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China’s military modernisation is of a pace and kind that inevitably makes its neighbours feel vulnerable—not necessarily to a direct attack, but to the emerging superpower’s ability to throw its weight around and force nearby countries into its sphere of influence. At a time when America and the major European powers are reducing defence spending, China’s has been growing by about 12% a year for more than a decade. China’s defence spending is currently less than a quarter of America’s, but if current trends continue, its defence budget will overtake America’s in about 20 years’ time. Much of that spending has been on so-called asymmetric capabilities designed primarily to nullify the force projection power of American naval and air assets in the event of a future crisis over Taiwan. But now China is also developing power-projection capabilities of its own.
China insists its “peaceful rise” threatens nobody, but there is a lack of transparency about its intentions. America and its allies in East Asia must hope for the best, while assuming the worst—and planning accordingly.
At least one thing that our two protagonists should be able to agree on is that China’s military modernisation is impressive testimony to the emerging superpower’s growing self-confidence, technical prowess and economic might. Increasing defence spending by around 12% a year for more than a decade is bound to buy a quantum leap in capabilities. Much of the investment is guided by a consistent and clear-sighted strategy—namely to make it too dangerous or too costly for the status-quo superpower (ie, America) to project force against China’s interests in the event of a future crisis in the region. It should therefore not be surprising that neighbouring countries see it as a threat, if not directly to themselves, at least to the established security order in East Asia. Whether they are right to do so is, of course, another matter.
In the first place, China’s new military power is in some ways a response to a specifically Chinese problem: the ambiguous status of Taiwan. Chinese fears of a formal Taiwan secession have receded. However, Chinese hawks claim that they have done so partly because the associated military risks for both America and Taiwan itself have become so much greater. Shen Dingli maintains that China has yet to gain the military heft to challenge America’s security commitment to Taiwan. But it is doubtful whether an American president today would be as quick to order carrier groups to sail towards the Taiwan Strait because of an increase in tension as Bill Clinton was in 1996.
That China should see Taiwan in such existential terms is at least understandable. The problem is that the capabilities that China is acquiring to deter America from intervening during some future spat over Taiwan are also capabilities that before too long could be used to push those American carrier groups not just over the horizon but far out into the Pacific where they would have little influence over some broader conflict in the region. That is disconcerting to countries such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Singapore, which look to America as the ultimate guarantor of their security. Andrew Krepinevich says that China is prepared to play a long game in which America’s allies eventually conclude that American power can no longer save them from Chinese coercion. No wonder nearly all have welcomed the strategic priority that the Obama administration recently announced it was giving to the region, and no wonder that defence budgets across it are increasing rather than falling, as they are in Europe.
Yet in other ways, it seems alarmist to talk of China’s “unprovoked challenge” as Mr Krepinevich did a little while ago in making the case for “AirSea Battle”, a new operational concept intended to counter China’s area-denial strategy. There are arguments over exactly how much China is spending on defence, but it is probably a bit over 2% of GDP and good deal less than 3%—a figure that has been fairly constant for a number of years. That compares with the 4.7% that America currently spends. Even though China may get more bang for its buck thanks to lower military pay and cheaper domestically produced weapons, it still spends less than a quarter as much as America on defence.
And although China has more of a tendency to throw its weight around in the neighbourhood than before, particularly when it comes to maritime territorial disputes and the rights to exploitation of under-sea resources, it is more than 30 years since it used military force on any scale in the region. Also, China has a lot to lose from striking too belligerent a stance. Although a rising power with a huge appetite for the world’s natural resources to feed its industrial machine, it is a major stakeholder in the global economic system. Despite signs of a growing popular nationalism at home, China’s leadership knows that its legitimacy rests above all on delivering ever greater prosperity rather than on military adventurism.
It is true that on present trends China’s defence budget could exceed America’s in about 20 years’ time. But the pace of economic growth will almost inevitably slacken and the demands of a rapidly ageing population for better health care and pensions are likely to eclipse those of China’s ambitious generals and admirals.
That said, gauging China’s future strategic priorities is extraordinarily difficult. The political manoeuvrings of its power elite are difficult to read and few can confidently know how it will react to the problems it will inevitably face over the next 10-20 years. One response to a weakening economy could be a more strident nationalism combined with displays of military muscle and bullying of neighbours that resist falling into China’s sphere of influence. Such is the absence of any transparency, especially as far as China’s security establishment is concerned, that placing a bet on China’s intentions remaining benign would surely be foolhardy when its capabilities are improving so rapidly.
Another question that those entering the debate might wish to ponder is what China itself can do to lessen some of the worries about its intentions. Professor Shen argues that China has already done a lot, especially by trying to resolve peacefully a number of outstanding territorial disputes with its neighbours. But it could do still more. That China should want to have armed forces that reflect its size, wealth and history is something that other countries will have to accept. However, unless China wants to trigger a regional arms race that is in nobody’s interests, it has a responsibility to find ways to ease the concerns of its regional neighbours about how it might use those forces.
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