign Policy Letter.

This week's highlights: Why the quad should take an honest look at them Chinese military capabilities, Beijing and Washington are preparing for bilateral meetings in Alaska, and China's government proposes a Five-year GDP growth target.

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The quad takes over the PLA

The leaders of Australia, Japan, India and the United States will meet on Friday for a virtual summit of the Quadrangular Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad – the informal forum primarily focused on potential Chinese threats. Recent Congressional Statements from US Adm. Philip Davidson attracted attention ahead of the meetings, particularly in India, which remains nervous about the conflict with Beijing. Davidson testified that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had not withdrawn from several positions in the disputed Ladakh region despite recent agreements.

But depictions of China's overwhelming power are misleading – at least when you are in Washington and not New Delhi, which is truly outdone. Even when using external estimates of the Chinese military budget, its spending – roughly $ 200 billion – is less than a quarter of the annual U.S. defense budget of roughly $ 934 billion. Even if the US takes Beijing's increasingly aggressive stance seriously, this reality should not be forgotten.

What makes the PLA a challenge for the United States is not its size or capabilities in absolute terms, but its focus on a relatively narrow area: anti-access / denial of territory, or missile and electronic technology, which reduces the cost of military intervention is said to increase anywhere near China itself. For example, Chinese missiles fired from bases along the coast could make it nearly impossible for the United States to move ships through local waters. This poses a serious problem for US strategists, especially given the growing Chinese aggression against Taiwan.

However, there is also a tendency to overestimate the PLA as outsiders cannot see inside it. Even though China has updated its military technology, serious weaknesses are likely to remain – from corruption to poor system maintenance. PLA propaganda and secrecy make these issues difficult to investigate or discuss in China, and it is difficult for outsiders to get information, unlike in the US or Taiwan.

As for US Senator Tom Cotton's attempt this week to conjure up the specter of the Chinese "nuclear overmatch" when questioning Davidson? It's even more absurd than the false belief in a missile gap with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Even though China plans to double its current inventory of around 200 warheads, it would still lag far behind the huge US arsenal. China is also the only major power that maintains an explicit "no-first-use" policy for nuclear weapons.

Bilateral meetings in Alaska. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will meet Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Politburo member Yang Jiechi next week in Alaska to discuss a range of topics, including the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and Hong Kong. With the relatively short and long-range meetings, real progress is unlikely.

Instead, Wang and Yang will likely repeat existing positions – but at least Blinken can say he tried. The Secretary of State may also be signaling to China that he, not Climate Envoy John Kerry, is the person to talk to about climate change. It is a testament to how strained Beijing-Washington relations are that the meetings are being held in this geographical half-point rather than in either capital city.

Shrinking Chinese state. A new report from Gavekal, a well-known research firm, shows that China's spending on central government has declined slightly in recent years, as Yukon Huang and Joshua Levy write in foreign policy. But the key might be that the coercion of the state has grown, meaning that some of its effective power works through nominally private corporations. For example, private companies must spend time and manpower to maintain their own internal censorship systems so as not to violate official state censors.

Dispute with the UK Another week, another low point in relations between Beijing and a foreign capital. This time it was the UK's turn and the British ambassador was summoned over an article she posted on the embassy's WeChat account about China's censorship and attacks on foreign journalists.

Media relations between London and Beijing are particularly sensitive after UK regulator Ofcom revoked the China Global Television Network's broadcasting license in February and this week imposed new fines for broadcasting propaganda, including forced confessions.

Exchange router. Shares in China's highly regulated market fell 14 percent in just 14 trading days, ending a rally after the New Year celebrations. The Chinese stock market isn't nearly as important as it is in the US. Real estate is the preferred investment vehicle, but the decline was still a shock – and one that government intervention was surprisingly unstoppable.

Fall threw a cloud over the two annual sessions currently held in Beijing. This also applies to the poor air quality index in the capital, which surprised Beijing residents, who are used to closing factories and sowing clouds that create clear skies for government events.

GDP skipped. The decision by the Chinese government not to set a single GDP figure for the next five-year planning period (2021-2025) has led some analysts to wonder if the state is shifting its priorities. Not so, said senior official Hu Zucai, who insisted that GDP growth remains a priority. The state still has a target of 6 percent growth for 2021.

However, the lack of a clear target for the five-year plan could point to growing uncertainty about Beijing's medium-term economic future, which is not to be left with an embarrassing failure. (Even in China, you can only massage so much data.)

Researcher sued. Chinese companies in Xinjiang are suing Adrian Zenz, whose research was an important part of uncovering atrocities in the region, in a Chinese court. Chinese media previously singled out Zenz in a series of personal attacks. The academic was one of more than 50 experts consulted this week on a comprehensive report on the Xinjiang genocide.

Legally, Missouri's attempt to sue the Chinese Communist Party over the coronavirus pandemic remains stalled in court. The case may seem insane, but it does raise interesting questions about whether the party – and the institutions it controls – enjoy sovereign immunity in US legal cases. (A Soviet-era precedent seems to suggest this.)

The 47 million people in Beijing and Shanghai make up 3.6 percent of the Chinese population, but dominate the country's coverage. There are more than 100 other cities in China with more than 1 million inhabitants. China Brief will introduce some of them here.

People walk on a commercial street during the Lantern Festival, which marks the end of the New Year celebrations on February 26th in Taiyuan, China.STR / AFP via Getty Images

Taiyuan, Shanxi: 4.2 million people

For decades, the locals in Taiyuan, the capital of northern China's Shanxi Province, could not hang laundry (not to be confused with the Shaanxi Province next door). Its reputation as one of the most polluted cities in China has been a decline for a city with more than 2,400 years of history. Taiyuan was an important power base in the north and the capital of short-lived kingdoms such as the northern Han.

Like many northern cities, it became a center of heavy industry and manufacturing in the 20th century. The air pollution from Taiyuan's heavy coal consumption was so severe that white leaves came back covered with black dirt. Shanxi's coal barons (brutally portrayed in the 2003 thriller Blind Shaft), who made millions from illegal mining, built mansions in their hometowns, including Taiyuan.

Today, after two decades of environmental efforts, the sky has cleared a bit in the unhealthy realm – but the average air quality index is still above 100.

That's it for this week.

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