A blueprint of China’s future defense framework was outlined by outgoing President Hu Jintao in his report delivered to the 18th Communist Party of China Congress last November. It called for the creation of a national defense and armed forces commensurate to China’s standing, enabling it to address the country’s security challenges which continuously grow in proportion to the country’s increasing domestic demands and emerging stature in international affairs. It laid down the goal of attaining full mechanization and major strides in information technology (IT) application for the defense sector by 2020. Does this indicate a paradigm shift in China’s defense posture? Will this give momentum to more unilateral actions that would constitute a serious cause for concern for China’s neighbors? Will this pose an impending challenge to the post Cold War security architecture long dominated by the United States?
President Hu’s report interestingly drew attention to the need for China to develop military capacity in maritime, space and cyberspace security, representing new dimensions for China’s defense establishment. Maritime security has strong regional, as well as global, overtones. China’s increasing naval power projection is already creating a lot of ripples in the East and South China Seas in recent times. Incidentally, China just issued a Chinese passport which includes its sweeping nine dash line claim in the South China Sea, not to mention its claims in Indian-occupied territory. This, the development of a submarine naval base in Yulin, Hainan, the establishment of Sansha City in Paracel Islands (July 2012), the commissioning of Varyag, a former Soviet aircraft carrier (September 2012) and the building of an indigenous one, among others, can be seen as manifestations of a stronger resolve on the part of Beijing to enhance its maritime security. All these developments stir up anxieties and objections on the part of other claimants and users of South China Sea’s navigational sea lanes.
China’s increasing resource diplomacy in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America will naturally lead to the expansion of China’s maritime security interests, fuelling the development of an emerging blue water PLA Navy. Participation in curbing Somali piracy attacks in the Indian Ocean supports this. Reports of Chinese attempts to build intelligence gathering stations or naval bases in the Indian Ocean littoral states, notably in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Seychelles, may be seen as an indication of China’s expanding naval interests. Such moves will allow the country to better safeguard the seaborne routes where China-bound energy supplies or export-bound Chinese goods pass through, but it is also creating some discomfort, with some experts seeing this as an attempt to encircle rival India, if not challenge it in its traditional sphere of influence.
Cyberspace security has long aided censorship, conducting surveillance and clamping down on dissidents who may use the World Wide Web for their propaganda or for organizing anti-government activities. But advances in this area may also confer on China the capacity to possibly engage in electronic warfare. Developments in space technology may enable China to better identify and target enemy military installations, as well as monitor significant enemy movements. Both cyberspace and space security may boost up China’s capacity to fight a war in the information age. China knows that while the People’s Liberation Army remains the world’s largest army with about 3 million members, victory in modern wars will be dictated less by the number of foot soldiers than by the latest advances in both military software and hardware.
So is China bent on shaping a new world security order? While some pundits may be quick to assess that China is indeed evolving into a force that could destabilize East Asia, as well as challenge the global security system, the priorities of China’s military remains localized and its security posture, to date, remain largely defensive in nature. While its economic and financial power had dramatically risen, its military power is oftentimes exaggerated. 2007-2011 data from independent arms trade watchdog SIPRI shows that China is only the world’s fourth largest importer of arms, outpaced not only by India, but also by South Korea and Pakistan, in terms of importing arms. Although there is some contention on China’s actual military budget, China’s defense spending in proportion to its GDP remains miniscule compared to that of the US. Japan has a more modern and high technology security forces than that of China. In addition, China’s acquisition of an aircraft carrier came in late, while India and even Thailand already have long commissioned their own, the former since 1987 and the latter since 1999. Investments in anti-access or denial weapons, which are largely defensive in nature, and confined to the China seas, also reinforce this thesis. China’s interest in developing a second strike capability is anchored on its “no-first use” doctrine, the first nuclear country to pledge such a policy since 1964. Furthermore, while China’s ballistic and anti-shipping missiles and, to a certain extent, its fighter aircrafts, are quite noteworthy, its other military equipments remain backward when compared to the West. Deprived of access to high-end US and European defense technologies in effect since the 1989 Tiananmen incident, it may take a long while before China can truly modernize its armed forces to be at par with the West.
Since the 1960s, modernizing its national defense had been one of China’s four priority modernizations, along with modernizations in the areas of agriculture, industry and science and technology. China developed its indigenous nuclear power at a time when widespread poverty exists in the country in order for it not to be easily bullied by the great powers. This threat perception of the US and the Soviet Union, very acute during the Cold War years, justified Beijing’s calculus to build its own nuclear forces at great cost and sacrifice to deter such possible attacks. Now that the tables are turned and China is taking global center stage, China’s neighbours and the international community are hoping that China will not be the very hegemon that it used to detest avowedly in the past.
This article appeared at School of International Studies, Academy of Overseas Chinese Studies, and is reprinted with permission.