About the author: James Steels is an Intelligence and Security Analyst specialising in East Asia Defence Analysis and Counter-Terrorism. He has a HNC in Terrorism Studies from St.Andrews University. He has written this piece about China.

In 2017 China announced an increase of 7% to its defence budget positioning it again at second place in the world’s top defence spending.

The nation has also been escalating tensions by pushing maritime boundaries across the South China Sea with a programme of building artificial islands and reefs in the area. In the East China Sea it has challenged Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands and has also attempted to enforce an air defence identification zone there. With the ongoing rise of the famed ‘Chinese Dragon’ in this analysis we will look ahead at some of the future strategic military systems and capabilities of the Chinese armed forces as well as some of the geopolitical issues involving China and the Asia Pacific region.

Historically China’s military has always been strategically geared towards a heavy land based army. Its history is rich with ground conflicts ranging from the epic battles of the Imperial Dynasty era through to the Chinese Civil War, the Sino-Japanese invasion and the Korean War and beyond. Since the mid-90s China’s military has been undergoing a high profile modernisation process and has been shifting its emphasis from a domestic land based force to that of a naval and maritime power. In 2015 China published a defence white paper confirming this intention to become a sea power in order to protect its maritime rights and interests. China knows that it cannot compete against the United States plane for plane or ship for ship so instead it has been developing powerful anti-access area denial (A2/AD) capabilities to push back the U.S. military across the South China Sea and away from its home shores. It is then projecting its own power into this area with a programme of aircraft carriers, destroyers and next generation stealth fighter aircraft.

In April 2017 China launched its own domestically produced Type 001A aircraft carrier to complement its second existing Soviet era one. Once sea trials have been completed the new carrier is expected to be operational in 2020 with an estimated further two more planned. Although powered by oil fuelled steam turbines that will give it a limited range, as opposed to nuclear powered US carriers, and a ski ramp design which limits the payload of any planes launched, the strategic purpose here is to be a regional naval power, not a global one, therefore it is fully sufficient for deploying into the South China Sea to project the needs of Chinese air power there. China is now one of the very few countries that will own and operate aircraft carriers giving it a highly capable and powerful navy for the future.

Currently also undergoing construction are four next generation Type 55 guided missile destroyers. At a displacement estimated at 10,000 tonnes they are heavier than a typical ship of its class. It is believed that they will be fitted with powerful radar, ballistic cruise missiles and surface to air, anti-ship and anti-submarine missiles. They will supplement the current Type 52 Destroyer of which China is currently in the process of building and deploying around 20 as the backbone of its force. In all, China has over 300 vessels giving it the largest navy in Asia and is pushing it towards ‘blue water’ naval status.

China is also investing in sophisticated C4/ISR capabilities to hunt and find targets (i.e. U.S. Aircraft Carriers) with a programme of I.T. technology, satellites and ISR aircraft. Being able to locate and identify naval targets at range is useful if you also actually have the capability to engage them as well. China may very well be expanding on the capability it already has to do exactly just this by developing upon existing technology to produce the DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile. With an astonishing range of up to 4,000km and a powerful enough warhead to be a serious threat to large surface vessels this could be a game changing weapon that will fit within China’s A2/AD strategy for the region.

China has also entered into the 5th generation fighter capability with the development of its Chengdu J-20 air superiority/multirole stealth fighter. This will be China’s future legacy air power system to directly challenge the F-35 and F-22 of the USAF as well as that of Japan’s own future 5th generation capability that is also currently undergoing development as well. In May 2016 the United States Air Force published an ‘Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan’ paper in which it suggests that this Chinese J-20 will now be the future platform that it will base all of its own capabilities on in any future air superiority challenge. Further analysis suggest that one of the reasons why China is building artificial islands in the South China Sea is that it will base the J-20 and other aircraft across these islands in the future. These islands will in effect be fixed land based aircraft carriers giving China the extra capability to project its air superiority further than the combat radius would allow from its mainland.

China continues to strengthen its armed forces with other programmes such as modernising its fleet of Main Battle Tanks and conducting improvements to the capabilities of its ballistic missile and nuclear technology. Despite this though, several of the top future legacy systems are naval and maritime force projection weapons which will continue to take priority in the future.

As previously mentioned China has been building up its geopolitical footprint in the South China Sea for some time now with a programme of artificial Islands and reef construction across the region. It has claimed almost all of the South China Sea as its own territory with its ‘nine dash’ demarcation zone. This has escalated tensions across the area and brought it into conflict with countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines and the United States. In 2016 an international arbitration ruled in favour of the Philippines with their own claim to territorial boundaries within the region. China has however ignored this ruling and in May 2017 the Chinese president Xi Jinping warned that there would be war if the Philippines drilled for oil in the area.

China is slowly militarising the South China Sea and already their Woody Island located off the coast of Vietnam has HQ-9 surface to air missiles and Shenyang J-11 air superiority fighters located there. The rest of the artificial islands built further south in the disputed waters remain relatively military free at this time however infrastructure is currently being built in place to change this. The Fiery Cross Reef, for example, has had a 3,000m runway built there which is capable of handling modern fighter and bomber aircraft whilst other islands within the Spratly Islands chain have had emplacements built which suggest they can accommodate anti-aircraft guns and/or CWIS platforms. The United States and Australian military have conducted ‘freedom of navigation’ exercises via the air and sea across these artificial islands which they state lie within international waters. These manoeuvres have been met with strong protests by China but look set to continue leaving the whole area as a core potential hot flashpoint for any incidents in the future, especially if other Asian countries in the region join in and conduct freedom of navigation exercises of their own.

China is also engaging in a dispute with Japan over the ownership of the Senkaku Islands located in the East China Sea. The islands are owned and administered by Japan but China is also pursuing a claim as well. There has been an increase in military activity as Japan constantly scrambles fighter jets to the area to counter incursions by Chinese aircraft that enter the airspace surrounding these islands. There has also been an increase in maritime incidents involving clashes between the Chinese coast guard and Japanese fishing boats as China attempts to increase its influence there. Despite having a powerful navy Japan’s coast guard is lagging behind in capability compared to that of China which has been building up its coast guard and maritime forces.  China’s maritime assets easily outweigh that of Japan and they are set to continue to have the balance of this power in their favour.

There is also a long running high profile geopolitical dispute between Taiwan and China in which Taiwan wishes to claim independence from the Chinese mainland. China does not accept this and there is a real risk of conflict should China feel threatened by any sovereignty issues. Beijing has strongly stated that it will use force should Taiwan declare or attempt to declare independence from the Chinese mainland and is more than capable of quickly overpowering Taiwanese military forces with a combination of ballistic missiles, air power and amphibious and ground assault units. America is fully committed to Taiwan with economic, security and defence agreements and continues with arms sales much to the annoyance of Beijing. A short high intensity conflict between China and Taiwan could quickly escalate with U.S. involvement therefore it is important that politics continues to play a major role in any future conflict resolution.

Despite this emphasis on a shift towards naval power China has not lost sight for the need to continue to maintain a heavily equipped and armoured ground force to ensure the security of its land borders. For example, North Korea acts as a buffer zone between its southern border and U.S. forces located in South Korea. China fears that if North Korea collapses then South Korean and U.S. forces will surge forwards and fill the vacuum. This would leave potentially hostile troops on its doorstep and as we saw with the Korean War this is an unacceptable situation for China. In March 2017 onwards tensions were further escalated between China, South Korea and the United States when the U.S. military deployed the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system to South Korea in response to the increased missile threat from North Korea. China is concerned that the powerful radar portion of this system will allow the U.S. to ‘spy’ deep within the Chinese mainland thus compromising its internal security.

China also has a border dispute with India in part due to being unable to agree upon official demarcation lines between the two territories. India itself has been undertaking a modernisation of its armed forces and fears it is vulnerable towards China’s own rapidly growing military. Low scale armed clashes on the border between Indian and Chinese troops remain a possibility in the future. Therefore despite the shift towards naval and maritime assets China still requires the need to keep a heavy ground force in order to secure its land borders and to safeguard its domestic security and sovereignty in relation to these issues with countries such as India and North Korea.

Although China will not necessarily be a global power it will certainly become a major regional power, if not the top military power, across the Asia Pacific area beyond the year 2020 onwards. Stealth fighters, aircraft carriers, destroyers and long range anti-ship missiles and are all force projection weapon systems that will form the future legacy of China’s military to deploy at will into this region. China’s actions in the area will likely cause other countries to announce the formation of military alliances, in addition to currently existing ones, in order to counter the military balance.

China is not very open with the exact figure that it spends on defence but various estimates put it between $155-200 billion USD. Despite being such a large amount this is spread very thinly over a force of 2.5 million personnel. As this sum is also only an estimated 1.9% of GDP (compared to that of 3% for the US defence budget) there is plenty of room for more growth. Therefore it is likely that we will continue to see future announcements by the Chinese government to carry on with year on year increases in defence spending.

Securing shipping lanes, fishing rights and energy resources are also one of China’s main economic plans in the Asia Pacific area as well. At the moment China is being geopolitically smart by using maritime law enforcement assets, rather than military ships, to patrol the waters around the Senkaku Islands in its dispute with Japan and so far in the South China Sea none of the artificial islands are yet militarised on a large scale. It is highly likely however that Beijing already has plans in place and fully intends to carry out the wide scale deployment of military resources to these areas all along but is waiting for a ‘trigger incident’ to occur as a political excuse to do so. Therefore there remains a high risk that at some point there will be a low scale maritime clash in the South China Sea perhaps with Vietnamese or Philippines forces, or in the East China Sea with Japanese Maritime Self-Defense forces which will result in the escalation of Chinese military resources being deployed to the area. At the higher end of the scale of scenarios is that China will do a ‘Crimea’ style annexation of an island in either of these areas. Although unlikely at this time it is certainly building up the capability to do so therefore this must remain a consideration for the future.

Safeguarding its internal security and projecting its maritime power are now two key strategic military goals for China in the Asia Pacific area. It will continue to develop and field powerful maritime, naval and air assets into the region to enforce this strategy and it will continue to challenge other countries in the South and East China Sea raising the risk of conflict across this part of the globe in the future.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
4 years ago

Is percentage of GDP really a sensible gauge of spending?

Would it not be better to be weighted against the cost of labour. £100 gets you a lot more in China than the US for instance.

4 years ago

Any nation that can muster enough naval resource to dominate the World’s oceans, can potentially make an impact on trade routes, and their accessibility. Exclusion trade zones can’t be ruled out anywhere around the world, by a nation that can deliver an all powerful navy. The only counter to such adventurism, is to match such ambitions by collective action.

Nick Bowman
Nick Bowman
4 years ago

Great comment, Nathan. When British politicians are pressed on defence sufficiency, they routinely respond with comments about funding rather than the quantity/quality of the assets.