Beijing may tout its continued military buildup as part of its “peaceful rise” or “peaceful development,” but reactions outside of China have been anything but sanguine. There is genuine concern throughout the Asia and the Pacific Rim that this expansion of military power is a prelude to a more aggressively assertive China-and one that is prepared to use its growing armed might to press its national interests and back up its various geopolitical claims.
This unease is reinforced by the increasingly volatile rhetoric coming out of Beijing-for example, when it comes to claims of “indisputable sovereignty” over much of the South China Sea-as well as its ostensibly provocative activities in adjacent seas and airspaces, such as harassing the USNS Impeccable in March 2009, sending warplanes over the median line with Taiwan, or establishing the Sansha administrative prefecture within the Paracel and Spratly islands.
Consequently, several nations, that are the most directly affected by a more militarily capable and assertive China have reacted in kind: by undertaking their own military responses to this buildup. In particular, Japan, India, and several nations in Southeast Asia are beginning to at least partially justify their current military modernization programs as a hedge against Chinese aggression; these arming actions, in turn, have led some to fear that the Asia-Pacific is in the midst-or on the brink-of some kind of destabilizing “arms race” that could undermine regional security and stability.
At the same time, it is also possible to interpret the United States’ so-called “pivot toward Asia” and its preliminary embrace of the so-called “AirSea Battle” warfighting concept as two direct responses to rising Chinese military power-a tit-for-tat ratcheting up of great power confrontation that could also have serious negative repercussions for regional tensions.
The modernization of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the subsequent expansion of Chinese military power in the Asia-Pacific region have been well-documented, For over a decade, the Chinese have put considerable resources and effort into acquiring new capabilities for force projection, mobility and precision strike. In particular, this has meant deemphasizing ground forces in favour of building up the PLA’s naval, air and missile forces.
The PLA Navy (PLAN), for example, has greatly increased its procurement of large surface combatants and submarines. The PLAN is currently acquiring 12 Kilo-class submarines and four Sovremennyy-class destroyers (armed with supersonic SS-N-22 anti-ship cruise missiles) from Russia, as well as a navalized version of the Russian Su-30 fighter-bomber. There has been a significant expansion in Chinese naval shipbuilding since the turn of the century. Since 2000, China has begun construction of several new classes of destroyers, frigates, amphibious landing craft and diesel-electric and nuclear-powered submarines. As a crowning achievement, the PLAN in 2011 commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the ex-Soviet Varyag, acquired unfinished from Ukraine and then rebuilt and christened the Liaoning.
During this same timeframe, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has acquired at least 700 “fourth-generation-plus” combat aircraft: 300 Su-27 and Su-30MKK fighters from Russia; 100 J-11s, a locally built, reverse-engineered version of the Su-27; and 300 J-10s, an indigenously developed fighter jet. These fighters are being equipped with new standoff air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions. The PLAAF is also buying additional transport and air-to-air refuelling aircraft and strengthening its airborne assault forces. In addition, China is purportedly working on two “fifth-generation” combat aircraft, the J-20 and J-31. While details surrounding both aircraft programs are sketchy, their existence demonstrates China’s ambitions to enter the vanguard of advanced fighter-jet producers. Finally, the PLA has greatly expanded its fleet of tactical missile systems; of particular interest is the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), which has been described as a “carrier-killer.”
Finally, the PLA is building up-both quantitatively and qualitatively-its arsenal of conventional missile systems, including the 600-kilometre-range CSS-6 and 300-kilometre-range CSS-7 short-range ballistic missiles, and, in particular, adding a new category of land-attack cruise missile. Additionally, many of these missile systems are being fitted with satellite-navigation guidance for improved accuracy, and with new types of warheads (such as cluster sub-munitions and fuel-air explosives) for higher lethality.
At the same time, the PLA is increasingly focused on the future military potential of the information technologies-led revolution in military affairs (RMA). According to several Western analysts, Beijing is currently engaged in a determined effort to transform the PLA from a force based on Mao Zedong’s principles of “People’s War” to one capable of fighting and winning “Limited Local Wars under High-Tech Conditions”, or, more recently, “Limited Local Wars Under Conditions of ‘Informatization’”.
This new doctrine revolves around what some have termed “rapid war, rapid resolution”, which entails short-duration, high-intensity conflicts characterized by mobility, speed and long-range attack, employing joint operations fought simultaneously throughout the entire air, land, sea, space and electromagnetic battlespace, and relying heavily on extremely lethal high- technology weapons. The PLA operational doctrine is also increasingly emphasizing pre-emption, surprise and shock value, given that the earliest stages of conflict may be crucial to the outcome of a war. Consequently, the PLA is currently engaged-as part of an ambitious “generation-leap” strategy in a “double construction” transformational effort of simultaneously pursuing both the mechanization and informatization of its armed forces. Initially, the PLA is attempting to digitize and upgrade its current arsenal of conventional “industrial age” weapons, i.e. through improved communications systems, new sensors and seekers, greater precision, night-vision capabilities, etc.
To pay for all this, Beijing has more than quintupled Chinese defence spending in real terms since the mid 1990s. The PRC’s official 2013 defence budget is 741 billion yuan, or US$119 billion-an increase of nearly 11 per cent over the previous year, and continuing a 15-year-long trend of near-double-digit real (i.e., after taking inflation into account) increases in Chinese military spending. China, in fact, is now the second largest defense spender in the world, after the US. The annual procurement budget alone has increased from US$3.1 billion to an estimated US$40 billion between 1997 and 2013-and this may or may not include extra-budgetary spending on R&D and arms imports, which could add another few billion dollars to the total.
As a result of such spending and acquisitions, the military potential of the PRC has expanded considerably over the past decade, and the PLA’s recent modernization activities have fuelled speculation that China is developing a new military strategy based on power projection and precision strike.
China’s 2006 defence white paper states that the PLAN “aims at gradual extension of the strategic depth for offshore defensive operations and enhancing its capabilities in integrated maritime operations” while the PLAAF “aims at speeding up its transition from territorial air defence to both offensive and defensive operations, and increasing its capabilities in the areas of air strike, air and missile defence, early warning and reconnaissance, and strategic projection.” Some may interpret these efforts as an indicator of a more aggressive and expansionist China, or at least a PRC more likely to assert its role in the Asia-Pacific region and use its growing military might to back up its national interests and national security goals.
The Southeast Asia region is one of growing and increasingly diversified significance to Beijing, and China has several territorial, economic, and political and diplomatic concerns that touch on Southeast Asia. These include (i) addressing longstanding disputes over sovereignty issues in the South China Sea, especially the Spratly Islands; (ii) securing sea lines of communication to the Indian Ocean and the Middle East; (iii) increasing economic ties with Southeast Asia (particularly trade and investment); and (iv) legitimizing its own regional security role (and also limiting US influence) through a process of multilateral forums and negotiations.
Consequently, Chinese military assertiveness has been felt as much in Southeast Asia as in other parts of the Asia Pacific. The Chinese have expanded their naval and air presence in the South China Sea and begun to extend naval patrols beyond, into the Indian Ocean. For example, the PLA has built a military airstrip on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, and it is reportedly constructing a new nuclear submarine base on Hainan Island. The PLAN is also building naval facilities in Myanmar and negotiating port access rights with Pakistan. These and other actions have caused some to speculate that the PRC is attempting to develop a network of bases and alliances stretching from southern China to the Middle East, a strategy often termed the “string of pearls.”
Overall, the PRC’s “creeping assertiveness” or “creeping expansion” in the East and South China seas and beyond has been cause for considerable concern among the countries of Northeast and Southeast Asia. Regarding the South China Sea disputes, for example, Beijing’s competing territorial claims with several Southeast Asian countries over the ownership or control in the Spratly Islands has led China to be military engaged and active in this area for many decades, and this has often led to tension, if not outright clashes. The Spratlys, a chain of coral reefs that barely break the ocean’s surface, is adjacent both to major sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) and to potentially lucrative maritime natural resources (fisheries, oil and gas deposits).
Consequently, several countries in addition to the PRC-including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam-have laid claim to various parts of the Spratlys, and nearly all have attempted to enforce these claims by establishing garrisons and other structures on the islands. This has on occasion led to actual conflict.
In addition, as China’s economy continues both to grow and to globalize-with the PRC emerging as a global hub not only for manufacturing but also for research and development and for outward direct investments- trade and energy security have become paramount concerns for Beijing. China is now the world’s second largest oil importer (after the United States), and 60 per cent (expected to rise to 75 per cent by 2015) of its crude oil imports come from the Middle East, much of it passing through the Malacca and Singapore Straits or the Lombok and Makkasar Straits.
In addition, a quarter of the world’s trade also transits through these waterways. Consequently, Beijing is extremely concerned about the continuing openness, safety and security of these vital SLOCs, which could be disrupted or impeded during an international crisis, terrorist action or piracy. At the same time, the PRC is uncomfortable with external powers, such as the United States or Japan, maintaining a permanent military presence in these straits. While the PLAN is currently unable to project sufficient and sustainable sea power into the straits to protect its interests in these waterways, it is certainly a long-range goal of the Chinese to develop such capabilities, which can set up these areas as potential zones of conflict.
Much of the rest of Asia has looked upon the expansion and modernization of the PLA with considerable trepidation, although this has not typically been explicitly averred. While individuals, nongovernmental institutions, and even businesses may complain about an increasingly aggressive and belligerent China, most countries in the region have been officially loath to identify China as an unambiguous threat or adversary, or to overtly link their military acquisitions to any growing Chinese military challenge. Australia, for example, in its 2013 White Paper stated that it “does not approach China as an adversary,” and that it “welcomes China’s rise.” Similarly, the United States declared in its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review that it welcomed “a strong, prosperous, and successful China that plays a greater global role.”
Even the governments of Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, three countries that have openly clashed with China over conflicting territorial claims, have refused to label the PRC as “the enemy.” For example, in its 2012 defense white paper, Japan only made the rather tepid observation that ‘China has been expanding and intensifying its activities in waters close to Japan. These moves, together with the lack of transparency in its military and security affairs, are a matter of concern for the region and the international community including Japan, which should require prudent analysis.’
Despite their adversarial relations with China, both Manila and Hanoi have pursued “multiple strategies” with Beijing that stop short of full military responses. These countries have attempted to use statecraft, particularly with ASEAN mechanisms, in order to engage China and to lessen their tense relationships with the PRC.
But without explicitly referring to China as a “threat,” they are nevertheless reacting in ways that certainly signal their concern about a China that is both a growing military power and is increasingly predisposed to using this power (or the threat of use) to press its national goals and objectives.
Consequently, many regional militaries have attempted to match the Chinese build-up, in intensity at least. Consequently, over the past decade the pace of advanced arms acquisitions has picked up throughout much of the Asia-Pacific.
China’s emergence as an economic, geopolitical, and perhaps even cultural great power is inevitable. Its military rise is probably equally inexorable. Beijing has, for at least a decade and a half, invested considerable resources, in terms of both money and human capital, into building up its armed forces- and it is paying off.
The PLA is a much more capable force, relative to its neighbors, than it was twenty years ago. This modernized and revitalized military force is being matched by (or perhaps this modernization process has even enabled) a new assertiveness, obstinacy, and obduracy in international affairs. When coupled with the country’s long-standing-and perhaps even growing-sense of “victimhood” and the need to “reclaim lost status,” the result is a more militarily capable China that may be much less inclined to negotiation and compromise, and instead may be more prone to use force or the threat of force to achieve its goals.
This heady brew of a more militarily competent and more intransigent China is an obvious goad for countries in the region to arm and balance against Beijing. Recapitalizing and improving their armed forces is a sensible hedge against the prospect of growing Chinese military power. So, too, is it sensible for countries in the region to keep the United States engaged militarily in the Asia-Pacific, by offering new forward operating opportunities (e.g., Singapore’s hosting of USN Littoral Combat Ships) and new bases (e.g., Australia’s agreement to having US Marines in Darwin). Similar arguments might be used to justify the United States’ “pivot” back toward Asia and even its preliminary experimentation with AirSea Battle concepts.
And certainly one might infer from such actions that they have been the direct result of increasing uncertainties about Chinese international behavior and the relative “benign-ness” of Beijing’s intentions, especially in light of growing Chinese military power.
At the same time China’s aggressive posture when it comes to sovereignty claims in the East and South China Sea, or Beijing’s refusal to rule out the use of force to secure the reunification of Taiwan, or simply the continuing opacity surrounding Chinese defense spending and arms acquisitions has had a chilling effect on regional security.
Such actions, coupled with an increasingly strident Chinese national narrative that is more and more nationalistic and steeped in victimhood and intransigence, are more than sufficient to give nations around the Asia-Pacific considerable cause to doubt China’s peaceful and harmonious intentions.
Even in the absence of explicit referencing, the direct causality between Chinese behavior and such reactions as regional re-arming, the US pivot toward Asia, and AirSea Battle is readily apparent.
(The author is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the RSIS, Singapore)