The military challenge posed by China
Describe the Military Challenge Posed by China
The official Chinese position is that China seeks a defensive force that can be deployed against foreign aggression in addition to ‘catching up with the West’. This attitude seems to be connected particularly to the 1991 Gulf War which displayed the advanced weapons systems available to the United States (US), including stealth technology and precision-guided munitions (Thompson, 2010). Bijian states that ‘China does not seek hegemony or predominance in world affairs…China’s development depends on world peace – a peace that its development, in turn, will enforce’. However, the US has rising concerns over the increasing submarine-, space-, cyber- and missile technologies that are contributing to policies that seem to be inconsistent with the peaceful rising (‘heping jueqi’) concept outlined in 2003 by Premier Jiabao (Callahan, 2005) .
In the most recent Pentagon report to Congress on the military developments in China, it is reported that there has been a major focus on improving the capacity for force projection and anti-access/area-denial1 capacities, in line with the focus on the Taiwan Strait. The report notes: ‘China continues to deploy many of its most advanced systems to the military regions opposite Taiwan’ (Office of the Secretary of Defence, 2010). The focus on the Taiwan Strait contingencies also ties in with China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea; the contested island chains would provide not only (potentially) oil and mineral deposits, but would also extend China’s defence perimeter.
General Objectives and Strategy
As noted, China’s military modernisation over the last twenty years has translated into an increasing ability to project force within the region, but whether or not there is the willingness to use these improved capacities is debatable. Several events have signalled that there is a willingness within China to use this force, most saliently within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) itself. Thompson (2010) draws attention to the 2007 weather satellite ‘obliterated’ by a Chinese missile, the completion of a new naval base in 2008 on Hainan Island as a point for launching naval operations in the Pacific, and the 2010 anti-missile tests which followed the latest US arms sale to Taiwan, as examples of the Chinese both testing and demonstrating to the world their new capabilities. Willingness to use a new modernised force will surely be based not only on the international context at any given time, especially relative to US relationships, but also on the domestic situation?
Thompson argues that, in the past, PLA strategy had been geared towards a possible limited war in which the US would almost certainly be involved and therefore had focused on fighting a technologically superior enemy. Today, Chinese interests have expanded. These interests, particularly energy sources such as oil rigs in Nigeria, have heightened China’s focus on its ability to deploy forces abroad for the protection of people, infrastructure and investment. This has included an emphasis on space and cyberspace operations, new classes of ships for the navy, and new aerial refuelling capabilities (Thompson, 2010). On the other hand, Bernstein and Munro (1997a) argue that by the end of the 1990s, the main focus of China’s modernisation programme was to ‘step up’ the objectives of creating ‘a credible Taiwan invasion force and the capacity to sink American aircraft carriers’. It is clear that in the last decade, whilst these objectives are still salient, China also has expanded its interests globally, which are interlinked with its domestic energy needs and which will add to the complexities of its military and foreign policy.
The PLA Navy (PLAN)
PLAN has been the major focus of the modernisation programme, receiving as much hard currency as it is able to absorb (Halper, 2010). As a prominent force, its focus has been on the Indian Ocean in providing protection of oil routes from the Arabian Gulf. The strategy has included the acquisition of naval facilities along choke points of the Indian Ocean in addition to facilities in Pakistan, Burma and Thailand, creating a ‘far-sea defence’ strategy. China has also demonstrated its 4th taskforce deployed, demonstrating its capacity for extended deployments (Thompson, 2010).
According to the US Department of Defence, ‘The PLA Navy has the largest force of principal combatants, submarines, and amphibious warfare ships in Asia.’ (Office of the Secretary of Defence, 2010). However, it remains a white-water navy which the US believes is making progress whilst remaining manageable and, at present, is without the capacity to challenge the US 7th fleet in the Pacific. In reference to the Indian Ocean island facilities, Waldron (2005) points out that in order to be of significance to India, they would require the placement of combatants comparable to India’s numbers, which would weaken the domestic coastal position. He adds that fleets would be isolated and vulnerable to attack and re-supply would be ‘nigh impossible’. In addition, the islands are mostly owned by Myanmar whose alliance with China is not ‘genuinely robust’ (p.724).
Overall, the PLA is the biggest army in the world with 2.2 million people on the payroll compared with 1.4 million in the US. However the US also have 700,000 Department of Defence employees as well as contracted staff. The Chinese modernisation programme has included the development of high-tech weapons that could target US command and control systems, communications, intelligence, and reconnaissance; this has included progress in the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) such as the recent upgrade of its B-6 bomber fleet that when operational, will be armed with a new long-range cruise missile. There have also been developments in intelligence collection and maritime surveillance systems (Office of the Secretary of Defence, 2010). In addition, military training is at an all time high.
In terms of defence spending, China is nowhere near the US mark despite estimates being much larger than the official figures offered by Beijing. In 2009, the US spent $738 billion on defence with Chinese estimates ranging between $69.5-150 billion. Bernstein and Munro (1997a) outline some problems with the official Chinese figures. These figures do not include the costs of the People’s Armed Police, (which China states is basically a reserve force of de-mobilised soldiers), the nuclear weapons development and soldiers’ pensions. According to the authors, the 1995 purchase of 72 SU-27 fighter jets from Russia, amounting to $2.8 billion was ‘not deemed defence expenditure’. They also emphasise the issue of purchasing power parity from salaries to weapons systems which they state are ‘a fraction of their equivalent American value’. Whilst Bernstein and Munro warn of the increasing rate of defence spending in China which has increased faster than any other part of the government budget, it is clear that while the real figure could be up to 75% more than the Japanese defence budget, it remains at most, around a third of its US counterpart (p.24).
In terms of regional actors impacted by the Chinese military build up, Taiwan is the most crucial, having ‘brought the United States closer to military confrontation with mainland China than at any time since the Eisenhower administration’ as a result of the 1996 Taiwan crisis (Tyler, 1999:7). The crisis, which resulted in the US deployment of two aircraft carrier taskforces to the region in response to the large-scale Chinese military exercises being carried out has often been used as an example of how the US and China could come to military blows. However, without downplaying the complexities and extreme tensions present within the Taiwan issue, the 1996 crisis was seen as a setback for the Chinese resulting in a downplaying of rhetoric from then on, arguably up until the last year (Bernstein & Munro, 1997a:20). In their extended analysis, Bernstein and Munro (1997b) also give explanations for the Chinese war games at the time in the context of the pro-independence movement gaining ground in public, the media, and the political establishment in Taiwan at that time (p.190). This again highlights how Chinese actions must be analysed within their political context in order to fully understand and present an appropriate response.
The Taiwan situation represents the careful balance between Washington and Beijing with neither side seeming to have an advantage. On one hand, Taiwan’s declaration of independence lies outside both US and Chinese control, whilst on the other hand, the timing, conditions and nature of attack should Beijing decide to militarily retake the island, would be based solely on the decisions made in China… ‘Washington can only react’ (Halper & Clarke, 2007:231). There are not only logistical questions for the US but, increasingly, doubts as to whether Taiwan itself would remain dedicated to a military defence. Taiwan is therefore a ‘strategic liability’ for Washington, of which an unsuccessful defence would undermine the credibility of the US security guarantee (ibid: 231). In 1997, Bernstein and Munro (1997b), reported that Chinese plans for retaking the island would not give the US enough time for a significant response adding that ‘as China’s military force has reached world-class levels, its efforts at peaceful reunification have been frustrated by the continued trend of Taiwan toward independence’ (p.189).
From Beijing’s perspective, James Lilley points out that sovereignty claims over island chains from the Senkaku islands to the Paracels should be put into a historical context. He states: ‘control of the islands would form a buffer zone around China’s most vulnerable areas on the coast’ which have historically been subjected to the most devastating attacks on Chinese territory by the British and Japanese, as opposed to less successful land invasions from the north by the Mongols and Manchus. In a modern context, this threat is highlighted by the US 7th fleet as well as the positioning of US military bases in the Philippines and Japan, the key location being Taiwan which is situated between these two countries (in Halper & Clarke, 2007:226-7).
Continuing with the historical context, Tyler (1999) explains the entrenchment of recovering Taiwan within the Chinese national consciousness, comparing it to Manifest Destiny imperative in the American consciousness over a century ago. He emphasises the assertion of these beliefs, set around recovering Tibet, Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, as ‘deeply embedded in the political culture of the 58 million members of the Chinese Communist Party and the PLA’, especially within the Officer Corps (p.10).
Whilst the general maintenance of US-Chinese relations with regard to Taiwan has been formalised through the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act2, Beijing maintains that a declaration of independence by Taiwan would illicit a military response. In 1999, Patrick Tyler critiqued the lack of public debate over the military balance in the Taiwan Straits, calling for the full measures of US assistance to Taiwan to be declassified; Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke asserted in 2007 that, in fact, the issue has been carefully managed since 1979. They state that as routine contacts such as travel, mail delivery, communications and investments have expanded, there has been an easing of tensions – this expanded cooperation and commercial relations are trends that are ‘well understood among analysts in Washington, Taipei, and Beijing…and are quietly supported’ (p.231). At the same time, ‘Taiwan is uniquely positioned to trigger events that would rapidly lead to confrontation’ (ibid: 228), and there is a call for careful management of the situation as the independence movement within Taiwan grows and is accommodated by the political establishment.
Impact on regional actors
As set out by Halper and Clarke (2007), relations with India, Russia, Japan and even Taiwan have eased significantly over the last decade, with China taking a mediatory role in the North Korea weapons negotiations. As a result of a new set of assumptions and confidence due to the economic downturn of the West and the continued success of China’s market-authoritarian model, the last year has seen a change in the Chinese position. According to Waldron (2005), the military transformation of China in terms of general quality improvements and long-range power projection is ‘beginning to genuinely affect the calculations of China’s neighbours’, in particular, Russia, India and Japan.
Waldron’s main claim is that US extended deterrence is no longer credible in Asia as Asian forces are capable of targeting US forces in the region, and continental America itself. He states that this has a significant impact on the US security guarantee to Japan and predicts that as it is already considered an economic superpower, Japan will eventually adapt its constitution and develop a ‘self-sufficient military capability of great sophistication’ especially in the context of Chinese provocations around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands (p.723). Waldron also states that India’s own military and nuclear developments have been a ‘direct product of Indian concern about China’s growing strength’ and that overall, ‘China’s build up is eliciting counterbalancing responses around her periphery’ (p.723). These situations, despite not being immediately threatening to US security, require careful monitoring in Washington.
Waldron (2005) describes the US-Chinese relationship as problematic and full of contradictions stating: ‘if one were to name a single metric by which the Chinese government judges itself it would be the United States’ (p.728). By the turn of the 21st century, the relationship seemed to be in decline, particularly in the run-up to the 2000 Presidential elections. The centrist elements of both the Republican and Democratic parties within the United States abandoned their thirty years of support for constructive relations with China, turning instead to a defensive position with Conservatives labelling China as an aggressor (Tyler, 1999:12). Although most academics share the view that ‘war with China is not inevitable’, there is also growing consensus that it is not a declining possibility in the 21st century, as it was in the latter half of the previous century, especially as Taiwan reunification is viewed by China as a natural follow-on from the return of Hong Kong (1997) and Macao (1999) (ibid: 13).
It is clear that US-China relations are balanced between conflict and cooperation, influenced by the complexities of domestic policies in both countries in addition to the diversity of special interests (ibid:17). In addition, the ‘deepening financial and trade ties anchor the US-China relationship’ contributing to a ‘strategic balance’ which requires a careful handling of diplomacy between the two countries as opposed to extreme views regarding China as a ‘trenchant challenge’ in terms of military confrontation, which in the views of Halper and Clarke is a self-fulfilling prophecy (2007:203). Halper and Clarke point out that whilst China does challenge American economic supremacy and has the potential to challenge the US militarily in Asia in the future: ‘we are, today, in need of an interest-driven diplomacy, there is no room for big ideas. Passion and perceived crisis have mispositioned the United States before in dealing with China’ (2007:247). The authors also identify the Chinese leadership as being essentially rational, acting in the interests of their country, leaving room for potentially successful negotiation, warning that there is also no room for miscalculation (ibid:249).
Bernstein, R., & Munro, R. (1997a). The Coming Conflict with America. Foreign Affairs, 76(2), 18-32.
Bernstein, R., & Munro, R. (1997b). The Coming Conflict with China. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Bijian, Z. (2005). China’s “Peaceful Rise” to Great Power Status. Foreign Affairs, 84(5).
Callahan, W. A. (2005). How to Understand China: The Dangers and Opportunities of being a Rising Power. Review of International Studies, 31, 701-714.
Halper, S. (2010, November). China and the World. US Foreign Policy Lecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Halper, S., & Clarke, J. (2007). The Silence of the Rational Center: Why American Foreign Policy is Failing. New York: Basic Books.
Office of the Secretary of Defence. (2010). Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China. Washington D.C.
Thompson, D. (2010, March/April). Think Again: China’s Military, It’s not Time to Panic. Yet. Foreign Policy.
Tyler, P. (1999). A Great Wall. New York: Public Affairs.
Waldron, A. (2005). The Rise of China: Military and Political Implications. Review of International Studies, 31, 715-733.
1I.e. preventing access of the US 7th fleet to Taiwan for military support and/or resupply, plus preventing US ships from reaching the Chinese coastline.
21979 Taiwan Relations Act: Based on expectation that Beijing and Taipei will settle dispute via peaceful means; the US will continue to supply Taiwan with defensive arms; the US will maintain a military capacity in the area for the defence of Taiwan; The US and China agree that there is one China (Halper & Clarke, 2007:227)