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In the last twenty years. China has intensified its military strength enormously, although it maintains a stable proportion of defense spending within its GDP. His main concern is to dominate the seas of China and to repel a hypothetical North American attack.
Over the last twenty years or so, China it has embarked on an extraordinary intensification of its military power that has hardly any precedents. This evolution has taken the form of a rapidly growing military expenditure, the purchase of advanced military equipment both inside and outside the country and the development of the arms sector and military technology to significantly reduce the gap with Western manufacturers. All this has been accompanied by the modernization of military structures and doctrines beyond the model of a great “people’s war” with ground troops and in the line of a small-sized force with greater emphasis on air power and especially naval power, the computerized war based on the latest advances in information technology, communications, command and control systems and joint operations.
The increase in military spending, although somewhat less in recent years, is remarkable. According to data from the International Institute for Peace Studies in Stockholm (SIPRI), Chinese military spending has doubled in real terms (adjusted for inflation) since 2008, four times since 2002 and multiplied by eight since 1997 (see figure one). With 228,000 million dollars invested in 2017, according to the calculations of SIPRI, China occupies in a prominent way the second place in the world in military spending; This triples the volume of third place, Saudi Arabia, although it is still far behind the United States, which spent 610,000 million dollars. Chinese military spending suffers from an absolute lack of transparency, details have not been given in recent years about the breakdown of the different expenditure items. The official defense budget of China (151,000 million dollars in 2017) is much lower than the figure calculated by the SIPRI, which also includes estimates of the bulky military R & D expenditure from other areas of the state budget, spending on the Popular Armed Police of dual civil and military character, as well as other additional items not included in the official defense budget.
A more self-critical and personalistic Chinese government may end up depending on an increased feeling of nationalism and aggressiveness against external rivals as a way to maintain legitimacy
China used to be the largest importer of weapons in the world; However, its level of imports, although still high, has been reduced in recent years thanks to the growth of its national armaments sector, which is now able to supply a larger quantity of military equipment. China is making progress in the development of the invisible J-10 fighter and has begun to build its first aircraft carriers manufactured in the country, having recently put into service (probably as a training platform) an old Soviet aircraft carrier bought second hand Ukraine and very remodeled and modernized. The country has also made important advances in the development and deployment of advanced technology for short, medium and long range missiles.
Understandably, this rapid increase in military capabilities has caused discomfort: in the smaller neighboring countries of the South China Sea region, with whom China maintains territorial disputes; in the traditional regional rival, Japan, with whom he also maintains territorial disputes; in the global and regional superpower, the United States, which sees its supremacy in the western Pacific in danger and, therefore, its capacity to condition the course of events in case of conflict and to guarantee the protection of its regional allies; and, perhaps more sharply, in Taiwan, a country governed independently since 1949 (but largely without international recognition) and considered by China as a “rebel province” with which it has not ruled out the use of military force to achieve reunification.
The fundamental question for the United States and regional governments, as well as for foreign foreign policy analysts, is: what is the intention behind the increase in China’s military power? To what extent is it a natural process of modernization and a defensive reaction to the overwhelming US military dominance, or to what extent does it represent an attempt to use a harsh military power, or the threat of resorting to it, to forcefully settle disputes? regional forces and force Taiwan to reunification, all of which would entail a serious risk of military conflict with the United States?
The argument that the increase in China’s military might is potentially aggressive may well be summarized not only in a few words, but in nine simple stripes, the famous line of nine strokes drawn on the Chinese maps of the South China Sea (see figure 2). With it, the country vindicates in practice all that sea and all the islands that are in it, violating in some cases the exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles of its regional neighbors. The Spratly Islands and the Paracelsus islands, traditional objects of dispute, have been occupied differently by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei; they are also claimed in their entirety by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and, partially, by other countries. However, the line of nine strokes, reiterated by China on a 2009 map and asserted vigorously after that date, goes much further. In a lawsuit brought by the Philippines, the Permanent Court of Arbitration of The Hague ruled in 2016 that Chinese claims based on the nine-line line lacked legal basis.
Anyway, the exact nature of China’s claims within the line of nine strokes is unclear. According to a maximalist interpretation, all waters included within the line would fall under full Chinese sovereignty, would be Chinese territorial waters. Such pretense of sovereignty over waters so far from the territory of a country (no matter how hard the imagination is forced) would have no precedent and would be extremely worrying for its neighbors. A much more limited interpretation consists in claiming all the land portions that emerged during the high tide and an exclusive economic zone of 200 miles around each of them. This interpretation remains controversial, but it is much less aggressive in nature.
Apart from territorial claims, China has behaved more aggressively in the South China Sea in recent years. In 2012, a naval confrontation with the Philippines over the disputed atoll of Scarborough ended with China taking control of the reef without firing a single shot. More recently, China has undertaken an intense land reclamation effort and has built several man-made islands of considerable size in the South China Sea on which it has built runways and military bases. For many countries in the region, all these steps constitute a serious militarization of the South China Sea with the aim of establishing a clear military dominance.
The United States, on the other hand, regularly carries out “freedom of navigation operations”, with the passage of warships inside the 200 miles of the islands and the reefs occupied by China. The United States insists that freedom of navigation includes the right of military vessels to transit through the exclusive economic zone of another country (although not for the 12 miles of territorial waters); China, on the other hand, affirms that this right only applies to civilian ships.
The United States and other countries also discuss, on the basis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Chinese claims of an exclusive economic zone around uninhabited rocks and shallows and land accidents that are submerged by high tide . The United States insists that freedom of navigation includes the right of military vessels to transit through the exclusive economic zone of another country (although not for the 12 miles of territorial waters); China, on the other hand, affirms that this right only applies to civilian ships. The United States and other countries also discuss, on the basis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Chinese claims of an exclusive economic zone around uninhabited rocks and shallows and land accidents that are submerged by high tide.
The United States insists that freedom of navigation includes the right of military vessels to transit through the exclusive economic zone of another country (although not for the 12 miles of territorial waters); China, on the other hand, affirms that this right only applies to civilian ships. The United States and other countries also discuss, on the basis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Chinese claims of an exclusive economic zone around uninhabited rocks and shallows and land accidents that are submerged by high tide.
The militarization of the South China Sea, in particular, has generated considerable nervousness in the United States and coastal countries, and many consider it to be a step towards regional domination by China.
Beyond the South China Sea, Japan is also concerned by the reaffirmation by China of its claim to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands, as well as its creation of an air defense identification zone that includes those islands.
An additional cause for concern is the exacerbated nationalist rhetoric used internally by the Government to maintain support for the Communist Party. With frequent references to the “century of humiliation” that has passed from the opium wars to the Japanese occupation (a period in which China was ruled by foreign powers), this rhetoric tends to demonize Japan above all and has led to expressions among Chinese citizens of an anti-Japanese nationalist sentiment that has sometimes gone beyond the wishes of the ruling party.
Nationalist rhetoric is not a new element, but it has intensified since 2012 with the increasingly absolutist government of President Xi Jinping, who has centralized power in his person, demonized political rivals and suppressed many of the ways that existed for the dissent. The Communist Party has promoted something akin to a cult of personality around “Uncle Xi.” With the growth of the country’s economic and military position, Xi has encouraged an idea of greatness as a constituent part of the “China dream”.
Although these internal events do not directly affect foreign policy, a more autocratic and personalistic government may end up depending on an increased sense of nationalism and aggressiveness against external rivals as a way to maintain legitimacy. In the particular case of serious tensions with other countries around a disputed issue, fueling nationalist sentiment can make it difficult for China to be perceived with the will to reach an agreement.
China insists again and again in its declarations of foreign policy and defense (like its biannual defense white papers) in that it will never seek hegemony or act aggressively against other countries, that it will seek to maintain with its neighbors and other countries constructive, peaceful and beneficial for all parties. Unlike the United States, for example, China has a clear policy of not resorting in the first place to its nuclear arsenal. It also insists that the increase in military power is peaceful and has a defensive purpose, which is not directed against any other country and that pursues (as the other countries) modern armed forces to defend their rights and interests.
They are just words, of course, but their coherence and resounding confers a certain credibility on the message. Perhaps the greatest support for these claims of a peaceful purpose (or, at least, the attenuation of the perception of a threat) is of an economic nature: the increase in military spending reflects the rapid growth of the country. At 1.9%, the military load (that is, the part of GDP devoted to military spending) remains exactly at the same level as in 1999; and, since then, the percentage has only varied between 1.8% and 2.2% (see figure 1). It has remained at 1.8-1.9% since 2007, with the exception of a brief increase to 2.1% in 2009, when China increased all expenditures as part of the stimulus measures to respond to the global crisis.
Of course, the vast Chinese armed forces and their increasingly sophisticated military technology are no less threatening because they represent only a small fraction of the economy. However, the coherence of China’s military charge indicates that there is no change of priorities in relation to the army to the detriment of other areas of the economy, which would indicate an increasing militarism. This situation contradicts the image of a country devoted to an arms race or that expects to use its military capabilities aggressively in the short term. It is worth noting that China’s tendency to keep military spending growth in line with economic growth, and no longer greater, has remained untouched by changes in policy and spending by the United States; they have not managed to modify it neither the “turn towards Asia” proclaimed by Obama (although never applied in reality) nor the uncertainties generated by President Trump’s rise to power (and his large increases in military spending). China may seek a greater position and regional influence through military spending, but it is playing a long-term game.
Economic growth also means that at least part of the increase in Chinese military spending is more or less inevitable. As the country has become increasingly prosperous, it is unthinkable that its soldiers do not share that prosperity; and, in fact, an important part of the increase in Chinese military spending is due to the frequent increases in soldiers’ salaries and improvements in their living conditions. Of course, that only affects the departure of personnel from the military budget.
The other key factor that can be considered when understanding the increase in Chinese military power is the role of the United States as the dominant military power in the Pacific region. The United States has military bases and rights to establish bases throughout the Pacific, including Hawaii, Guam, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and the Philippines. Until recently, the power and advanced technological levels of US air and naval forces in the region have provided the United States throughout the Pacific with an unquestioned military supremacy, with the ability to control maritime routes of communication (such as the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea) and intervene decisively in any conflict in the region (including any conflict on or around Chinese coasts and waters).
It is a situation with which China feels uncomfortably uncomfortable, as would the United States if, for example, Russia or China were able to dominate the Caribbean and control the Panama Canal. The United States has a long history of military intervention and invasion of other countries; and China harbors very real fears that the United States may, in some future circumstance, use its force to coerce it, suffocate it economically or violate its sovereignty. The most likely tension point is Taiwan, which the United States has pledged to defend (although it formally maintains the “one China” policy).
In 1995, at a time of increasing tension in the Taiwan Strait, The United States sent the aircraft carrier Nimitz in what was a glaring demonstration of China’s military inferiority and its essential defense against the United States. The Iraq war provided China with another exemplary lesson about how far China’s technology was from advanced US military technology (with its smart weapons, the use of information technology and communications for so-called network-centered warfare). the ability of joint operations) and also on their willingness to use that power, even in defiance of international law.
In this sense, China perceives as an existential need the development of its military capabilities to a level where, although it does not surpass the United States, it can offer a credible deterrent to US intervention.
However, China’s defensive aspirations against US military dominance also carry an offensive aspect: one of the most likely triggers of a US intervention would be a Chinese attempt to conquer Taiwan by force. For this reason, in order to make US intervention even more difficult, the Chinese are also increasing the pressure on Taiwan, against which a series of short-range missiles have already been deployed from across the Taiwan Strait and they keep the possibility open. of a forced reunification.
Efforts to counteract US military superiority have led to a kind of asymmetric arms race in which China has focused mostly on anti-access and area denial (A2 / DA) capabilities; especially, ground-based ballistic missiles that can impose a long-range fire barrier
scope for Chinese air and naval forces. The goal is to raise the cost of any US attempt to intervene in the region with its overwhelming naval forces, including five carrier groups. In that sense, it is worth mentioning the anti-aircraft missile DF-21D Chinese. Considered the first satellite-guided hypersonic anti-ship ballistic missile capable of attacking an aircraft carrier in motion, the DF-21D boasts a maximum range of more than 1,450 kilometers, with maneuverable re-entry vehicles, a terminal guidance system and a trans-horizon radar.
For its part, the United States has devoted considerable attention to developing strategies to respond to China’s A2 / DA strategy. Among them, there may be a greater strengthening of long-range attack capabilities (through missiles and fighters) to destroy essential elements of Chinese assets in A2 / DA; the creation of a counterpart of A2 / DA itself for the blockade of China, or the implementation of a long-distance blockade by cutting off access to the Lombok, Sunda and Malacca straits between Malaysia and Indonesia on which much of the Chinese trade.
The United States remains a much more powerful military powerhouse than China, spends nearly three times every year and has a highly developed system of platforms, technology and operational strategies. It has, for example, 11 aircraft carriers versus the only one in China. However, for China the issue is not to surpass the United States in global military power (something that would happen in the distant future), but to limit the US capacity to effectively exercise military dominance in its backyard and achieve perhaps a position from which to become the preeminent power within the first chain of islands.
Despite all that competition between China and the United States for the position and the arms race for regional military dominance, the war between the two superpowers is something that both are very interested in avoiding and that is very unlikely in the foreseeable future. However, the scenario of an emerging power that calls into question the primacy of an existing dominant power has often led to war throughout history; and avoiding the so-called trap of Thucydides is a problem on which military and foreign policy analysts on both sides of the Pacific work. The growing strength of China may well change the balance of power in the Western Pacific in the coming decades, and the challenge for both sides is the peaceful management of that transition.
Meanwhile, China’s efforts to narrow the gap with the United States, however much they are viewed internally from a defensive standpoint, create a growing military breach with Asian neighbors that provides the latter with real reasons for concern. The Chinese militarization of the South China Sea is an area of particular concern. On the one hand, there is no indication that the Asian giant intends to use direct military force to achieve its objectives in the region (seizing, for example, islands now occupied by their rivals). However, on the other hand, China seems resolved to conquer the supremacy within the line of nine strokes (regardless of what is intended with that, perhaps with the idea of controlling most of the abundant mineral and oil resources of the sea of South China).
More seriously, Taiwan’s status remains unresolved. The relations between both parts of the strait have improved considerably in recent years, with an increase in commercial, business and tourism links, and they seem to have survived the 2016 elections that brought to power the Democratic Progressive Party of today’s President Tsai Ingwen. . However, as China’s military strength increases and the United States’ ability to intervene diminishes, the temptation felt by China to resolve the issue by force could grow. China has no interest in the war, which would be tremendously detrimental to the growth of its global economic and trade links, but to its neighboring countries – and, in particular,
Source: La Vangardia