We continue our brief look at China’s habit of publicly unveiling its new military hardware with an examination of why Beijing does it and its broader implications.
It seems that there are significant shortcomings with Beijing’s new military equipment. From stealth fighters to the aircraft carrier, they are not as shiny as they seem. Despite the tarnish, the PLA sees fit to bring them out into the global sandbox for everyone to see. What compels China to reveal them at such a preliminary stage – faults and all – instead of waiting until a shinier final product is ready?
The answer is twofold.
Politically, new military hardware makes for great domestic publicity. As tangible demonstrations of government-delivered results, each announcement further extends the Chinese Communist Party’s continued legitimacy while simultaneously embodying the nation’s technological purging of its ‘century of humiliation’. The announcements have the added benefit of satiating growing Chinese nationalism by signalling a return to China’s historical ‘Middle Kingdom’ narrative. Witness, for example, the tremendous outcry associated with any perceived resurgence of Japan or the aggressive editorial rhetoric (1, 2, 3) when addressing China’s Southeast Asian neighbours.
The PLA’s high rollout tempo also helps satiate China’s industrial productivity. The global economic downturn has severely affected the country’s low-skill low-cost manufacturing base. Military industrial production refocuses parts of that labour base and builds a value-added high-technology capacity for future civilian and military projects. Such a capacity also markets China beyond its current reputation as a global purveyor of low-cost small arms to one of advanced weaponry.
Militarily, Beijing is pre-emptively showcasing what will inevitably become public knowledge. Like other nations, China has no shortage of civilian enthusiasts who canvass PLA shipyards, airfields, and factories for sneak peeks of new hardware. Better then that Beijing capitalizes on the novel publicity of such announcements than to have them wasted in obscure blog posts. Similarly, revealing its major developments prevents the United States and China’s neighbours from accusing Beijing of total concealment. The PLA scores a double public relations victory by being the first voice in the story.
These pre-emptive revelations are not too strategically harmful. Even after accounting for their shortcomings, the new Chinese hardware places the theoretical possibility of a serious threat on its competitors’ radars. The lack of concrete performance evidence means foreign estimates will err on the side of caution when assessing each prototype. This perception of potency fits perfectly with the deterrent image Beijing wants to outwardly project.
Inwardly, the prototypes do not have to reach serial production or operational service. Their working existence is enough to credibly shift the strategic calculus. For example, the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile represents a serious enough threat for naval commanders to alter their risk assessments when sailing near Chinese shores. Of course, such a bluff eventually needs a tangible capability as a backstop, which is exactly what this influence on behaviour buys time for China to refine, produce and deploy.
China’s still-maturing military industries need this buffer time. Many of the PLA’s newest platforms are likely to serve as operational testbeds to further indigenous expertise and understanding, rather than as frontline units. These trials and errors will inform China’s strategic doctrine and its next generation of military hardware. The aircraft carrier Liaoning, for example, will allow the PLAN to develop the complex choreography of air operations at sea as well as how to run a Chinese carrier strike group.
This is the genius behind Beijing’s policy of pre-emptive unveiling. Each revealed platform is seen with just enough technological legitimacy and theoretical capability to be believably digested domestically, but not so polished and battle-ready to present an immediate threat to China’s neighbours. To be sure, Beijing’s general opacity over its military spending and intentions has been counter-productive in this regard, but by and large Beijing has managed to skillfully navigate the fine line between mock-up and working prototype – incidentally something Iran could take a lesson on.
There is, however, an equally fine geopolitical line. Technological progress, particularly of the military variety, does not exist in a political vacuum. The advent of new weapons or capabilities inevitably affects the balance of power regionally and globally. While the indigenous production of stealth fighters and warships are laudable individual technological achievements, they collectively paint a more menacing picture – one of massive re-armament.
To observers, re-armament correlates perfectly with Beijing’s aggressive policy towards territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas (1, 2, 3). Many of the unveiled weapons are precisely the platforms needed – if push came to shove – to back up China’s regional claims. President-to-be Xi Jinping has not assuaged these fears by continuing to take a tough stance on territorial issues and emphasizing military preparedness. Worse, a string of PLA generals have made a habit of stirring the pot with hawkish statements every now and again while ardent Chinese nationalists have begun demanding Beijing utilize its newfound military strength to achieve greater foreign policy objectives. While neither of these groups speaks officially for Beijing, their uncensored bellicosity indicates a level of tacit approval from and genuine pressure on the central government.
China’s neighbours are understandably concerned. The ASEAN states have virtually no hope in equaling the PLA’s numbers even if they pooled their resources together. For Taiwan, additional PLA hardware only skews the already-lopsided military calculus further in China’s favour. Even Japan and South Korea have seen their regional military advantage dwindle in recent years as Beijing’s scale of production dwarfs that of Tokyo and Seoul. It is therefore no surprise that the entire Asia-Pacific region has seen significant increases in military spending over the last two decades.
China’s scale of production also has its one-time military technology patron worried. Having been the PLA’s traditional supplier, Russia now stands to lose the Beijing account as Chinese hardware approaches near-parity. Granted, China still needs Russian jet engines and other high-end technologies, but Beijing’s penchant for reverse-engineering means that even this revenue stream will eventually dry up. Worse, Beijing’s ascendant reputation as a modern arms supplier will mean Russian clients have a competitively-priced and similarly-capable alternative, further undercutting Moscow’s arms sales.
The United States is most concerned about the destabilizing effects of an advanced Chinese arsenal. Washington wants Beijing to clarify what exactly it intends to do with its new hardware, especially as it relates to the Asia-Pacific. Washington’s strategic ‘pivot’ in 2011 was due in large part to rising tensions between China and its neighbours – including American allies – and the United States’ historical position as the region’s dominant security guarantor. The recent expose on the PLA’s alleged cyber warfare efforts has only served to increase American suspicions. Given the budgetary crisis in the United States, it will be increasingly difficult for American defense industries to maintain and prolong the traditional generational advantage the American military has had over its competitors.
China’s decision to parade its new toys has clearly caused the region to sit up and take notice. While this attention may serve self-flattering and respect-garnering purposes, it has also meant a rising degree of envy and suspicion. Such hostility does not bode well for the sandbox.
Ernest Chong graduated from the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance in 2011. He also holds a Master of Arts in War Studies from King’s College London. Due to structural unemployment, he currently volunteers his time as assistant publisher at Global Brief magazine and as chase/technical producer with Beyond the Headlines radio show. His areas of interest focus on defence and security issues in Canada, the United States, and the Asia-Pacific.