Modernizing the Military: China’s Path to Hegemony?

In the tunnels of the “Underground Great Wall” are stacked hundreds of nuclear ICBMs, hidden from the eyes of the world. This 5,000 kilometer passageway is just one part of China’s plan to modernize and increase the size, power, and efficiency of its already gargantuan military. 

In 2019, the People’s Liberation Army’s annual defense budget was 1.19 trillion yuan ($177.5 billion), up 7.5 percent from last year’s defense budget. China is allocating increasing amounts of money to programs and initiatives that increase the quantity and quality of their military weapons. The Defense Department claims that one of its most recent developments — the New Type 055 guided missile destroyer — is akin to the United States’ marine destroyers. 

Additionally, the PLA is growing its stockpile of nuclear weapons. Dean Cheng, an expert in the Chinese military at the Heritage Foundation, commented in an interview with the HPR that “China’s ICBM force currently is very limited, maybe 50. But there are reports … that suggest that China is engaged with a longer term nuclear modernization program that will also expand the number of nuclear weapons it fields.” 

In April 2017, Beijing announced that one of its aircraft carriers had reached the final stage of testing, with two others under production. That would bring China to a total of four aircraft carriers by 2022. Though this may not compare to the U.S. Navy’s 10 functional aircraft carriers — out of a fleet of 19 deployable carriers — this rapid growth does indicate China’s commitment to quickly expand and modernize its army in order to protect its national interests and weaken the United States’ influence in Asia. 

Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping shake hands during Trump’s 2017 visit to the People’s Republic of China.

Competition in the South China Sea 

Part of the reason for the PLA’s rapid military modernization effort seems to be its interest in maintaining authority in the South China Sea by decreasing U.S. influence there. The South China Sea is a long-contested territory; in 1947, China announced its eleven-dash policy (which it amended in the 1950s to a “nine-dash” policy), declaring Chinese jurisdiction over almost 90 percent of the Sea. However, the nine-dash policy is not internationally recognized, and China’s territorial claims overlap with the competing claims advanced by five other countries bordering the South China Sea. 

The South China Sea connects China to Africa and Europe, allowing the People’s Republic to efficiently transport its exports. Over 40 percent of China’s trade is transported through the Sea because of its easy access to global markets. ChinaPower estimated that if the Strait of Malacca, a thin strip of water that creates a path to Europe and Africa from Asia, was blocked due to alternate South China Sea borders, Chinese transporters would pay an additional $64.5 million per week.

The water route also allows creates a simple path for importing oil into China. More than 80 percent of Chinese oil imports sail across the South China Sea before docking at a Chinese port. 

The South China Sea does more than support trade — it provides a new source of valuable resources like natural gas and oil. Scientists estimate that there are between 11 and 22 billion barrels of oil under the Sea. 

By growing its military, especially the Navy, the Chinese government can thwart the five feuding countries that claim control over parts of the South China Sea. Michael Chase, a researcher at the RAND Corporation, told the HPR, “Their focus has really been on having the military capabilities that lets them deter challenges to their influence by their neighbors or the United States.”

The recent trend of Chinese military modernization seems at least partially motivated by a desire to intimidate smaller countries that might otherwise seek to compete with China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“One China” 

President Xi has already vocalized his intention of reuniting Taiwan with the mainland to create “One China.” However, the United States presents an obstacle to this vision. 

Currently, the United States maintains an unofficial embassy in Taiwan — the American Institute in Taiwan — which provides a dose of political deterrence to China’s behavior in the region and legitimizes claims of Taiwanese independence. Additionally, the United States allowed the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, to stop in New York on July 11, 2019 — a highly unusual move. In the past, to maintain its respectful diplomatic ties with China, the United States would disallow the Taiwanese president from touching down on U.S. land. 

The American Institute of Taiwan, which functions as an unofficial American embassy.

Though the United States has solidified U.S.-Taiwan diplomatic ties over recent years, the growth of the PLA may rupture that budding relationship. On June 14, the PLA conducted military exercises on China’s Southeast Coast, near the Taiwan Strait. The exercises were a response to a $2.2 billion arms deal between the United States and Taiwan, indicating China’s willingness to intervene over Taiwan with military force. When President Trump did not cancel the deal at China’s request — and instead started negotiations to sell Taiwan F-16 fighter jets — the PLA promptly conducted another set of  military exercises near the Taiwan Strait on July 29. 

If China develops this herculean military, the United States might be forced to reconsider its support for Taiwanese independence. Faced with a bolstered Chinese military, the United States may become less likely to get involved in Taiwan-China disputes — a stronger Chinese military could certainly splinter the current strength of U.S.-Taiwan relations.

A stronger PLA could also discourage the Taiwanese government from any attempts at declaring independence. On January 2, 2019, Xi offered Taiwan a “one country, two systems” model — if Taiwan is willing to unite peacefully.  

Thus if China gains a “first class military” like Xi has promised, Taiwan becomes more likely to accept the peaceful deal, due to the new threat posed by its superior military. If the Chinese military presence in the region becomes as strong and capable as the United States’ has been, U.S. support for Taiwanese independence would quickly become less reassuring. The threat of possible military intervention by the PLA may be the factor that pushes reunification. China’s undisputed control over the South China Sea and reunification with Taiwan would significantly decrease U.S. influence in the Asian region, reversing the historically large U.S. presence in Asia. 

The Balancing Act

The United States maintains active military bases in Japan, Korea, Australia, and Singapore. The Singapore naval base, located by the coast of the South China Sea, ensures that the United States maintains a permanent spot in the region, halting the rate of China’s expanding influence. Japan also houses U.S. military bases; over 54,000 active service people are stationed in the archipelago.     

This steady presence in the Asia-Pacific has provided the United States with a meaningful say in the region’s geopolitical conflicts, including disputes over the South China Sea. Thus the U.S. military presence in territories surrounding China provides a direct deterrent not only to the expansion of China’s political influence, but also to its territorial ambitions. 

A more advanced Chinese military, though, might offset the United States’ immense regional political influence by imposing a more palpably impressive military presence there.  Robert Ross, an associate at Harvard’s Center for Chinese Studies, believes that a stronger PLA “has implications for American allies as they begin to consider [that] the balance of power has changed and America is becoming less relatively powerful compared to China … So they will begin to readjust their alliance policies. They will become somewhat friendlier to China [and] cooperate more.” 

Many of the neighboring countries that contain U.S. bases have close ties with the United States precisely because it acts as a buffer against Chinese influence. However, if neighboring countries begin to see that the United States can no longer effectively limit Chinese dominance, power would shift dramatically in the region. Waning U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific would effectively cement Chinese hegemony in this theater of international politics, a shift that would go on to impact larger global power dynamics. 

 China’s Big Chance?       

In 2017, Xi pledged to introduce and facilitate military modernization by 2035. By 2050, Xi expects a military that is “capable of winning wars across all theaters.” And the plan is to focus on modernization through technology. 

The PLA has taken steps to develop hypersonic weapons and aircrafts that can travel so fast that they are hard to detect and almost impossible to intercept. It has also focused on increasing its nuclear arsenal, while creating better missiles with longer ranges, investigating new technologies for weapons like artificial intelligence, and strengthening its cybersecurity capabilities.  

It is hard, of course, to know exactly what will happen in the Asia-Pacific region. The United States’ current move toward isolationism threatens to create a gap into which China can expand little by little. 

China has already begun using trade to grow its influence through the Belt and Road Initiative, financing ports throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Europe in order to broaden China’s trade zone. By developing a competitive military to match this expanding economic influence, Beijing could become an even more crucial and intimidating global player. It all depends on how far China is willing to go to gain the international dominance it has long craved. 

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons/United States Air Force // // Wikimedia Commons/Howard61313

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