The China threat and lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union
9 Dec 2021|

This month marks 30 years since the USSR collapsed voluntarily. It’s rare in world history that such a militarily powerful empire disappears without going to war. The Soviet Union had 12,000 strategic nuclear warheads, 260 divisions with 50,000 tanks, 7,000 combat aircraft, 370 submarines (including 94 tactical nuclear attack submarines) and some 260 principal surface combatants. Western intelligence assessments until almost the very end continued to see it as a power with few real weaknesses. As late as 1986 the then deputy director of the CIA, Robert Gates, told me that the Soviet Union was poised to outstrip America in military power.

Why did US intelligence assessments fail to predict the end of the USSR, and does this have any relevance for today’s assessment of the threat from China?

First, it must be recognised that the Soviet Union was an incredibly difficult intelligence target. There were several reasons for this: the secrecy of the Soviet state and the unreliability of its statistics, the paucity of any publicly available military data that could be depended upon, and the lack of intelligence sources inside the Kremlin. There was an acute ideological suspicion of the USSR that made even modest attempts at a more balanced approach subject to ridicule and outright hostility, including in Australia. Even so, there was plenty of evidence for those of us who visited the USSR that something was acutely wrong with an economy that couldn’t supply even the most basic needs of food and housing for its population.

Second, there was real fear—especially in the 1970s—that Soviet economic growth rates were outstripping those in an America that was in the throes of stagflation and its defeat in Vietnam. Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was seen in some quarters—not least by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser—as the beginning of World War III and a real threat to the West’s crucial access to oil supplies from the Persian Gulf. On almost every front, the USSR seemed to be on a winning streak. So, there was deep concern throughout the Western alliance system that the USSR was creating a geopolitical situation in which ‘the correlation of world forces’ was moving decisively in Moscow’s favour.

Third, this sense of palpable fear that the Soviet Union was winning, and the West was losing, the arms race led to an acute sense of paranoia in US intelligence agencies. In the Western world’s most powerful intelligence establishment—the CIA—the head of Soviet counterespionage, James Jesus Angleton, believed that the agency was riddled with Soviet spies. Even in Canberra, the head of the Office of National Assessments considered that anybody who did not hold his views of the USSR was working for the other side.

This world of extreme fear meant that there was little recognition that Mikhail Gorbachev was attempting serious reforms of the Soviet political and economic system. Even now, there is no agreement about the fundamental reasons for the collapse of the USSR. Many Americans still believe that they outspent the Russians into oblivion in the arms race. Others think that it was the failed 10-year occupation of Afghanistan that was the trigger for the Soviet collapse. Still others—including me—focus on the prolonged stagnation of the Soviet Union’s economy and society.

The economic crisis played a central but often underestimated role in the last few years of Soviet history. In a new book, Collapse: the fall of the Soviet Union, historian Vladislav Zubok asserts that Gorbachev’s policy of openness and transparency greatly contributed to the rise of anti-communist and nationalist movements. Gorbachev’s decisions generated a voluntary and unprecedented devolution of power that eroded the ideological legitimacy of the Communist Party. Zubok concludes that Gorbachev’s leadership, character and beliefs constituted a major factor in the Soviet Union’s self-destruction. Under a different leader, there was no reason why the Soviet system could not have staggered on for several more decades—like North Korea, for example.

Turning now to the China threat assessment, I consider there is a grave danger that—yet again—the West is failing to see that country’s real weaknesses. And once more we are being asked to conform to the dominant view that China is all powerful, and that its economy and military are superior to those of America, or soon will be.

I detect the same inclination to accept self-serving claims that China’s military technologies are superior to those of the US. For instance, claims are made that the latest Chinese submarines are quieter than those of the US, even though America has been at submarine quieting for over 70 years and China is a Johnny-come-lately. It is also claimed that China’s DF-21D ballistic missile can destroy US aircraft carriers when we have no reliable data at all about the accuracy of China’s missile systems against a moving target.

We are supposed to be awed by the fact that China is now deploying multiple independently targetable nuclear warheads for its intercontinental ballistic missiles, which was a technology the Soviet Union developed in 1975 for its SS-18 ICBMs. And, contrary to the breathless claims that China’s recent testing of a fractional orbital bombardment system was unprecedented, the Soviet Union deployed 18 FOBS missiles more than 50 years ago (between 1971 and 1979) that could deliver their warheads into low-earth orbit and attack the US from its unprotected south.

China’s economic and military growth have been truly amazing over the past two decades, while America’s back has been turned in Afghanistan and the Middle East, but the fact is that China is not yet a military superpower like the former USSR.

We urgently need much more considered and cautious studies about the pros and cons of China’s emerging power. For this to be credible in terms of formulating the China threat assessment, we need to see deeply expert analysis about the strengths and weaknesses not only of China’s military power but also of its demographics, corruption and pollution challenges, as well as informative studies of domestic turmoil and the party’s reaction to Xi Jinping’s growing dictatorship.

And we need to remember that Beijing spends as much on internal security as on external defence, which should tell us a lot.

Most importantly, China has no experience whatsoever of fighting modern warfare. And when we proclaim that the Chinese leadership believes this or that, we need to acknowledge that, as with the former Soviet Union, we have no intelligence sources in Beijing’s Politburo.