top of page

China’s Escalating Military Power: Global and Regional Impact

Introductory Observations

China’s escalating military power has been in global focus for more than a decade now ever since China resorted to double-digit percentage increases in its annual defense spending. This month China’s escalating military power again shot into focus with China’s military budget announcement of a 17.8% increase in defense spending and the release of the United States Pentagon Annual Report to the US Congress: “The Military Power of the Peoples Republic of China.”

Every year with the release of these two documents both the United States and China go through an annual ritual where the United States highlights China’s increasing defense spending and military build-up is highlighted and China vehemently denounces it as a gross exaggeration of its military power. Further, China retorts that its military build-up is ‘defensive’ in nature and that China has no aggressive intentions and that it is engaged in a “peaceful rise”.

The striking feature of China’s assertive retorts on its military buildup is that China questions the American reading of its intentions. But China does not seem to have refuted or contradicted the United States reports of the build-up of its military capabilities in terms of accretion of nuclear weapons, ICBM & MRBM missiles, naval build-up, air force build-up, and build-up of its power projection capabilities. More significantly, the Chinese emphasis on space warfare and cyber warfare.

Since prudent military planning the world over is based on reading of a nation’s military capabilities and not intentions and that China has not contradicted US assessments of her military build-up capabilities, it would be fair to assume that China is engaged in the military build-up as assessed in US reports. This causes global strategic concern and this strategic concern arises from the arguments advanced by strategic analysts that in the absence of credible threats to China’s national security, the rationale for China’s enhanced military build-up transcends the requirements of a “defensive build-up’ and the magnitude of China’s military build-up in peace time therefore raises suspicions of China’s intentions.

China’s escalating military power is not solely a concern of the United States only. China’s accelerated military build-up generates global concerns and regional concerns in regions that strategically border China’s peripheries. Besides East Asia and Taiwan which primarily concern the United States, the vast regions of South East Asia, South Asia, South West Asia and Central Asia are impacted. Even Russia despite its strategic partnership with China cannot remain strategically unconcerned with Chinese military build-up.

Similarly, NATO is no longer Europe-centric. Its military presence now extends to China’s peripheries in Afghanistan, Europe is also now in Chinese ICBM ranges. It is therefore legitimate for NATO also to be strategically concerned by China’s growing military power.

In one sense the Pentagon Assessment of China’s military power suffers from two infirmities. The first infirmity is that it is East Asia and Taiwan-centric and does not do justice in examining the “China Threat” to other critical regions of the world. They are just marginally mentioned in passing.

The second infirmity that is visible in the Pentagon Assessment on China’s military power is that it examines the issue with kid gloves without terming explicitly China as a military threat if not to United States but for a large number of countries lying on its periphery like Vietnam and India not forgetting Japan. The term “China Threat” is avoided in the Pentagon document even though lately the Director of US National Intelligence, Michael McCormick stated in a Senate hearing that “They (China) are a threat today and they would become increasingly that over time.”

This paper does not intend to get bogged down in statistical data of China’s accelerated military power enhancement. Such data is profusely available in open published sources. This paper shall attempt to examine China’s growing military power and its strategic impact in the global and regional contexts. This will be examined under the following heads:

  1. China’s Accelerated Military Buildup: The Stimuli

  2. China’s Escalating Military Budgets: Distinctive Features

  3. China’s Military Power Enhancement: The Key Thrust Areas

  4. China’s Military Power Accretion: The Global Impact

  5. China’s Military Power Accretion: Impact on China’s Contiguous Regions and NATO

  6. China-United States Strategic Tussle: When Does the Climax Occur?

China’s Accelerated Military Buildup: The Stimuli

Even though no National Security Strategy Document is published by China, it is not difficult to identify the stimuli which have prompted China to go in for an accelerated military build-up in the last decade or so. The strategic stimuli that can be listed in brief as follows:

  1. United States victory in the Cold War and loss of the Cold War’s predictable global strategic templates which China adroitly exploited to her strategic advantage was disconcerting for China.

  2. The disintegration of the Former Soviet Union as a Communist superpower and the emergence of the United States as the sole superpower were strategically traumatic for China.

  3. United States military intervention in Iraq (Gulf War I in 1991-92) and the hi-tech ‘shock and awe’ blitzkrieg military campaign was militarily traumatic for China.

  4. United States military interventions in former Yugoslavia on humanitarian grounds in the mid-1990s rattled China fearing that the same principles could be used by United States for military interventions in Tibet and Xinjiang. Further, it was militarily traumatic that another Communist state stood disintegrated by American policies.

  5. The ease with which Taliban Afghanistan was subjugated in 2002 by awesome use of American military power and that too on China’s immediate periphery further reinforced China’s military fears arising from USA.

  6. Whatever Chinese doubts of American military power that may have lingered stood shattered by Gulf War II in Iraq where once again US hi-tech integrated military power sliced through Iraq in days.

  7. The strategic hemming-in of China both in the East and the West by United States strategic initiatives have kept China worried.

China’s accelerated military build-up, its military up-gradation and integrated warfare operational training dates from 1992 onwards. In every successive year the military power enhancement process has picked up more steam.

The above listed strategic stimuli for China’s military power enhancement were not the only factors, China’s ambitions to emerge as a global power competing strategically if not confronting the Untied States has been the major underlying national ambition of China.

It can be argued that even if the external stimuli listed above in the international security environment were absent, China would still have embarked on an accelerated military build-up to fulfill her national ambition of emerging as a global power. Fortunately for China, financial resources were abundantly available for the accelerated military power build-up.

China has already been an “economic superpower” for a decade or so. China in no uncertain terms with such accelerated military build-up has made it clear that it intends to emerge as a “military superpower” also.

China does have a well thought out strategy to achieve this aim. ‘China’s National Defense’ Publication of 2006 spells out the follows:

“China pursues a three-step development strategy in modernizing its national defense…. The first step is to lay a solid foundation by 2010, the second is to make major progress around 2020, and the third is to basically reach the strategic goal of building informatized armed forces and capable of winning informatized wars by the mid 21st Century.”

The implied reference in the last sentence is unmistakable. With such a blueprint, China’s military power build-up at double-digit rate increase annually would be a constant feature.

China’s Escalating Military Budgets: Distinctive Features

Rather than laboring on statistics, it may be more useful to highlight some distinctive features of China’s escalating military buildup having examined the stimuli. Some important distinctive features emanating from the Pentagon Report and other sources are as under:

  1. China’s annual defense budget growth (inflation adjusted) has grown at the average rate of 11.8% over a ten year period 1996 to 2006. This is over the average annual GDP growth of 9.2% (inflation adjusted).

  2. In 2007, China’s military budget was announced as a 17.8% increase to stand at $ 45 billion. Later revised to a 19.47% increase.

  3. On March 4, 2008 China announced a defense budget increase of 17.8% to stand at $59 billion.

  4. US intelligence sources stoutly maintain that China constantly under-reports its defense budget. China’s actual defense budget every year is nearly three times its publicly stated figures.

  5. China’s published defense budget figures do not reflect major categories of defense expenditures for China’s strategic forces (nuclear weapons and missile arsenal), military Research & Development and China’s large paramilitary forces.

  6. For 2007, the United States computation is that actual defense spending of China was in the range of $ 97 billion to $ 139 billion as opposed to declared figure of $ 45 billion.

  7. China’s regional neighbors rank comparatively poorly in defense spending with India at about $ 23 billion. Japan at about $ 40 billion and Russia at about $ 50 billion.

China’s Military Power Enhancement: The Key Thrust Areas

Broadly speaking China’s military power enhancement has to be viewed in two different perspectives, that is (1) In the context of Taiwan military contingency and (2) In the context of its national ambition to emerge as a military superpower. Of course in terms of military capabilities, military assets and strategic priorities, overlaps would exist.

In the context of the Taiwan contingency, China seems to be militarily planning in terms of military power for the following (1) Military buildup of strategic assets and conventional forces opposite Taiwan as a political and military coercive posture (2) In case of Taiwan’s unilateral declaration of independence then a Chinese full scale amphibious and air assault would be launched on Taiwan and (3) Naval and air force capabilities to deter United States military intervention to protect Taiwan.

In the context of Sino-American rivalry or conflict China would be preparing for strategic nuclear deterrence against United States and develop military capabilities to make the cost of any United States military operations against China militarily prohibitive.

Taking the above two together and the military information flowing out of China, it has been observed that China’s key thrust areas in its military power enhancement in terms of priorities are as follows: (1) Space Warfare (2) Integrated Military Operations and Informatized Warfare (3) Power Projection incorporating all important components like Air Assault Capabilities, Amphibious Warfare and Heliborne Operations (3) Mechanized Warfare (4) Special Forces Operations (5) Cyber Warfare (6) Missile Warfare.

More simply put, the key thrust areas of China in terms of power enhancement strategies and up-gradation of capabilities in terms of military hardware are being planned to cater for a United States military threat whether over Taiwan or otherwise. The Chinese aim being to blunt United States hi-tech warfare capabilities in all spectrums of warfare.

China’s naval expansion and modernization needs special mention as there are multiple aims that China has, namely (1) China’s maritime defense (2) Break any naval blockades of China (3) Develop blue water naval capabilities for strategic influence (4) Naval capabilities to provide for energy security of China in terms of defense of sea-lanes (6) Under-water submarine warfare capabilities to deter use of American naval supremacy (7) Develop long range cruise missiles against US aircraft carriers.

China’s Military Power Accretion: The Global Impact

The global impact can be recounted in the following terms (1) Global balance of power is upset as China’s challenge to the status quo takes concrete and challenging contours (2) China’s main military threat is more United States-specific and hence US supremacy as the sole super power will be threatened (3) China’s cavorting with nations hostile to the United States injects an element of strategic destabilization of the global world order.

The United States cannot be expected to be a silent spectator to China’s growing military challenge especially in the strategic regions of the world and also in the naval dimension to America’s cherished principle of the “freedom of the high seas.” Nor can USA be a silent spectator to China’s political and military coercion of US allies like Japan or military threats against such allies. China is already letting it be known that in case of US military intervention in a Taiwan crisis, China will carry out missile strikes against military bases in Japan hosting US military presence.

As China’s military power escalates such dangers could become more pronounced prompting US counter-actions. With China’s propensity to use military force in conflicts of the past and its military brinkmanship over the Hainan Island crisis recently the global strategic temperatures could rise substantially forcing smaller nations to ally with the United States for their security needs.

The spin-off from the above would be that such nations would welcome US military presence in Asia to off-set the China threat. In the process, China’s strategic frustration in not pushing US military presence out of East Asia in particular could lead to further Chinese military brinkmanship and costly military miscalculations against the United States.

China’s Military Power Accretion: Impact on China’s Contiguous Regions and NATO

It has been noted earlier in this Paper that the combined and cumulative effect of China’s military power accretion whether in the “Taiwan-specific context” or “military superpower-specific context” will generate the emergence of a formidable military machine of China and consequently encouraging it to throw its strategic weight around especially in contiguous regions.

The United States has the power – political, strategic, economic and military to deal with or neutralize the emerging ‘China Threat’. The same, however, cannot be said of the lesser powers in China’s contiguous regions.

In East Asia, the China threat looms large on Japan coupled with North Korea as China’s missile surrogate. Japan independently of USA or as a close inter-connected and integrated forward military ally of USA faces a credible China military threat. In terms of impact, Japan despite the US security umbrella could be (1) Forced into an arms race. It is already visible in terms of Japan’s naval build-up and (2) Seek wider strategic partnerships with Australia, Vietnam and India.

In South East Asia a major flashpoint exists in the territorial disputes between China and Vietnam over the ownership of the Spratly Islands. Both China and Vietnam despite the current apparent normalization of relations are militarily way of each other. Should China become more militarily assertive on the Spratly issue, Vietnam may have to seek the military security umbrella of the United States. With a growing Vietnamese economy, one should expect Vietnam to invest in expansion and up-gradation of her naval capabilities to threaten the security of China’s oil sea-lanes security in the South China Sea. Vietnam has stood up to China for over a thousand years and a militarily resurgent China should not expect that it can militarily coerce Vietnam.

South Asia has been used as a prolific playground by China for strategic destabilization of India with her strategic nexus with Pakistan and Bangladesh. China and India as two major Asian powers would always be competing powers strategically and hence a boundary settlement of their territorial dispute is not possible.

South Asia in 2008 presents a totally different strategic picture today as opposed to 1962 when China inflicted a military debacle on India as a result of Nehru’s strategic follies, India today is economically and militarily resurgent forcing the other global powers to seek strategic partnerships with India as a counter-weight to China, politically to begin with. China’s protégés in South Asia, namely Pakistan (despite its Chinese nuclear weapons and Chinese missile arsenal) and Bangladesh are virtually failed states.

The impact on South Asia of China’s enhanced military power would be to (1) Prompt India to assert forcefully its regional power status (2) Stir India to close its strategic and military differentials with China (3) India emerges as the pre-eminent naval power in Indian Ocean with US and Western nations support (4) Force India to play the ‘balance of power’ games and also the creation and exploitation of strategic counter-pressure power points against China, Tibet more specifically.

South West Asia for all practical purposes is a United States preserve and China with even enhanced military power can do no more than create strategic irritants by tying up with anti-US nations in the region.

Central Asia for all practical purposes needs to be counted as a Russian preserve. While Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) linkages could be expected to operate between Russia and China in the region, but these would operate to a point. China military power accretions beyond a certain point could threaten Russia’s traditional hold over Central Asia and then Russia could be expected to react.

NATO seems to be a late entrant as an entity growingly alarmed at Chinese enhancement of military power in global terms. This arises on two counts, namely (1) Military buildup in China’s Western Regions (2) NATO countries now being under Chinese ICBM strategic range coverage.

China’s emergence as a likely NATO adversary could in terms of impact would draw the following NATO responses (1) European countries would be disinclined to lift the ban on arms exports to China (2) NATO-US could come more closer in terms of stronger military postures on China’s peripheries (3) NATO’s eastward creep could become more pronounced.

China – United States Strategic Tussle: When Does the Climax Occur?

The China-United States strategic tussle is unlike the Cold War’s USA-Soviet Union strategic confrontation. That was an ideological tussle and confrontation.

The China-United States strategic tussle is markedly geo-strategic, geopolitical and geo-economic. Despite the friendly rhetoric that is indulged in by China and USA, it is all superficial. Underlying all this veneer are deep strategic concerns and fears of each other. Underlying all this is also a past military conflictual record of the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

The present state of relations between China and USA are acquiring the contours of a Cold War. But this Cold War unlike the first Cold War has all the chances of becoming a “Hot War” between USA and China over a host of conflictual flash-points stretching right across Asia and other strategic issues.

When does the climax occur, when the veneer gets ripped off and both China and USA finally face-off each other strategically?

As part of both estimative and predictive analysis it can be said that China is unlikely to stoke a direct military confrontation (barring miscalculations arising from brinkmanship) with the United States till 2050. That is the year designated by China to reach the apex of military power enhancement to emerge as a “military superpower” capable of complete victory in an informatized war.

Till then the world has to wait with abated breath as to what would be the final outcome of the ongoing China-US strategic tussle.

Concluding Observations

China is very fond of calculating the “Comprehensive Military Power” (CMP) of nations in precise mathematical terms. If one were to adopt the Chinese CMP template then China today stands tall in terms of military power with its decade old accelerated military buildup and which is likely to continue till 2050. The world can therefore expect that the arms race by China with the United States would continue till then and thereafter.

Emergence as an “economic superpower” was not a difficult task for China. Besides the economic factors operating in China’s favor the global security environment factors impelled the United States and Western countries to buildup China economically in return for its quasi-strategic relationship with the USA in the late 1970’s, and early 1980’s against the Soviet Union.

However, China’s emergence as a “military superpower” against the backdrop of its propensity for military conflict over contentious issues raises strategic uncertainties and strategic concerns about China’s future military directions.

China has to recognize the strategic realty that in its move upwards to “military superpower” status it not only has to contend with the United States but also with a number of competing regional powers for the same power status and complicating it are its territorial disputes with them and which could complicate China’s military rise. Such regional powers could be induced to gravitate towards the United States if China continues to exploit border disputes as strategic pressure points.

(The author, Dr.Subhash Kapila, is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group.

5 views0 comments