Economics remains the guiding linchpin in measuring the broad status of China’s military modernization efforts, but this effort should not be performed in isolation. If US combat commanders want to measure the strength and reach of China’s military power, they will need to assess three interlocking components of Beijing’s strategic mindset.
First, proper characterization of Beijing’s current military strategy reveals a China interested in regional power projection. Its force-modernization efforts are guiding transformation efforts into a professionalized force with technologically advanced air and naval capabilities for sustained engagements. Initially aiming to project and protect regional national interests, Beijing invariably seeks to shape the decisions of competitors, parlaying with regional actors while shaping regional security architecture favorable to itself. This objective is achieved by fielding C4ISR (command, control, communication, computing, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capabilities.
Second, as of this writing, China does not possess sufficient national power to act as a regional hegemon, for a national military strategy of regional hegemony would possess sustained influence to exclude regional competitors. In the case of China, it would mean adopting sufficient power to exclude US influence from East Asia. To prevail against other hegemons, China needs to succeed in long-term conflict with the US and its regional alliance members. This means major, sustained conflict with Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and the US simultaneously.
Third, current Chinese military power configuration possesses global aspects whose trends can strengthen sustained engagement abroad, if Beijing’s political base can sustain heavy political strain. This means Beijing must perform extensive military engagements abroad, exercises and arms sales beyond its immediate region, sustained forward presence in hostile territory, and unrestrained global reach – all while performing a constant pace of global operations.
For Beijing to compete with the US abroad, it must shape its modernization efforts within a political framework determining whether its military predominately concerns itself with conducting regional operations or the pursuit of global aims.
Currently, China does not have sufficient economic or political power to sustain global engagements. For this to change favorably to China, its political leadership would need to examine the supremacy of ethnic Han leadership as the final composition of an efficacious mythology eradicating a century of humiliation while overcoming managed liberalization schemes in its current capital accounts.
It means an examination of the political composition of Chinese power.