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China: Projection of Power

from the August 10, 2015 eNews issue

Chinese Navy


China made history in the last few months. In April, the Lin Yi, a guided missile frigate, spent a little over an hour in Yemen’s war-torn port of Aden before setting sail for Djibouti with 225 evacuees from 10 countries. The evacuees were greeted at the harbor by Djiboutian officials, the Chinese ambassador to Djibouti and other diplomats. Djiboutian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mahamoud Ali Youssouf expressed his thanks for China's help in evacuating foreign nationals, saying the move is very touching.

Billed by Beijing as the navy’s first international maritime rescue evacuation, the mission helps show the rising ambitions of the People’s Liberation Army.

A few days earlier, state television showed a satellite photo of three Shang-Class submarines anchored at a top-secret base on China’s southern island of Hainan. The report identified them as the navy’s most advanced Type-093G nuclear powered attack submarines, which experts say will start China’s first patrol by nuclear powered subs later this year. The Chinese Navy now has more diesel and nuclear attack submarines than America does according to one US Navy admiral. Some of them are “fairly amazing” and Beijing is exploring new ways of projecting its power on the seas.

Shang-Class SSNs at Hainan Island

Also, Pakistan has agreed “in principle” to buy eight Chinese submarines in a deal that could be worth up to $5 billion — the most lucrative Chinese arms contract ever.

In March, China also announced it is building a second aircraft carrier. It is estimated China’s defense spending would increase by 10.1 per cent this year alone. This means China has increased its defense spending by over 10% every year for the last 27 years. Even more disturbing, China’s arms exports have grown by 143 per cent, making it the world’s third-largest arms trader, according to a new study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).

The questions military analysts are asking is whether China has gone down the road of militarization or is it simply building up its military? There is a distinction between the two terms. Militarizing is what countries do when they intend to use their military, and is measured not just in ships and tanks, but also in behavior. China’s neighbors, such as Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, are becoming skittish about Beijing beefing up its hold over disputed islands. Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, had likened this to the creation of “a Great Wall of sand”, referring to a large-scale dredging operation to create land on isolated reefs for ports, barracks and even air strips. One source of comfort to these countries is the fact China recently announced it is halting land creation efforts on these islands.

Beijing’s rapid spending increases and defense of its maritime claims, including an area of ocean sticking out into the South China Sea called the “nine dash line” threaten to set off an arms race across all of Asia. Because of the Chinese build-up, Japan has begun to debate the merits of its pacifist postwar constitution. (China’s defense budget is 3.6 times larger than the defense budget of Japan.)

International focus

As has been reported here previously, Beijing has been taking on international commitments, starting with a naval mission in 2008 off the east coast of Africa to combat piracy, marking the first time in 600 years China has deployed its navy beyond its shores. China also sent out a frigate in an international effort to escort a convoy of ships carrying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile out of the country. China has also deployed some of its submarines into the Indian Ocean, with one sub visiting Sri Lanka two times.

With this new found power, China has recently flexed its military muscle. Before a visit to India last September by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chinese forces moved closer to India along a disputed border in the Himalayas. Then in November 2013, Beijing’s defense ministry announced an “air defense identification zone”, which requires all aircraft travelling through it to identify themselves and covers islands in the East China Sea claimed by Japan.

Global Defense Spending

Few would deny China’s role in the world is increasing, but how much defense does a country need? The way countries spend money tells a lot about their intentions. If Beijing’s strategy is judged just on the numbers, China’s 10-fold increase in annual defense spending from 1989 would seem exceptional. But measured another way, as a part of the overall economy, China’s military spending looks more normal. For all the talk of trophy armaments and aggressive rhetoric from Beijing, military expenditures are small by international standards if measured as a percentage of GDP. When looking at defense spending in this way, China’s military spending is actually less than many of its neighbors as a percentage of GDP.

Something else defense analysts will point out is even though China is spending large amounts of money on defense spending, much of the money is going toward internal security, rather than foreign defense. A large middle class is growing dissatisfied with conditions as they are and rural areas are envious of their richer urban cousins. Beijing is increasing their defense forces also to counter an internal uprising in the provinces.

Just as in the United States, defense spending is a part of China’s overall economic development. As Dr. Sam Perlo-Freeman, Senior Researcher and Head of the Sipri Project on Military Expenditure puts it, “There is more of everything in China now, there are more cellphones, there’s more air pollution, there are more babies [and] there are also more tanks and one more aircraft carrier.”

China’s arms exports can also be counted in different ways. The Chinese foreign ministry took issue with the Sipri study of arms exports, claiming the study measured volumes of arms rather than price, which is not usually made publicly available. Measuring by volume, it says, understates the exports of the US, which are more expensive.

Moreover, other analysts say despite the impressive rollout of high-tech equipment, China’s army still has little operational ability for the most advanced systems.

“The military appears to run on slogans,” says one western diplomat in Beijing with extensive knowledge of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). “But operationally they have a long way to go.” The lack of transport aircraft, for example, makes it increasingly common to see hordes of PLA soldiers boarding Chinese commercial airlines flights bound for duty.

While much of the spending is on prestige projects such as the Liaoning, a Soviet aircraft carrier China commissioned in 2012 after refitting it, experts say without huge improvements in combat readiness, training and doctrine — not to mention smaller support vessels — such trophy platforms will be sitting ducks in a conflict.

“There are individual US pilots who have had more carrier landings than the whole of the Chinese military,” according to Gary Li, an independent defense analyst on China, adding that having an aircraft carrier “does not equate to knowing how to use it. They are years away from being able to conduct carrier operations.”

Shifts in command

One thing has changed for China is that it is moving away from its former strategic priorities, such as fighting a land war against the Soviet Union, towards projecting power into the western Pacific region. This will cause the United States and its ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty) allies to rethink its strategy.

Analyzing budgets and the number of troops tells only half the story of China’s military strategy. More important is the intrusion into the public sphere of military and security issues, which were previously not a priority in the post-Mao era when economic development was key. China seems to be adjusting from being a developmental state, to becoming more of a national security state in which security priorities are becoming the most important considerations for the Chinese leadership.

While both the United States and China face epochal budgetary and economic crises — which in both countries bleed over into the political realm — an economic crisis is brewing in China, one that is far more profound than in the United States.

Any internal crisis, be it the stack market continuing to fall, India trying to move eastward into disputed territory, or internal dissent, these realities will stay the overriding geopolitical facts for that country.

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