There is a natural tendency to focus on the crisis of the moment, and in the case of China, this has become the South China Sea. The U.S. and China’s neighbors also, however, need to look at China’s overall strategy and goals, and to what is likely to be a set of far broader challenges that will shape Asian and Pacific security over at least the next quarter century.
China is emerging as a major global power after centuries of outside attack, invasion, and exploitation from the first Opium War in 1839 to Deng Xiaoping’s decision to adopt the major economic reforms that have allowed China to develop one of the world largest and most competitive economies. Chinese strategists may see China’s growing military power and challenge to the U.S. and neighboring states as both defensive and a reaction to what some call centuries of humiliation. They also see the need for caution, the necessity for China to avoid direct confrontation with the U.S. until its forces are fully ready, to rely on limited advances using asymmetric means like fortifying offshore reefs, and emerge securely as the key power in Asia without any serious conflict.
The problem for China – and all the other states affected by its rise – is that there is no clear way to predict how peaceful China’s rise will be, how far China will go, and the end result in changing the balance of power in Asia, the Pacific, and the global economy. These challenges and uncertainties also create a clear need for China to use its declared strategy as a political tool and to do so with care. All nations use their declared military strategies and policies as a form of political leverage, but China has even more incentive than most.
China is an emerging military power whose economic leverage greatly exceeds its current military capability, and must be cautious for the next decade or more in provoking the U.S. as well as key neighbors like Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. It is seeking to dominate East Asia, not a war that can cripple its economy or an accelerating arms race it may be able to avoid. Its claims to the South China Sea, islands Japan now occupies, and extended naval and air zones assert its new strength and interests, but are not “vital” national security interests compared to the free flow of its imports and exports and internal development.
Its memories of the past, particularly foreign colonial invasions and economic zones and Japan’s wars and invasions are real. Currently some of its efforts to assert its emerging power before it has actually emerged bear at least a slight resemblance to the U.S. Monroe Doctrine – assertions of power it does not yet have the strength to enforce.
Here it is important to pay close attention to what China says as well as what it does. No nation ever fully states its strategy in public, but China still says a great deal in formal statement like its 2015 defense white paper, China’s Military Strategy:
China's national strategic goal is to complete the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2021 when the CPC celebrates its centenary; and the building of a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious by 2049 when the People's Republic of China (PRC) marks its centenary. It is a Chinese Dream of achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. The Chinese Dream is to make the country strong. China's armed forces take their dream of making the military strong as part of the Chinese Dream.
Without a strong military, a country can be neither safe nor strong. In the new historical period, aiming at the CPC's goal of building a strong military in the new situation, China's armed forces will unswervingly adhere to the principle of the CPC's absolute leadership, uphold combat effectiveness as the sole and fundamental standard, carry on their glorious traditions, and work to build themselves into a people's military that follows the CPC's commands, can fight and win, and boasts a fine style of work.
China also tacitly recognizes that its very real advances in extending its power out into the East Pacific, creating new sea-air capabilities along its entire coast, building new “islands,” projecting power into the Indian Ocean, and creating new “Silk Roads” to secure its trade routes all have limitations that will exist for at least the next decade. Once again, its 2015 White Paper stresses the need for major military reform and diplomatic caution as well as China’s strength:
In the new circumstances, the national security issues facing China encompass far more subjects, extend over a greater range, and cover a longer time span than at any time in the country's history. Internally and externally, the factors at play are more complex than ever before. Therefore, it is necessary to uphold a holistic view of national security, balance internal and external security, homeland and citizen security, traditional and non-traditional security, subsistence and development security, and China's own security and the common security of the world.
To realize China's national strategic goal and implement the holistic view of national security, new requirements have been raised for innovative development of China's military strategy and the accomplishment of military missions and tasks. In response to the new requirement of safeguarding national security and development interests, China's armed forces will work harder to create a favorable strategic posture with more emphasis on the employment of military forces and means, and provide a solid security guarantee for the country's peaceful development.
In response to the new requirement arising from the changing security situation, the armed forces will constantly innovate strategic guidance and operational thoughts so as to ensure the capabilities of fighting and winning. In response to the new requirement arising from the worldwide RMA, the armed forces will pay close attention to the challenges in new security domains, and work hard to seize the strategic initiative in military competition.
In response to the new requirement coming from the country's growing strategic interests, the armed forces will actively participate in both regional and international security cooperation and effectively secure China's overseas interests. And in response to the new requirement arising from China's all-round and deepening reform, the armed forces will continue to follow the path of civil-military integration (CMI), actively participate in the country's economic and social construction, and firmly maintain social stability, so as to remain a staunch force for upholding the CPC's ruling position and a reliable force for developing socialism with Chinese characteristics.
China's armed forces will effectively perform their missions in the new historical period, resolutely uphold the leadership of the CPC and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics, safeguard China's sovereignty, security and development interests, safeguard the important period of strategic opportunities for China's development, maintain regional and world peace, and strive to provide a strong guarantee for completing the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects and achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
Like the United States, China is very careful not to be too specific about tying its public strategy specifically to the ways it challenges the “other major power.” In fact, some Chinese military planners privately make it clear that their greatest present fear is that the U.S. will act to challenge China before China’s forces are ready. At the same time, China does seek to find ways to assert its strength, develop asymmetric options that can make gains without risking dangerous levels of conflict, and develop its military forces in ways that make fundamental changes in what used to be a land power that relied far more on mass than force quality:
In line with the strategic requirement of mobile operations and multi-dimensional offense and defense, the PLA Army (PLAA) will continue to reorient from theater defense to trans-theater mobility. In the process of building small, multi-functional and modular units, the PLAA will adapt itself to tasks in different regions, develop the capacity of its combat forces for different purposes, and construct a combat force structure for joint operations. The PLAA will elevate its capabilities for precise, multi-dimensional, trans-theater, multi-functional and sustainable operations.
In line with the strategic requirement of offshore waters defense and open seas protection, the PLA Navy (PLAN) will gradually shift its focus from "offshore waters defense" to the combination of "offshore waters defense" with "open seas protection," and build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure. The PLAN will enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime maneuvers, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defense and comprehensive support.
In line with the strategic requirement of building air-space capabilities and conducting offensive and defensive operations, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) will endeavor to shift its focus from territorial air defense to both defense and offense, and build an air-space defense force structure that can meet the requirements of informationized operations. The PLAAF will boost its capabilities for strategic early warning, air strike, air and missile defense, information countermeasures, airborne operations, strategic projection and comprehensive support.
In line with the strategic requirement of being lean and effective and possessing both nuclear and conventional missiles, the PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) will strive to transform itself in the direction of informationization, press forward with independent innovations in weaponry and equipment by reliance on science and technology, enhance the safety, reliability and effectiveness of missile systems, and improve the force structure featuring a combination of both nuclear and conventional capabilities. The PLASAF will strengthen its capabilities for strategic deterrence and nuclear counterattack, and medium- and long-range precision strikes.
In line with the strategic requirement of performing multiple functions and effectively maintaining social stability, the PAPF will continue to develop its forces for guard and security, contingency response, stability maintenance, counter-terrorism operations, emergency rescue and disaster relief, emergency support and air support, and work to improve a force structure which highlights guard duty, contingency response, counter-terrorism and stability maintenance. The PAPF will enhance its capabilities for performing diversified tasks centering on guard duty and contingency response in informationized conditions.
…The seas and oceans bear on the enduring peace, lasting stability and sustainable development of China. The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests. It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security and development interests, safeguard its national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, protect the security of strategic SLOCs and overseas interests, and participate in international maritime cooperation, so as to provide strategic support for building itself into a maritime power.
Outer space has become a commanding height in international strategic competition. Countries concerned are developing their space forces and instruments, and the first signs of weaponization of outer space have appeared. China has all along advocated the peaceful use of outer space, opposed the weaponization of and arms race in outer space, and taken an active part in international space cooperation. China will keep abreast of the dynamics of outer space, deal with security threats and challenges in that domain, and secure its space assets to serve its national economic and social development, and maintain outer space security.
Cyberspace has become a new pillar of economic and social development, and a new domain of national security. As international strategic competition in cyberspace has been turning increasingly fiercer, quite a few countries are developing their cyber military forces. Being one of the major victims of hacker attacks, China is confronted with grave security threats to its cyber infrastructure. As cyberspace weighs more in military security, China will expedite the development of a cyber force, and enhance its capabilities of cyberspace situation awareness, cyber defense, support for the country's endeavors in cyberspace and participation in international cyber cooperation, so as to stem major cyber crises, ensure national network and information security, and maintain national security and social stability.
The nuclear force is a strategic cornerstone for safeguarding national sovereignty and security. China has always pursued the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons and adhered to a self-defensive nuclear strategy that is defensive in nature. China will unconditionally not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or in nuclear-weapon-free zones, and will never enter into a nuclear arms race with any other country. China has always kept its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for maintaining its national security. China will optimize its nuclear force structure, improve strategic early warning, command and control, missile penetration, rapid reaction, and survivability and protection, and deter other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China.
It is important to note, however, that China’s rhetoric is very different from the potential conflict-oriented rhetoric that shaped French and German relations and the Anglo-German naval arms race before World War I. There also is none of the ideological extremism that shaped rhetoric of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union as they emerged as major military powers. China does talk about the United States, but – at least for now – it talks more in terms of competition than conflict even though it does make the risk of some future war with the U.S. all too clear:
Profound changes are taking place in the international situation, as manifested in the historic changes in the balance of power, global governance structure, Asia-Pacific geostrategic landscape, and international competition in the economic, scientific and technological, and military fields. The forces for world peace are on the rise, so are the factors against war. In the foreseeable future, a world war is unlikely, and the international situation is expected to remain generally peaceful. There are, however, new threats from hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism. International competition for the redistribution of power, rights and interests is tending to intensify. Terrorist activities are growing increasingly worrisome. Hotspot issues, such as ethnic, religious, border and territorial disputes, are complex and volatile. Small-scale wars, conflicts and crises are recurrent in some regions. Therefore, the world still faces both immediate and potential threats of local wars.
With a generally favorable external environment, China will remain in an important period of strategic opportunities for its development, a period in which much can be achieved. China's comprehensive national strength, core competitiveness and risk-resistance capacity are notably increasing, and China enjoys growing international standing and influence. Domestically, the Chinese people's standard of living has remarkably improved, and Chinese society remains stable. China, as a large developing country, still faces multiple and complex security threats, as well as increasing external impediments and challenges. Subsistence and development security concerns, as well as traditional and non-traditional security threats are interwoven. Therefore, China has an arduous task to safeguard its national unification, territorial integrity and development interests.
As the world economic and strategic center of gravity is shifting ever more rapidly to the Asia-Pacific region, the US carries on its "rebalancing" strategy and enhances its military presence and its military alliances in this region. Japan is sparing no effort to dodge the post-war mechanism, overhauling its military and security policies. Such development has caused grave concerns among other countries in the region. On the issues concerning China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, some of its offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China's reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied. Some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China. It is thus a long-standing task for China to safeguard its maritime rights and interests. Certain disputes over land territory are still smoldering. The Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia are shrouded in instability and uncertainty. Regional terrorism, separatism and extremism are rampant. All these have a negative impact on the security and stability along China's periphery.
The Taiwan issue bears on China's reunification and long-term development, and reunification is an inevitable trend in the course of national rejuvenation. In recent years, cross-Taiwan Straits relations have sustained a sound momentum of peaceful development, but the root cause of instability has not yet been removed, and the "Taiwan independence" separatist forces and their activities are still the biggest threat to the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations. Further, China faces a formidable task to maintain political security and social stability. Separatist forces for "East Turkistan independence" and "Tibet independence" have inflicted serious damage, particularly with escalating violent terrorist activities by "East Turkistan independence" forces. Besides, anti-China forces have never given up their attempt to instigate a "color revolution" in this country. Consequently, China faces more challenges in terms of national security and social stability. With the growth of China's national interests, its national security is more vulnerable to international and regional turmoil, terrorism, piracy, serious natural disasters and epidemics, and the security of overseas interests concerning energy and resources, strategic sea lines of communication (SLOCs), as well as institutions, personnel and assets abroad, has become an imminent issue.
The world revolution in military affairs (RMA) is proceeding to a new stage. Long-range, precise, smart, stealthy and unmanned weapons and equipment are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Outer space and cyber space have become new commanding heights in strategic competition among all parties. The form of war is accelerating its evolution to informationization. World major powers are actively adjusting their national security strategies and defense policies, and speeding up their military transformation and force restructuring. The aforementioned revolutionary changes in military technologies and the form of war have not only had a significant impact on the international political and military landscapes, but also posed new and severe challenges to China's military security.
…The strategic concept of active defense is the essence of the CPC's military strategic thought. From the long-term practice of revolutionary wars, the people's armed forces have developed a complete set of strategic concepts of active defense, which boils down to: adherence to the unity of strategic defense and operational and tactical offense; adherence to the principles of defense, self-defense and post-emptive strike; and adherence to the stance that "We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked."
The U.S. and China’s major neighbors will have to live with these realities. No credible options exist for halting China’s steady emergence as at least the second most important military power in the world. There is no reliable way to estimate China’s military spending, but the IISS Military Balance for 2016 is probably conservative in estimating that China spent $145.6 billion on military forces in 2015 – this is only 24% of the $597.5 billion that the U.S. spent, but it is 2.2 times the $65.6 billion the IISS estimates that Russia spent, and 2.6 times the $56.2 billion the U.K. – the largest European power spent.
It is also all too possible that SIPRI is more correct than the IISS in estimating that China’s real spending was $215 billion, not $145.6 billion – and China has far lower personnel costs and only one key region to deal with – Asia – while the U.S. must project power at far longer distances to Europe and the Middle East as well as Asia.
The practical challenge for the U.S. and China’s major neighbors is to find ways that both deter China from exercising its growing power and give it clear incentives to seek cooperation where competition poses the dangers of conflict. It is to make it clear to China that the steady expansion of its military forces will be countered by a credible collective reaction, and that China cannot win any local conflict in ways that will not lead to a continuing military buildup by other states and an arms race it cannot win nor afford if it is to bring a reasonable level of development and wealth to its people.
This, however, requires forms of U.S. leadership that presently are sadly lacking. The Obama Administration has talked about a “rebalancing to Asia” without shaping or funding any clear path to implementing it. Vague unfunded rhetoric is not a strategy, particularly when China and the world are all too well aware of the near strategic paralysis imposed by having to deal with Russia and the Middle East as well; as the threat imposed by a Congress whose idea of strategy is the Budget Control Act.
It requires the kind of public U.S. debate over options that neither party seems able to even begin to attempt in this election year, in what seems doomed to become both the nastiest and shallowest campaign in modern American history. It requires the U.S. to have longer-term force and modernization plans tied to given strategic requirements rather than vague global goals and a budget cycle that cannot look beyond a one fiscal year future.
It requires a debate over the strategic meaning civil policies like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, rather than focusing on promise of saving jobs that are not really linked to the TPP and cannot be met. It also requires as much focus on options to cooperate with China as to compete with, and deter it – a kind of strategic vision that should be the other half of any coherent U.S. strategy for the region. It also requires the U.S. to think hard about some of its criticism of its allies. Our allies are scarcely without flaws, but no one follows where no one leads.
For a more detailed discussion of China strategy, see Anthony H. Cordesman and Joseph Kendall, Evolving Strategies In The China-U.S. Military Balance, (Being added now) and Chinese Military Organization and Reform, https://www.csis.org/analysis/chinese-military-organization-and-reform.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at CSIS. His current projects include ongoing analysis of the security situation in the Gulf, U.S. strategic competition with Iran, the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, a net assessment of the Indian Ocean region, Chinese military developments and U.S. and Asian assessments of these developments, changes in the nature of modern war, and assessments of U.S. defense strategy, programs, and budgets.
Image: Defense Department