By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

While  focus remains on how China is extending its Asian profile through construction of rail and road networks and economic corridors throughout the region, little attention has been paid to how it is translating its economic wealth into military power — power that the budding empire intends to use not just to protect its territorial integrity but also to expand its scope.

China’s military modernization, which involves upgrading both conventional and un-conventional warfare machines is the most appropriate reflection of what the leadership—including President Xi Jinping—has characterized as a “period of strategic opportunity.” Economic wealth is being translated into military modernization.

Significant among these developments is China’s naval transformation and the way it has already started to project it to extend the scope of the region directly in its reach, as Asia Sentinel reported on Dec. 30.  The rise of China’s blue water navy is not only going to enable China to look beyond its coastal waters but also enable it to back its claims on certain disputed areas and islands by superior military force.

The blue water naval operation, particularly the ‘first flight’ of China’s lone aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, followed the adoption in December of a new doctrine called “rapid force projection,” a step towards completinga transition from the previous focus on fighting regional military conflicts to conducting larger-scale global operations involving what Beijing calls high-technology ‘informationized forces.’

In this context, militarization of disputed territories such as the South China Sea is an indication of the way China intends to use its military power. As widely reported earlier this month from new satellite images, China has already begun building hexagonal gun emplacements on several of the disputed Spratly Islands.  

The development of naval, nuclear, aerial and cyber warfare capability is commensurate with what the Xi Jinping called in a May, 2013 speech the “China Dream”—a dream that invariably includes a commitment to developing military power commensurate with China’s resurgent status as a ‘great economic power.’

China’s leaders are thus increasingly seeking ways to leverage growing military, diplomatic, and economic clout to establish regional pre-eminence and expand its international influence. This expansion of influence, however, partly owes its existence to the departure of the US from the region as the sole dominant power, leaving a void and creating an opportunity for China to tap into and create a leverage for itself.

While one may—or may not – find in this strategy traces of typical super-power behavior and while Chinese officials may continue to project this modernization in terms of a ‘national necessity’ to ward off bigger challenges, it can hardly be gainsaid that the China Dream is going to inevitably put China in an asymmetric equation vis-à-vis other regional countries, creating an imbalance that might push these countries to look for ways and means of balancing themselves against it.  Political and strategic friction would be the inevitable outcome of this militarization.

Vietnam has in particular over recent months sought increasing security in the embrace of its onetime enemy the United States at the same time other countries including the Philippines and Malaysia are turning towards Beijing.

China turns to new missiles

As 2016 came to its close, China reportedly conducted a flight test of a new missile known as the Dong Ning-3 that the Pentagon believes is designed to hit US satellites in space in a crippling attack in the early phases of a conflict that would limit American military forces from navigating, pinpointing targets and gathering intelligence.

Another significant 2016 stage is the development and successful testing of a strategic missile armed with multiple warheads, marking a quantum increase in nuclear capability. This is important in that most of China’s nuclear force until recently was designed to deliver a single large warhead over thousands of miles.

US watches warily

Within American policy and strategic circles, China’s military modernization is largely seen as anti-American, anticipating a potential conflict with the People’s Liberation Army, and a direct threat to American interests in the region (Asia) and beyond.

This is evident from various statements issued by American officials. Adm. Cecil Haney, a former head of the US Strategic Command, disclosed in a speech in January last year that China was adding multiple warheads to its missiles and re-engineering its long-range ballistic missiles to carry multiple nuclear warheads” to bring the US in its reach.

Such revelations have stirred many Americans into rethinking their own position, policy and strategy vis-à-vis China, leading even the president-elect Donald Trump to tweet on Dec. 22 that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

Needless to say the US, anticipating China’s massive modernization, is equally modernizing its own arsenal that involves a whopping cost of about US$450 billion. A 2016 report of the US Department of Defense to the US Congress thus states the whole scenario:

“The PRC continues to focus on preparing for potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait, but additional missions, such as contingencies in the East and South China Seas and on the Korean peninsula, are increasingly important to the PLA. Moreover, as China’s global footprint and international interests grow, its military modernization program has become more focused on investments and infrastructure to support a range of missions beyond China’s periphery…”

Describing “force modernization goals and trends,” the report continues:

“Current trends in China’s weapons production not only enhance China’s capabilities to cope with contingencies along its periphery, such as a Taiwan crisis, but will also enable the PLA to conduct a range of military operations in Asia beyond China’s traditional territorial claims. Key systems that either have been deployed or are in development include ballistic missiles (including anti-ship variants), anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles, nuclear submarines, modern surface ships, and an aircraft carrier. The need to secure trade routes, particularly oil supplies from the Middle East, has prompted China’s Navy to conduct counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.”

​Whereas the frequency of different types of tests in various military categories indicates the speed of modernization, upgradation of conventional and un-conventional weapons shows the extent of reliance China has placed on this aspect of national power.  It is a growing presence that the United States and all of China’s regional neighbors are going to have to contend with.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan-based academic and a regular correspondent for Asia Sentinel.