The rise of China as an emerging military power is obvious to anyone who is a student or follower of international security.
The People’s Republic of China is currently conducting a massive military modernization programme and its annual defence budget has exceeded £100 billion a year to a new effort to increase military spending to $161.7 billion dollars. This is approx. ¾ more than the previous defence budgets. This in itself means that China is serious about its military remaining credibility to any emerging threats.
It has one of the world’s largest air force, the world’s largest Coastguard, and has laid claim to a set of disputed Islands in the South China Sea. Both on a political, economic and military level, China is set to rise to Superpower status, if it has not done so already. In terms of Gross Domestic Product, it is set to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy, and is translating its enormous economic advantage into military potential which has implications for China’s diplomatic posture.
The 21st century will clearly be determined by the potential for conflict in the South China Sea, and possible wargame scenarios with a hypothetical Chinese invasion of Taiwan or a conflict with the US Navy. While the United States enjoys technological advantages second to none, China is close behind. President Obama’s pivot to Asia has been seen as one of a diplomatic failure, while Trump’s rearmament programme could be seen as one of trying to match the rise of China and reassert American dominance. Instead of de-securitizing the South China Sea area, I would argue President Trump’s plan for a 350 ship fleet is ambitious, but the military industrial complex may have difficulty in delivering on his rhetorical promises.
However his exclamations, and Obama’s previous failures it has emboldened Beijing to have a more assertive foreign policy, and as such could threat the security of the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. This may actually have the opposite effect, and provoke China to become more militarily assertive causing an arms race.
As Political Scientist Mearsheimer (2001) argues in The Tragedy of Great Power politics often a state goes on the offensive when its power grows, so does its conception of its security interests grows. These ‘regional hegemons’ the author goes onto argue want to achieve global power and to achieve ‘global hegemony’ but this is unrealistic for any power to do so. However, it does not stop emerging superpower like China wanting a bigger military or building its naval capabilities.
For the purposes of this article, it is necessary to quantify China’s current military strength, by bringing empirical validity to the claims that it is an emerging Superpower. If we are looking at the case study of the ‘War of Attrition’ which means that those with the most firepower are more likely to succeed in a war, China’s enormous number of manpower is to be considered and factored into any battle scenario. The total population of China is 1.37 billion people with an impressive manpower of three quarters of a billion people if necessary. Overall, 619,000,000 of those are deemed to be fit for service, and 19,550,000 fit for reaching military age. Its total military personnel has around 3.7 million altogether consisting of 2.36 million active duty personal and a reserve personnel at around 1.45 million (Global Firepower, 2017).
The National Interest (2015) published an article on why we should take China’s airpower seriously, and looked in particular at the ‘war-game’ scenario of China invading Taiwan and also South China Sea. While in summary the South China sea, the balance of power seemed to favour the United States, because of the proximity of the Islands, the statistics in relation to Taiwan is very revealing in this set of ‘wargames’ outcomes:
“The results were staggering. In 1996, China would have been a pushover, with just 2.1 U.S. air wings needed for air dominance over Taiwan. By 2003, that number would have soared to 10.6 wings, and 19.6 wings by 2010. By 2017, the U.S. would need 29.9 air wings—the equivalent of 2,000 aircraft. In other words, more aircraft than America could have the faintest hope of realistically deploying to defend Taiwan.”
While these findings was not based on actual air war analysis, and the data was open sourced, one thing is for certain that China has dramatically improved its air capabilities. Times have changed, and so with it China’s military strength.
Now let’s turn our attention to China’s growing naval capabilities. It now has two aircraft carriers in operation. One was purchased from Ukraine and was refitted according to Chinese specifications, and the other was built domestically. Statistically, its total naval assets number 715 vessels with 2 aircraft carriers, 51 frigates, 35 destroyers, 35 Corvettes, 68 submarines, 22o Patrol Craft and 31 Mine Warfare Vessels. It also have a merchant marine strength of 2000 ships with 15 major sea ports and terminals. Its Coast Guard has built impressive ships which have the tonnage and capabilities akin to a destroyer.
Its new ‘monster’ Coast Guard ship. It is the world’s largest coast guard vessel ever built by any nation on this Earth, and has a 12,000 tonnage. The Chinese Coast Guard Cutter (CCG) 3901 has successful completed its first patrol in the South China Sea area. (The Diplomat, 2017). Also what is interesting is the arming of coast guard cutters with 76 mm guns (Janes 360). In addition, China’s new coast guard vessels are designed to be converted rapidly into armed military frigates in times of war increasing the number of ships for the navy (The National Interest, 2016). Its navy has the potential to become a truly global presence which will impact on security for years to come as I have previous written about (Steward, 2017: UK Defence Journal).
To conclude, China has made rapid gains in the number of ships it operates, including its militarized Coast Guard, and also its air force, which can challenge United States air superiority and its naval dominance during an outbreak of a conflict – particularly in relation to Taiwan. I can see China’s attempting to gain military predominance in its region, and to challenge U.S. naval hegemony in the Pacific and elsewhere.
However, whether U.S. under Trump adjusts its foreign policy to see accommodation or containment of China will translate into whether there will be a security dilemma. Conflict is borne out of choice, and not necessity.