We conclude our brief examination of China’s public unveilings of new military hardware with a look at some tempering factors and an assessment for the future.
China’s military re-armament has some serious implications for regional and global security. Beijing has not made any sandbox friends by continuing to couple aggressive diplomacy with unrestrained nationalist rhetoric. Its disinclination to ‘play nice’ has meant growing hostility to its actions perpetuating tensions that show no signs of abating. There is, however, some light in this bleak outlook.
At the very least, the American military advantage is likely to persist for a little while longer. Despite its length, the PLA’s list of new kit contains nothing that the US military does not already have – some for a decade or more. Even when compared to other modern Western militaries, China’s military ‘build up’ looks more like generational ‘catch up’ than cutting-edge modernization. It also remains to be seen whether the actual capabilities of production units will live up to the paper ideals of their prototypes. Moreover, the proportion of modern platforms on the PLA’s quantitatively-impressive balance sheet is still fractionally small. The bulk of Chinese inventory remains decidedly inferior.
This small proportion of modern units ultimately tempers Beijing’s desire to get into any serious shooting war. Even in a losing battle, the ASEAN states (to say nothing of Japan, South Korea, or the US) pack sufficient firepower to do some degree of damage. As a government that derives much of its legitimacy from positive results and flawless performance, Beijing is unlikely to risk the politically disastrous loss of a prestigious platform – an aircraft carrier, a modern destroyer, or a few stealth fighters – unless the objectives were strategically vital enough to warrant such a sacrifice. Of course, if a conflict involved something of such strategic vitality, the region’s other powers will be compelled to intervene, thereby changing Beijing’s chances of achieving its desired outcome anyway.
It should also be noted that the better armed the PLA is perceived to be, the more constrained it becomes as a foreign policy instrument. Increased destructive capacity naturally means a greater finality in any conflict, especially vis-à-vis China’s lesser-armed neighbours. More importantly, a resort to military action would irrevocably erase more than a decade of Chinese diplomatic efforts and instantly legitimize Western strategic warnings against Sino aggression.
Finally, it is important to remember that domestic progress remains Beijing’s paramount focus. Xi Jinping will have no shortage of internal political, social, and economic instability to address. Societal divisions, corruption, economic diversification, and environmental issues all vie for the new administration’s attention. Military modernization and winning territorial disputes are unlikely to be overriding priorities.
Where Do We Go From Here?
It is in China’s interest to play the ‘long game’. Beijing knows it cannot modernize its entire military overnight, nor does it really wish to rush claims in the South and East China Seas. Despite massive investment, PLA technology and doctrine are unlikely to see true fruition before the end of the decade. Xi Jinping’s ten-year mandate gives him plenty of time to ‘wait the islands out’, especially when compared to his relatively short-lived, democratically-elected counterparts in Japan and the Philippines. For all the bluster, genuine diplomatic engagement and peaceful development remains China’s best option for good relations with its neighbours and the United States.
But Beijing must also tread carefully. It cannot hide behind the shield of routine national defense development if it simultaneously claims to be a major regional player. As it has often self-professed, China is not just another modernizing Asian nation. It stands to be the Asia-Pacific power, and its ham-fisted approach to this ascendancy is currently making its neighbours very nervous. Whether Beijing wants it or not, its geopolitical position bequeaths significant responsibility, including transparency and restraint in dealing with contentious issues like military spending and territorial claims.
This is not to say that the burden falls entirely on China. Other regional powers are likewise obligated to work towards ensuring stability and tempering conflict, to say nothing of the economic and cultural interdependencies that have become entrenched over the last half-century. They must also acknowledge that China has every right to develop its military for national defense and to make diplomatic claims to disputed waters. Moreover, all sides understand that territorial disputes, especially when coloured with nationalist sentiment and historical grievance, cannot be resolved while emotions run high. The status quo ‘agree-to-disagree’ détente is likely to continue. Resolution will only begin when tensions have faded enough to allow for peaceful negotiation and compromise.
To return to the sandbox analogy, shared spaces are not conducive to China’s cavalier attitude to military modernization or the cynical view with which the Asia-Pacific sees China’s progress. It is beholden on every occupant to make an honest attempt to play nice with everyone else. Leadership from the big players would go a long way towards eroding decades of mutual suspicion.
It is therefore worth noting that the recent leadership changes in China, the US, Japan, and South Korea bring an ideal chance for all sides to work towards bettering diplomatic relationships. Of course, much depends on each administration’s domestic priorities – the looming budgetary crisis in Washington, factional power struggles in Beijing, and economic and nationalist woes in Japan and South Korea – but there is presently an opportunity to begin pacifying these sandbox hostilities.
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.