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The Real Reason Behind China’s Military Expansion

Many in the West view China's rapid military expansion as a growing threat to global and regional security. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, or so writes Ai Zhong-Guo. Beijing has little time for global or regional domination, which it reminds everyone in its 2013 Defence White Paper.

In July, China's ambassador to Washington spoke to CNN. Addressing the issue of the USA's "strategic pivot" to Asia, Cui Tiankai said it was "not quite in proportion to the real threat". Cui also suggested the USA was using the threat of North Korea as a pretext to strengthen military alliances in the region.

A month earlier, in June, Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama vowed to build a "new type of relationship" during the Chinese leader's landmark visit to the USA. However, there are several points of friction between the two powers, among them Taiwan, the aforementioned "pivot" and territorial disputes. Cui was dubious the USA would not take sides in the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Diaoyu Islands, for example. "It's a matter of how the US would really stick to this position of taking no side. Sometimes, when the US is talking to us, they say one thing; and when they are talking to Japan, they say another. So what is the real position of the USA?" he queried.

For a long time, China has been receiving a bad rap for its climb to prominence. Indeed, the international media is fixated on portraying China as a threat to regional peace, a loose cannon that must be contained. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to this author. This article seeks to redress some of the imbalances in public perception, and set out from a Chinese viewpoint, what the growth of China's military really amounts to.

Warmongering or Peaceful?

One accusation bandied about is that China is spoiling for a fight with neighbours or the USA. A simple comparison suffices. The last war China engaged in was a brief border dispute with Vietnam in 1979. This conflict occurred nearly 35 years ago. If we compare US adventurism during the same timeframe, we find that this superpower has engaged in the following missions or invasions:

• Lebanese Civil War (1982-84)
• Bombing of Libya (1981, 1986, 1989)
• Invasion of Panama (1989-90)
• Gulf War (1990-91)
• Somali Civil War (1992-94)
• Bosnia (1993-95)
• Haiti (1994-95)
• Kosovo (1999)
• Colombian Conflict (1998-)
• Invasion of Afghanistan (2001-)
• War on Terror (2001-)
• Invasion of Iraq (2003-11)
• Liberia (2003)
• Libyan Civil War (2011).

Right now it is on the verge of striking Syria. While some items on this list are admittedly international peacekeeping missions, it does serve to highlight the fact that the USA, more than anyone else, likes to throw its weight around. Our latest Defence White Paper, issued in April 2013, states unequivocally, "China unswervingly pursues an independent foreign policy of peace and a national defence policy that is defensive in nature. China opposes any form of hegemonism or power politics, and does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries."

Some argue the Taiwan issue shows China’s intent to wage war. The status of Taiwan is one very dear to the Chinese heart, because no nation wishes to have its territory and people divided. Taiwan was forcibly separated from mainland China when it was seized by Japan in 1895 and subjected to five decades of imperial rule. Indeed, Taiwan's continued estrangement is a visible reminder of past injustices wrought by imperial powers. Of course, the current division is a result of China's civil war against the corrupt Kuomintang administration in the late 1940s and it is entirely an internal Chinese matter. The People's Republic of China (PRC) would one day like Taiwan to peacefully reunite, just as Germany did in 1990 after the Cold War fizzled out.

Related article: Why China is Twisting My Melon

Many unfairly accuse China of not renouncing the threat of force to reunite Taiwan. Article 8 of the 2005 Anti-Secession Law states: "In the event that ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan's secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity." This law simply continues the status quo and provides a legal basis to protect China's interests. Has the USA ever promised any potential adversary that it will never use force to respond to some future provocation? No right thinking government makes such rash promises by discounting particular courses of action.

China's 2013 White Paper promises, "We will not attack unless we are attacked; but we will surely counterattack if attacked. Following this principle, China will resolutely take all necessary measures to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity." The 'China threat' towards Taiwan is grossly overblown. Indeed, China is enjoying warming social, economic and political ties, especially since President Ma Ying-jeou assumed office in 2008. Furthermore, China's relations with Taiwan can never be construed as indicative of wider Chinese ambitions in Asia; Taiwan is a one-of-a-kind issue.

In fact, China believes US military aid to Taiwan is the most serious disturbance to regional peace. The Taiwan Relations Act, under whose auspices the USA provides modern military equipment, is an anachronism. It originated in 1979 at a time when the USA was still afraid of communism spreading around the globe. The end of the Cold War rendered such treaties out of date. If this situation was reversed, readers may better understand how upsetting the USA's arming of Taiwan actually is. Imagine that Puerto Rico, for example, decided to cut ties with the USA, and that China began actively arming it with high-tech military weapons. This is very similar to what the USA is doing to China.

It is therefore no surprise that China is developing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) weapons such as anti-ship ballistic missiles to prevent US military interference in a Chinese matter. Just as the USA felt it intolerable to have Russian missiles deployed in its Cuban backyard in 1962, so the PRC resents American intrusion on the issue of Taiwan.

General Chang Wanquan, China's defence minister, made his first official visit to the Pentagon on 19 August to meet Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel. Chang conveyed disquiet over the USA's Asia-Pacific "pivot". The US should not "target a specific country in the region", he said. "[Both nations should refrain] from imposing one's will on the other, or gaining one's own interests at the expense of the interests of the other."

China's Growing Military

China's defence budget rose 10.7% this year to USD114.3 billion. The White Paper claims, "Over the years, the PLA has been proactively and steadily pushing forward its reforms in line with the requirements of performing its missions and tasks,and building an informationised military."

The PLA is becoming more mobile with smaller modular units, yet it has also shrunk dramatically after undergoing progressive downsizing in 1985, 1997 and 2003. These programmes reduced the armed forces by one million, 500,000 and 200,000 personnel respectively. In other words, the PLA cut its size by 40+% over a ten-year period! Today the army service of the PLA has total manpower of 850,000. The PLA Navy (PLAN) is a major beneficiary of new equipment under China's offshore defence strategy; a blue-water capability is necessary to conduct mobile operations, cooperate internationally and counter non-traditional security threats. The PLAN has 235,000 personnel and the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) 398,000 people.

Modernisation of the armed forces cannot be separated from the transformation of Chinese society in general. The PLA was a very late starter in terms of modernisation. In the 1980s, expenditure was static so the defence budget started from a very low baseline. Since then the budget has grown in parallel with the economy as a whole. Rather than raw figures, the percentage of GDP is a better indicator of defence spending levels. In the past decade it has varied from 1.22% to 1.42%, which is not outlandish. In contrast, the USA averaged 4.7% in 2010-11. Furthermore, unlike Europe and the USA, China does not have a network of alliances and international technological partners with which it can jointly develop weaponry. China is not pursuing a sudden arms race, but it is gradually upgrading a hopelessly obsolete force. Much spending goes to improving pay and living conditions – for example, in 2011 salaries and benefits for non-commissioned officers (NCO) increased 40%.

Despite new equipment reaching the PLA, older weapon systems predominate. For instance, only a third of in-service ground systems can be considered modern. Similarly, just 25% of naval surface vessels and aircraft are modern. Comparing raw numbers of weapons on paper does not reflect just how outdated PLA equipment in China's inventory actually is. China recognises its equipment cannot compete directly with that of the USA, for instance. Additionally, the aircraft and amphibious vessels necessary to project power from Chinese shores are also lacking. Most analysts agree that the PLAN’s capability still falls behind that of Japan's navy.

China has no recent combat experience either. Our recently commissioned Liaoning aircraft carrier is an all-new capability and it will take years to master its use. In comparison, the US Navy has a wealth of accumulated wisdom after operating carriers for 91 years. It is inevitable a nation will develop its military as its economic power rises. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was launching a new submarine every month. In comparison, China's build-up has been measured and unhurried.

Defence Minister Liang Guanglie told US Defence Secretary Robert Gates in January 2011, "I also firmly believe that in terms of the level of modernisation of the PLA, we can by no means call ourselves an advanced military force. The gap between us and that of advanced countries is at least two to three decades."

It is true there are maritime territorial disputes in the East China and South China Seas. However, the PLA has been careful not to get involved. These are the domain of the China Marine Surveillance (CMS) agency. It is hoped these disputes can be solved diplomatically, as China has strong historical claims on these territories.

Related article: China’s Energy Policies Unsettle Neighbors Both East and West

Another half-baked idea thrown around, particularly by Indian media, is the 'string of pearls' notion of Chinese naval ports stretching across the Indian Ocean. This theory has no truth, something confirmed by Jane's Intelligence Review in an article entitled 'Harbouring Ambitions' published in November 2009. China contributed financially to build commercial ports in Myanmar (Sittwe), Bangladesh (Chittagong), Sri Lanka (Hambantota) and Pakistan (Gwadar), but these are not used for naval purposes. Conversely, the USA maintains bases or has access to facilities in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Guam, Australia and Singapore. This is the equivalent of China possessing naval bases in Canada, Mexico, Cuba and Greenland to surround the North American continent. Such an action would doubtlessly make Americans feel uncomfortable. The Chinese people feel the same way about this robust US presence. To date, China has made no effort to establish overseas bases, and it even declined an offer from the Seychelles Islands.

Painful History

The USA complains the PLA is “not transparent”. It must be remembered that China is emerging from a very turbulent past. While the military may not yet have attained the standards of US or European openness, it is making progress. A series of White Papers has given progressively more information as the country moves towards greater transparency. Since 2002, the PLA has held 28 joint exercises and 34 joint training sessions with 31 different countries as it opens up. Indeed, on 6 September three PLAN warships sailed into Hawaii to begin a three-day search-and-rescue exercise with the US Navy. The last such visit to US territory was seven years ago.


Remember, too, that history has scarred the Chinese psyche. European nations invaded and imposed unfair treaties on China (e.g. the opium wars). Japan’s invasion from 1937-45 caused terrible suffering and resulted in numerous atrocities. That conflict left 20 million dead and 100 million internal refugees. Japan has not fully admitted to many atrocities (e.g. the Nanjing Massacre), and this is a deep-seated irritant in Sino-Japanese relations. An increasingly nationalistic Japan is thus a great source of concern. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s promise to restore his country’s “greatness” is like a red rag to our nation. China has already suffered from Japanese nationalism, and we remain mistrustful of European, US and Japanese intentions based on past injustices.

Multiple Tasks

In fact, the PLA has little time for 'regional or global domination'! Common threats frequently highlighted by the Chinese government are terrorism, separatism and extremism. Uygur separatists in Xinjiang Province, for example, are constantly fomenting trouble. The country has 22,000km of land borders with 14 neighbours, plus an 18,000km coastline. Safeguarding these borders is difficult and arduous, and it occupies a good proportion of the country’s manpower.

The PLA is also responsible for providing support in cases of natural disaster and public-health outbreaks (e.g. SARS). For example, in 2008, the armed forces/ militia contributed 1.26 million members to combat snowstorms in southern China. Another 221,000 mobilised after the deadly Sichuan earthquake that year. In 2011-12, the PLA contributed 370,000 servicemen, 197,000 vehicles/pieces of equipment, obilised 870,000 militiamen/reservists and flew 225 sorties to support rescue operations.

The PLA is constitutionally required to support national and local plans for economic and social development too. It commits personnel and assets to key infrastructure projects, environmental protection and poverty alleviation measures. The PLA does much more than defend the country, for it is an integral component of societal development and improving people's livelihood.

Greater Reach

Fuelled by a booming economy, the PRC needs to import a continuous stream of raw materials. It must then send its commodities to export markets, primarily by sea. Last year, China's imports and exports were worth USD3.87 trillion, surpassing the USA for the first time and making China the globe's largest trader. The country thus needs to protect its sea lines of communication (SLOC), and non-traditional security threats such as piracy in the Gulf of Aden have demonstrated the need for countries to protect domestic shipping. China, as a responsible global player, has worked closely with other nations to successfully thwart would-be pirates. Since the first naval task force was despatched to the Gulf of Aden on 26 December 2008, the PLAN had escorted 4,984 ships till the end of last year.

Some say China does not contribute enough to international alliances, but the facts reveal otherwise. The PLA has despatched 22,000 personnel to 23 United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions to date. As at July 2013, 1,703 officers and soldiers were deployed on UN missions. Of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, China supplies more personnel than any other. The USA, for instance, had a mere 24 servicemen on UN missions, and the UK just 278. Furthermore, since 2002, the PLA has conducted 36 international humanitarian-aid missions to 27 disaster-struck countries.

The PLAN conducted a landmark evacuation of nationals from Libya in 2011. In the PRC's largest ever overseas evacuation, the rescue of 35,860 nationals was assisted by a frigate (on a Gulf of Aden escort mission at the time) and four aircraft. Such crises demonstrate the need for a capable navy, as China does not wish to rely on external powers like the USA to protect its people and interests.

By. Ai Zhong-Guo for AsiaPacificDefenceReporter.com

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Leave a comment
  • John Lone on October 04 2013 said:
    China has strong historical claims on these territories? then why china does not want to go to UN Tribinal Court settle with Philippines? the answer is obvious! china is very good of stretching the truth and the world has been taking notice.
  • Simon on October 04 2013 said:
    lmao John Lone is another Phillipenis monkey. Both China and Phillipines made reservations to historic titles in their ratification of UNCLOS, so no one has to accept arbitration from the other.
  • Prado Kloss on October 05 2013 said:
    Sorry but I can´t consider all of these arguments. Not all, some of them. Take a note, China WANT to be a Regional Power. The PLA modernization in the 80´s and 90´s had consequences concerning the technologic gap that chinese leaders saw in conflicts like Gulf and Kosovo war, and for sure, the defeat against Vietnan. But now, is different. China today grows in a accelerate path. To mantain this growth, China need material resources (oil, gas, etc) to sustain this economic boom. To fill this, China need to protect these resources. South China Sea has billions of oil, gas and fisheries resources, Aranuchal Pradesh is the region with the best hydroeletric potencial in India. Also, China has problems concerning your dependence in resources from markets too far from its shores. So, China needs to protect this logistics and it´s military buildup answers a good part of these questions. Since China has an autoritarian government, sustain it´s economic boom and consequently, its giant middle class, is the most important objective for China to avoid a popular riot.
    Chinese leaders knows that, being and economic leader in Asia, its military power will be a matter of time. Definately, they want to be a Regional Power.
  • Mike China on December 22 2013 said:
    Will the US tolerate PLA presence in the waters near California?If the US can't tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba,the PLA will like wise do so in its own backyard.It hasn't got the muscle as yet.It's a matter of time.The PLa need not have parity with US forces. The ability to respond is what matters.
    That is why the Chinese are going all out to ensure China is no more the sick man of Asia as depicted in 19th century Euro caricatures.Then it was trampled and humiliated by even Austria. That period is now history.
    China aint going to gobble up Asia as depicted in western media. They are modernising the military to make sure it can deter and if that fails to respond to US strikes.As time goes on,the PLA will be able to
    retaliate with more devastatingattacks. power and destruction to any US
  • Purav on March 28 2014 said:
    I believe that the growing militrary power of China is a threat. why ? They are actually invading Indian land repeatedly. Not once, but more than once. Either its Kashmir or Arunachal Pradesh. Why ? USA and Russia need not fear China. Russia has vast nuclear arsenal and very very vast land. USA is strategically away from China, but dependent a lot on China due to trade. Both are seriously capable of controlling China, but India is the one which is facing threat of Chinese Bully.

    Also, another amazing fact is in all discussions. USA and China. The other two powers, mainly China and India are ignored. India is too busy in internal governance and China reinforced its army. China and India hold a very large population and have large, very large armies which are known to survive very hostile conditions for long without any hightech requirement. China is a threat as its fire power has increased and it has made the world dependent on it via trade.
  • John on May 30 2015 said:
    China didn't make the world dependent on it via trade, the greedy corporations pushed jobs off overseas to China and the world Governments didn't stop it and now they're building up as a global nation with a strong military.

    Capitalist greed built China. And it's not consumers wanting cheaper goods it's company CEOs wanting greater profits and bigger payouts.

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