The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), front, leads the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Michael Murphy (DDG 112 and the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain (CG 57), in the Indian ocean April 14, 2017. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Danny Kelley/Handout via REUTERS

Two current events are worth noting when it comes to the emergence of China as a regional – and eventually, perhaps, even global – great power. The first is the recent deployment of the USS Carl Vinson in the South China Sea, reflecting the US government’s renewed resolve to use “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPS) to confront growing Chinese predominance in the region.

The second will be when the National People’s Congress meets next month to approve a new defense budget, one that will likely see another new high when it comes to Chinese military spending.

To say that the People’s Liberation Army has been undergoing profound transformation is an understatement. Change has permeated every facet of the PLA – technological, organizational, and doctrinal. The ongoing reorganization of the PLA – including the putative reorganization of its military regions; the creation of joint commands; the strengthening of top-down leadership by the Central Military Commission (CMC); and the establishment of a new Rocket Force – underlines the Chinese leadership’s commitment to establishing a modern military system with Chinese characteristics.

With Chinese leaders expressing their desire to develop their country into a maritime power, Beijing has also begun to demonstrate its resolve to follow through with its declarations to build a force that is capable of fighting – and winning – “informationized” wars.

Informatization and power projection

“Informatization” (xinxihua) means that information technologies, especially those capabilities relating to command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR), are considered paramount to expanding military effectiveness. This entails, among other things, dominating the electromagnetic spectrum through integrated network electronic warfare as well as exploiting technological advances in microelectronics, sensors, propulsion, stealth, and especially cyber to outfit the PLA with new capacities for long-range strike and disruption.

In short, the PLA, in its long transition from People’s War to limited local wars under conditions of informatization, was seeking to move from being a platform-centric to a more cyber-enabled force, or one where the crucial characteristic of the force is the network linkages among platforms, as opposed to the platforms themselves.

The most recent stage of Chinese war-fighting doctrine was revealed in the PLA’s most recent defense white paper, “Chinese Military Strategy,” published back in May 2015. It places an even greater emphasis on informatization and makes it central to operational concepts.

According to the 2015 white paper, the PLA will continue to de-emphasize land operations, all but abandoning People’s War (except in name and in terms of political propaganda), particularly in favor of giving new stress and importance to sea and air power: “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.”

As a result, the PLA Navy will gradually shift toward a combined “offshore waters defense” and “open seas protection” while China’s air force would, according to its most recent defense white paper, “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 informatized operations”.

Dual trends

It would be premature to argue that China will catch up with the defense-technology state of the art any time soon. For all of its talk of becoming an “informatized” military, the PLA is still a decidedly platform-centric force, albeit one that is still in the process of becoming more network-enabled.

Nevertheless, the process may be evolutionary but it is certainly determined: Old weapons and military equipment are being gradually replaced, modified and upgraded, or else supplemented by and subordinated to more technologically advanced systems. Nevertheless, the PLA, backed by the regime or President Xi Jinping, appears to be progressing toward becoming a truly informatized armed force – a long-term strategy, to say the least.

At the same time, the domestic political culture in China increasingly emphasizes a sense of victimization and subsequent entitlement. More and more, Chinese foreign policy is driven by a populist nationalism, fueled by an official narrative of (Western) humiliation. This perception of national victimhood has spurred Beijing into becoming ever more intransigent in pressing its territorial claims in the adjoining seas, such as its illegal artificial-island-building campaign.

These dual trends – the modernization of the PLA in its embrace of extremely high-technology warfare, together with an increasingly assertive regime in Beijing that believes it is due its place in the sun – denote a China that is less and less willing to support the status quo in the Asia-Pacific region. It also implies a regional great power that is increasingly willing to use force or the show of force in support of its national interests. Most of these developments have been remarkably recent, taking place within the past decade or so.

This is the challenge that most threatens the current security calculus in the Asia-Pacific region. In this regard, Washington’s responses – in terms of the rebalance and its FONOPS in the South China Sea – are vital markers in messaging Beijing as to how far it should go in its newly aggressive behavior. In dealing with China, engagement and containment are the conjoined twins of policy; given China’s recent conduct, it might be time for a bit more of the latter, if it is not too late.

Richard A. Bitzinger

Richard A Bitzinger is a Visiting Senior Fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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