China and the World

Naval gazing

China is driving an Asian arms race, writes Asian Affairs magazine’s Editor


China plans to up defence spending by 8.1% this year

The soldiers who battle China’s enemies in the hit film Operation Red Sea are presented as fine examples of the bravest men in the People’s Liberation Army.

When the flag is raised during one epic fight, it stirs such pride among audiences that people rise from their seats and cheer.

The film, which cost $72 million, was funded entirely through the military budget of China. Generals deployed many resources to the film-makers, including ships, helicopters and high-tech weaponry. Operation Red Sea recouped its investors’ money by reaching top place at the Chinese box office. Yet telling stories of military victory is far less costly than fighting real wars.

In contrast to the characters in the drama, the serving members of the People’s Liberation Army have practically no direct experience of combat. The PLA has more personnel on active duty than both the United States and Russia combined.

However, its numbers are being reduced as China seeks to modernise its military with more advanced equipment, replacing thousands of boots on the ground with more powerful weapons. At this year’s National People’s Congress, Premier Li Keqiang announced that China will increase its defence budget by 8.1%. Soon after his speech, the strength of the PLA Navy was put on display when about 40 vessels, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning conducted an exercise in the Western Pacific. And this week a separate three-day naval drill took place near Hainan with a uniformed President Xi Jinping in attendance.

“The PLA Navy has been gradually improving its ability to fight in a high-intensity war. The navy has been steadily building new ships over the years. Just over the past two years alone, over 40 new vessels were commissioned or launched,” says Koh Swee Lean Collin, from the maritime security programme at Nanyang University in Singapore. As part of its naval modernisation, China’s first domestically-built aircraft carrier is set to start sea trials later this month, followed by the launch of three more vessels, including a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, by 2025.

China is also boosting its air power. It recently commissioned a squadron of super-manoeuvrable fighter jets from Russia, as part of a $7 billion deal. Bob Savic, Senior Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute says: “Russia regards China as its long-term privileged and reliable partner in Asia. It supplies all the latest weapons, including long-range surface-to-air missile systems. These contracts are lucrative for Russia and benefit China with advanced technology.”

In return, China hopes that Russia will become a significant customer of its own rapidly growing defence industry. The Chinese Defence Minister, Wei Fenghe, was guest of honour at the Moscow Security Conference this month. One objective of his trip was to demonstrate to the Americans the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia. General Wei told his Russian hosts: “We’ve come to support you.”

These developments trouble the Pentagon. Its National Defence Strategy, published last year, described China and Russia as “revisionist powers” posing a central challenge to US security.

One potential flashpoint is Taiwan, whose president, Tsai Ing-wen, leads a political party which aspires to greater autonomy from the mainland. In recent months, with Donald Trump’s encouragement, Taiwan has strengthened its links with the United States and is building up its military. Taiwan’s leaders have long trusted that the US would come to their military aid in the event of a clash with China over independence. During the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996, the US sailed an aircraft carrier between Taiwan and the mainland, without resistance.

Since then, China has pursued a robust policy known as “anti-access/ area denial” or A2/AD, which sets out to repel the US and its military allies from the region. President Xi recently warned that Taiwan would face the “punishment of history” in response to any attempt at separatism.

This January, it was a Chinese rather than an American aircraft carrier which passed through the Strait of Taiwan. And next week the PLA will hold live fire drills in that politically sensitive body of water. The Pentagon knows that China has deployed missile batteries along its side of the Strait that are thought to be capable of sinking aircraft carriers. The calculation: any US engagement in the region therefore carries the risk of enormous losses.

Japan is training its forces to respond to China’s growing military power. Earlier this month, around 1,500 members of the newly formed Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade – Japan’s version of the American marines – took part in a military exercise to recapture an island. And last week – for the first time since 1945 – Japan’s five regional armies were put under the coordination of a central command station. The Wall Street Journal commented that “rising security threats, such as China’s challenge to Japan’s southern islands have prompted government officials to highlight the splintered leadership as a weakness that would hinder quick and comprehensive deployment in a crisis.”

China’s “unilateral escalation is a matter of strong concern,” Defence Minister Onodera Itsunori said in a speech to mark the opening of the combined army command.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo meanwhile hopes to hold a referendum which could transform Japan’s Self Defence Force into a full army, authorised to fight abroad in support of its allies and overturning the post-war constitutional ban.

Last year, members of parliament discussed whether Japan should develop nuclear weapons, although this is not being suggested as a policy option at this stage. Japan currently spends around $50 billion annually on defence, much less than the official Chinese figure of $174 billion and a fraction in comparison with the United States, which has raised its defence budget by 10% to $686 billion.

Unable to compete financially with China on defence spending, Japan is seeking accommodation through diplomacy. The Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is expected to attend a trilateral summit in Tokyo with Abe and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-In early next month, and there are provisional plans for Abe to visit China in the autumn.

Japan supports the quadrilateral security initiative – known as the quad group, a loose alliance with the United States, Australia and India – designed to counterbalance Chinese influence. John Hemmings, director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, says: “The quad is a response to China’s attempts to dominate international sea lanes and major trade routes. It’s about deterring and shaping Chinese choices.”

China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, is dismissive. He claims the concept of the quad is like “sea foam” and will dissipate soon.

China is the leading trading partner with 124 countries around the world; the United States has that role with 56 nations. Therefore, most Asia-Pacific countries have good reason to keep doing business with China, despite reservations about its politics. Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has sometimes used hawkish rhetoric on China but business leaders are urging him not to let the talk undermine a vital trade link.

India is also wary of letting strategic rivalry thwart business opportunities. Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is due to meet President Xi in Beijing in June. But Mohan Malik, professor at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, says “A chill has descended on Sino-Indian ties in recent years over a whole range of issues. There is particular concern over China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which could leave India surrounded by military ports and put China on a path to regional hegemony.”

Former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is a noted authority on China. He believes its military build-up is a response to the formidable presence of the US and its allies in the region. In a recent speech to military cadets at West Point in the United States he said: “China sees its maritime periphery as deeply hostile. It sees its traditional territorial claims in the East and South China Seas as under threat and now routinely refers to these as Chinaʼs core national interests – placing them in a similar category to Taiwan.”

Rudd also told the cadets he’d underestimated Xi:. “Five years ago, I wrote that Xi would be Chinaʼs most powerful leader since Deng. I was wrong. Heʼs now Chinaʼs most powerful leader since Mao.” He continued: “For the rest of the world, Xi represents a formidable partner, competitor or adversary – depending on the paths that are chosen in the future.”

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and a former BBC World Service presenter.

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