Hugo Tuckett is studying for an MA in Geopolitics, Territory and Security. His latest piece focuses on the rise of Chinese Military power and the implications this has both for the prevailing International Order.
In recent decades, China’s rise towards the top of global order has been nothing short of immense. In less than one hundred years, China has moved from an agrarian based economy, through years of hardship under one of the most brutal and costly regimes in history, to the forefront of the geopolitical landscape. The US failed to really stop it, nor did they really try, leaving China to implement their economic reforms without substantially altering its political system.[i] Domestically, China has also witnessed the consolidation of power for the CCP’s leader, Xi Jinping, with the removal of the two-term Presidential limit effectively allowing him to retain power for life.[ii] Furthermore, on the global front, China has begun to translate their economic force into military power, creating one of the most formidable military establishments on the planet.[iii] This has seen China look to extend its reach in a number of methods, including through their growth as a traditional security power, expanding their influence in the South China Sea and extending their soft power into Asia. This piece will engage with the security considerations given to China’s rise and how the Asian nation’s step towards the top of the global food chain has altered the global and regional dimension of power relations.
China’s Military Expansion
One of the central ways to view the rise of China within the global order from a security perspective is through their military expansion, particularly the development of their air and defence capabilities. This has seen vast progress in recent years, particularly in regards to Beijing’s ballistic missile program. Indeed, one US government report admitted, ‘China has the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world’. [iv] Since Beijing began to field conventional armed ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan in the early 1990s, the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) has amassed more than 1,100 short range missiles of this type. Additionally, China have also been able to enhance the scope of their missile program through the development of the world’s first ASBMs (anti-ship ballistic missiles). The recently commissioned DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) means China has the ability to directly strike the US territory of Guam in the event of war, or target ships at sea with incredibly accuracy.[v] Such military expansion has therefore forced the US to become increasingly reliant on bases further from the straits of Taiwan and mainland China. This limits their ability to project power into East Asia, and simultaneously demonstrates China’s newfound strength relative to the US in the region. Indeed, China’s current military capacity stands in sharp contrast to their humble beginnings in the security arena. It now controls a more sophisticated and formidable force of nuclear missiles, capable of reaching the United States and regional targets.
Rather than simply operating as a traditional military power, China have also sought to develop their military technology toward cyber-warfare. With this in mind, former-US Deputy Secretary of Defence William Lynn suggested that ‘space systems enable our modern way of war… without access to them, many of our most important military advantages evaporate’.[vi] Recognizing the importance of cyber security in the future landscape of warfare, it is understood that China has organised its resources around becoming a cyber-leader on the global stage. A recent study published by China’s Academy of Military Sciences highlighted that China has built up network attack forces – divided into specialized military network warfare forces, teams of network warfare specialists and entities outside of government that engage in network attack and defence.[vii] The study further asserts that China aims to establish national defence mobilization systems that meets the requirements of winning information wars and responding to emergencies and conflicts as they arise. This movement towards a leadership role in cyber warfare has seen China’s role shift with expanding goals and a higher level of sophistication and strategy. Notably, China has also sought to move from mainly economic targets, towards governmental and infrastructure objectives.[viii] What the emergence of China’s cyber-strategy importantly points to, is the multi-layered approach by which they have grown to become a military leader. Whilst occupying one of the largest military budgets in the world, they also have sought to develop a sophisticated approach to warfare. This has enabled them to claim the fifth spot amongst the world’s cyber-leaders; US, Russia, North Korea and Israel, furthering their push to the top of the global order.
South China Sea
To accompany this military power, Beijing has simultaneously looked to expand its regional influence through increasing activity in the South China Sea. Central to this expansion of interests lies the Spratly Islands which Beijing have looked to artificially grow, enabling them to militarily occupy land some 500 miles from Chinese mainland. From a single coral head, China has been able to construct airstrips capable of accommodating a wide range of Chinese combat and transport planes.[ix] A key instance of this occurrence is the coral head known as Fiery Cross, an atoll which has been extended by some 800 acres and now contains a 3,300metre airstrip.[x] This artificial construction of land has understandably led to significant international disputes regarding sovereignty and territorial jurisdiction in the South China Sea. The various Islands within the South China Sea, although particularly the Spratly Islands, have long been contested by Taiwan, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Importantly, the seabed surrounding the land has huge economic potential for the nations involved, namely due to unexploited minerals, oil and gas as well as access to crucial fisheries. Furthermore, the strategic centrality of the islands is further compounded by the importance of the sea-lanes it straddles between Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. The sea-lanes within the South China Sea fulfil over $3tn worth of trade each year and represent around a third of the world’s total shipping.[xi] The islands themselves are therefore of crucial importance to the economic interests of China, the US and many of the surrounding nations. Through access to the sea-bed and control of the sea lanes, Chinese hegemony in the region would allow Beijing to extend its economic and sovereign influence in Southeast Asia as a whole.
This development has also been crucial in adding a military dimension to China’s ability to extent its influence well beyond its mainland territorial limitations. As highlighted previously, the airstrips situated on the islands have played a significant role in the transfer of anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles as well as electronic jammers to locations throughout the region.[xii] This effort has led to serious criticism from the US amongst others who have branded the move irresponsible and an act of intimidation towards China’s neighbours. China has sought to defend their actions by claiming the move was part of a policy of national defence and it was merely deploying troops on its own territory.[xiii] Furthermore, China have accompanied this growing military stature in the region through increasing shows of strength. In October of this year, a Chinese warship forced an American destroyer to change course through a series of moves deemed ‘unsafe’ and ‘unprofessional’. Furthermore, this April China engaged in a massive naval display in the region, with some 10,000 personal, 76 fighter jets and 48 ships and submarines involved in the military drills.[xiv] Whilst not necessarily acts of aggression, these efforts certainly highlight the importance with which Beijing views the region and demonstrates the military might they now possess within the islands. More broadly however, growing Chinese influence serves to demonstrate the ever-changing hegemony in the South East Asian region.
Challenging US Military Primacy
This growth in military power has also enabled China to expand its ability to cultivate relationships to the detriment of the US, particularly through a more assertive foreign policy. This has seen President Xi Jinping push China to win strategic disputes with his neighbours even if it means risking regional alarm regarding Chinese intentions. This builds on Chinese actions in the South China Sea but has also found growing prominence region-wide. A key example of this approach has seen Beijing attempt to coerce South Korea to taking down equipment designed to protect against North Korean missiles. The main reason for this is because of objections to US-South Korea missile defence cooperation.[xv] Furthermore, to particularly highlight the growing rise of China within the military sphere, in a recent assessment by the IISS, it is increasingly becoming China rather than Russia with which the US judges its capabilities against. China’s rise within the military realm, both in terms of actual progress and technical abilities, remain remarkable. As mentioned previously, Beijing has been able to develop ultra-long-range missiles, as well as fifth generation fighter jets whilst in 2017 they were able to launch their first domestically built aircraft carrier.[xvi] All in all, China’s rise within the military arena has not only posed a challenge in sheer numbers and technological ability, but also the manner in which Beijing is able to assert its regional influence. This has seen China pursue an agenda that has little room for concessions even if it risks questions regarding Beijing’s intentions.
Through recent years and decades it has been impossible to ignore the rise of China within the global order. Possessing one of the world’s fastest growing economies, Beijing has been able to increasingly project its power in both the regional and global arena. This piece has explored the military component of China’s rise and the growing confidence Beijing has to forcefully assert its foreign policy objectives. This military rise has seen the rapid growth of China’s military technology both in the traditional sense through long range missiles as well as more contemporary understanding with an emphasis on cyber-security. This more expansive military has enabled China to project its power into the South China Sea with more confidence and regularity. Through the artificial construction of island bases and military exercises, Beijing has been able to take a central role in controlling a crucial strategic area of the world. When comparing all this to the globe’s current military hegemon, the US, it highlights how China has been able to exercise increasing autonomy at Washington’s expense, arguably laying the groundwork for a fundamental shift in the nature of military power in the global order.
[vi] Montgomery, E. ‘Contested Primacy in the Western Pacific: China’s Rise and the Future of US Power Projection’, International Security 38.