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Does China’s Military Might Make it a Superpower?

So far we have seen that China has the GDP to be a superpower, and would have the political strength to meet the criteria if it decided to take on a leadership role. Today we will be trying to evaluate how effectively China would be able to project it’s military strength.

Military Power

China employs the largest army in the world despite the fact it has not been involved in any serious battles since the early 1980’s when it faced off in a brief skirmish with Vietnam (China called this self-defense, even though it launched the attack) . Since then China has been steadily building a blue ocean navy, state of the art missiles, and even its own stealth fighter which is being tested now. China still claims that these new weapons are purely for self-defense.

The most worrying of these to the US is not China’s air force or navy, it’s the anti-satellite missiles that China has been perfecting over the past decade. As the US military has developed a high-tech army, China has been working on the counterstrike that would render most of our new toys useless. The other worrisome missile that China has been testing recently is a long-range anti-carrier missile. Considering how few countries have aircraft carriers, it seems like this project is almost specifically designed to be used against the US.

In many ways China is still preparing for a conventional war, which the US military has realized no longer exists. After all, stealth fighters, naval carriers, anti-satellite and anti-ship missiles are great deterrents against war with foreign countries, but have proven to be of little use against terrorists and rebels.

Ultimately it remains very difficult to know exactly how strong China’s military really is, since we have yet to see it in action (this is not to say I want to see it in action). However the recent evacuation of Chinese nationals from Libya gave us a glimpse of their operational capacity. Their air force and navy were able to pull 30,000+ people out of that country in about 2 weeks.

China’s neighbors though have noticed that it is starting to throw its weight around as if China were already the only superpower. In the last 6 months China has used its coast guard and navy to threaten Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines. These incidents have all been over the little islands that dot the seas around China, and more importantly the possible oil reserves below them.

China of course claims that these islands are an inalienable part of China, and would never accept any other country’s claim to them. In this way China has frightened its neighbors, which have mostly turned to the US for help.

China’s military strength has grown to the point that it could begin to be able to project its might. However China remains largely unwilling to do so, as it would shatter the claim of China’s “peaceful rise”. My impression is that since this claim has become one of the party’s mantras, it would be difficult for them to engage in any sort of foreign war unless it was able to convince it’s people it was an issue of national security (they managed to convince the people that the Korean war and the attacks on Vietnam were self-defense, but the gov’t doesn’t have the same control over the media that it had then).

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at China’s much vaunted soft power.


15 Comments

  1. NiubiCowboy says:

    With the unveiling of China’s newest toys in development (the J-20 stealth fighter, their DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, and their first used-aircraft carrier) there’s been much talk about China’s threat to the US and its neighbors. Despite these advancements, I think it’s important to note that the US and its allies don’t exist in a vacuum in terms of their continuing military R&D and operational capabilities. While China’s working on fielding its first stealth fighter, the US has developed the F-117, the B-2, the F22, and the F35, which is still in development. Also, these are just the programs the public is made aware of! The F-117 was operational for five years before it was unveiled to the public, so who knows what programs the American public has yet to be informed of. As the Chinese work on creating an anti-carrier missile, defense contractors in the US are hard at work creating anti-missile lasers. And, although China’s getting ready to field its first aircraft carrier, the US has 11 aircraft carriers in service, 1 in reserve, and a new class of aircraft carrier set to be completed starting in 2015 and entering service in five year intervals after that.

    This isn’t to diminish the growing strength of China’s military, but only to acknowledge that China still has a long way to go before its military can measure up to the US in terms of technology, command and control, coordinating the operations of different services (Army, Navy, Air Force) in a combat theater, and most importantly, experience. This is a silly anecdote, but a few years ago I recall seeing two different television programs that had as their focus the Navy SEALs and a Chinese Special Forces Unit in Lanzhou (I think). The first program showed the SEALs arriving for a joint-training exercise somewhere in the Middle East. Their Blackhawk hovered in the air, they rappelled down, the Blackhawk left and they approached the counterpart unit of the country they were training in and shook hands. No nonsense. A program I watched on the Chinese Special Forces unit, on the other hand, showed them participating in a joint-training exercise with Pakistani Special Forces, who were given a chance to watch their Chinese counterparts assault a fixed position. It featured the special forces operators in this case do things you’d expect more from a Chuck Norris movie (i.e. rolling, somersaulting, diving). All in all, it looked extremely rehearsed, more performance-like than an actual demonstration of relevant skills.

    Although the Chinese military has a lot of catching up to do in terms of experience, they’ve gleaned a lot from current and past US military successes and failures. The Gulf War in particular was a huge wake up call for the Chinese military leadership as they saw how technologically advanced the American military had become and how quickly it took coalition forces to defeat Saddam Hussein’s forces, which were roughly on par with what China was fielding at the time. What they’ve learned is that if they don’t strike quickly or decisively enough, the US will have plenty of time to intervene militarily and tip the odds in their favor. So what China has done in recent years in developing all of the weapon systems we’ve mentioned is to ensure that, should China choose to invade Taiwan, they’ll be able to deny US forces’ entry into the combat theater and guarantee that they’ve taken complete control of the island by the time US forces arrive to engage. Until the Taiwan issue is resolved, by peaceful means or otherwise, I don’t foresee the Chinese becoming a superpower in terms of their military capabilities. And although the Chinese military is large and developing quickly, it still has to contend with not only the US military, but the militaries of its neighbors (Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Australia, the Phillipines, etc.) as well.

    • Tom says:

      Excellent stuff NiubiCowboy, especially about the Chinese special forces. That sounds almost identical to what it is like when Chinese teachers give a model lesson for their inspections.
      You said China needs to get right with its neighbors before it can be a superpower, and I agree completely.

      • NiubiCowboy says:

        I saw the program about the Chinese special forces on one of the various CCTV channels about a year ago. It also featured the soldiers jumping through rings of fire, zip-lining through fire, and running through an endless series of obstacle courses. I caught the joint-exercises with the Pakistanis during a longer CCTV-9 report. The thing I remember most about seeing the two units interact was how battle-hardened and imposing the Pakistani soldiers looked. I imagined the Chinese special forces soldiers were probably dying to ask, “Tell us, what’s real combat like? We’ve only jumped through fire.”

  2. Tim says:

    The only thing I’m not with you 100% on is the government’s control of the media. The average Chinese has no idea of what’s being hidden from them through media controls. Most Chinese have no clue what a VPN is and, more importantly, what something like that could give them access to (ie. a more balanced view of the truth).

    I do believe that if any foreign war ever broke out the Chinese media controls would disseminate any and every lie, trick, and deception in the book to rally the people around the cause, and, as anyone who has lived in China knows, the Chinese are a very nationalistic group of people. They would, for the most part, buy it; hook, line, and sinker.

    The only counter to this is that the voices of disapproval coming from the web are seemingly getting louder and louder, but at the same the controls are getting more and more advanced. The recent Gmail disruptions were/are brilliant – don’t cut off access, just make it look like it’s a technical issue with Gmail. I go back and forth on this issue too. I simply can’t imagine that the gov’t can keep up it’s control of information the way it has up to now, it just doesn’t seem possible. But then something else will happen that demonstrates how vast and wide-reaching the arm the censorship department really is. Like: last year China spent, for the first time, more on domestic security than it did on it’s military. That’s scary, really scary.

    • Tom says:

      Three days ago I would have been with you on this Tim, but I had a great conversation with a co-worker that really changed how I viewed gov’t control (that will be posted on Monday China time). They would be able to stir up feelings with neighbors, but outside of the region I’m not so sure.
      I don’t doubt that the gov’t would go into overdrive to mobilize, but that hasn’t really worked against protesters in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya.

      • Tim says:

        I’m now quite curious to read your Monday story. I would, however, never put Egypt, Tunisia, or Libya in the same category as China in terms of capabilities related to media control. China is in a ballpark all by itself (save possibly North Korea, but that’s just wholesale lock down with no openness at all).

        I totally agree that they wouldn’t be able to control things outside of the region, but that hasn’t stopped them yet. The three most common phrases that Jiang Yu uses: “This foreign country hates China” (cue nationalistic feelings), “This foreign country has offended the Chinese people (cue tears and nationalistic feelings), and “That belongs to us” (cue illogical supportive arguments powered by nationalistic feelings). In other words, with 1.3 billion people, I don’t think China cares what other countries think.

        It is possible that it might come off that I don’t like China, that’s not actually true, I just get very frustrated by illogical thinking that has no rational support, apart from nationalism. I apologize to my beautiful fiancee, who I love very, very much and can’t wait to marry. 😀

        Again, good stuff Tom.

      • Tom says:

        I agree that China isn’t in the same realm as those middle eastern countries, my point was simply that there is a limit to any country’s ability to control information. Even people in N. Korea are starting to catch glimpses of the outside world.
        I also think that Chinese people have less trust in the gov’t now than they used to. This has become more apparent as the gov’t tries to reassure people about food safety.

    • Bill Rich says:

      Most Americans, unless you are in a high tech shop and work away from the office, have no idea what VPN is either.

      Most countries don’t tell anybody, their own citizens included, about weapon R&D. And it make sense.

    • Chopstik says:

      Like: last year China spent, for the first time, more on domestic security than it did on it’s military.

      This statement says far more about the capabilities of China and its perceived power than anything else. China, perhaps with good reason, is still far more focused on its domestic situation (and potential unrest) than anything external. It does no good to attempt to project power externally if you are unable to control things at home. Empires often fail from within (as the Chinese well know from history), not without.

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  4. Tim says:

    I totally agree on the trust issue, and that could be the crux of it all, but it’s in moments of crisis that I fear people will throw aside their lack of trust in the gov’t and instead join whole-heartedly in opposition to whatever foreign entity is presented as the enemy.

    I do also agree that a country has limits on how much it can control, but what I worry about is that China has consistently demonstrated how far it is willing to go. Tea, assault, jail, death – usually in that order. Those are powerful persuaders to conform.

    I’ve always been more of a pessimist on this issue than an optimist. :/

    • Chopstik says:

      Tim, sorry for my late response but wanted to add something else to your argument about how Chinese will rally when a foreign government is presented as the enemy. In this case, I agree with you – history has shown this to be true. There is an almost Orwellian sense of how foreign countries are portrayed in China. Japan, a deadly enemy to China for the last 20 years or so who has yet to apologize for the atrocities it committed against China during the 30’s & 40’s (it has actually apologized numerous times), was actually a benefactor to China in the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution and official government responses toward Japan were far more muted than they are today. Vietnam, Russia, the US and others have all been both friend and enemy depending on the needs of the time. And the people have often openly accepted the official line (no other choice?) almost every time.

      Frankly, the biggest validation that the party uses to bolster its claim to legitimacy is that it is Chinese and not some foreign power. The 100 years of shame has still not been erased from the national psyche and is used to great effect by the government. Unless and until that is expunged (which I fear won’t happen for a long time), it will be far too easy to manipulate people along that line.

  5. Chopstik says:

    The rise of China’s military capabilities, as pointed out here, has drawn the ire of some of its neighbors. It is important to note, however, that the relationship of China with its neighbors is not like that of the US and its neighbors (Canada and Mexico). Whereas the US enjoys relative peace and stable borders with its neighbors, China has territorial disputes with many of its neighbors, including India, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Russia, Vietnam and Japan (among others). Further, there has been a long history between China and many of those same neighboring countries of patronage or subservience to varying degrees.

    The rise of China’s military power has been one that has given some hope to Chinese nationalists (no shortage of whom are in the military itself) about a reclamation of Chinese pride and perceived territorial gains from earlier losses. That this rise in military power has engendered a desire for closer relations with the US by many of its neighbors has only increased some of the tensions in China with the US. After all, from the Chinese perspective, they view it as their neighborhood and the US as an international bully seeking to keep China down (this has been both an official and unofficial line) and I have heard this perspective from both government supporters and those who otherwise would have nothing to do with the government.

    Essentially, there are two points of view in opposition to each other with no clear way yet established to encourage some sort of middle ground. Chinese view this rise as a restoration of national pride and prestige while their neighbors (and other neighbors further away) are far more wary of the long-term consequences.

    One final thought – the measure of a country’s military capability is the ability to project their power away from home. The US has this power in abundance (though it is worn thin over the last decade). China can only wield some power within its own limited sphere. All estimates that I have seen do not show any indication that it will have the ability to project that power much further within the next generation. Perhaps, for the time being, that is for the best as further increases with insufficient trust would only engender greater worry among all.

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