Beijing, China. March 29th, 2013. A group of Chinese military marching across Tiananmen Square.Photo: iStock
Beijing, China. March 29th, 2013. A group of Chinese military marching across Tiananmen Square.Photo: iStock

For nearly 10 years, Beijing has been tightening its grip on strategic zones within its sphere of influence, notably in the South China Sea. Now, according to the Pentagon’s 2018 annual report on China’s military power, that buildup is coming of age: the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has ramped up not only its land army but also its naval and other capabilities to the extent that it could “degrade core US operational and technological advantages.” As a result, the PLA has the capacity to control these contested and strategically important waters in almost every scenario, barring all-out war with the US.

Though Chinese military might still does not match America’s, Beijing has caught Washington and its allies on the back foot and shifted the balance of power in the Pacific. There are now major implications for US interests in the open seas, where American warships have moved unrivalled since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Change has been rapid, having accelerated after Xi Jinping took the premiership five years ago. Keen to project “blue water” power and protect China’s growing global interests, he has purged commanders accused of corruption and declared that “building a powerful navy has never been as urgent as it is today.” The Chinese military has long focused on fending off invaders by land but, since 2015, has shed around 300,000 enlisted soldiers and officers. Despite previous denials, Chinese officials now admit that Beijing has militarized the Spratly Islands and other key shoals in the South China Sea, deploying missiles there, escalating tensions and putting waters between the Philippines and Vietnam in range.

Rather than seeking direct confrontation, China focuses on its “counter-intervention” strategy to repel adversaries. This power-play employs, among other things, an unprecedented arsenal of ballistic missiles, directed by a sophisticated network of radar and satellites. Though China lags behind the US in projecting firepower on a global scale, many of these weapons are almost impossible to detect and intercept, threatening America’s best vessels.

Beijing now has its first ever made-in-China aircraft carrier, which put to sea in April, while another is under construction in Shanghai. Chinese battle groups of warships, fighter jets and bombers routinely circle Taiwan. The Chinese navy has built more than 100 warships and submarines in the last decade. Last year it introduced a new class of “super destroyers,”all while keeping military spending in check with its burgeoning economy. Li Jie, an analyst with the Chinese Naval Research Institute, is among those defending Beijing’s actions, saying: “China is simply protecting its rights and its interests in the Pacific”.

China’s growing confidence in these volatile waters comes amid wider incursions far beyond its traditional remit. In Africa, a muscular Beijing is expanding its influence, deepening trade ties and making huge investments in infrastructure. China has been expanding its political and military influence there, having become the second-largest arms provider to the continent behind Russia. A 2017 report from the African Center for Strategic Studies says that Beijing operates approximately 2,500 development, civil works and construction projects worth $94 billion in 51 African countries. China surpassed the US as Africa’s largest trading partner almost a decade ago and now appears to be seeking access to ports and bases throughout the Indian Ocean. By satisfying refueling and resupply logistics, these sites could assist Beijing’s far-flung naval operations.

China surpassed the US as Africa’s largest trading partner almost a decade ago and now appears to be seeking access to ports and bases throughout the Indian Ocean

Djibouti – located in the strategic Horn of Africa at the entrance to the Red Sea – is tiny in size but wields much significance. There, Beijing has built its first overseas base, just miles from a critical US military base, raising eyebrows over warming relations with the authoritarian ruler, Ismail Omar Guelleh. Analysis by Jane’s Defense Weekly suggests that Chinese personnel are constructing deep berths in which warships can moor.

Earlier this year, Djibouti ended its contract with one of the world’s biggest port operators, DP World, a move which was later reversed by a London court. There were concerns that Djibouti had seized control of the terminal to donate it to China, prompting the top US general for Africa to warn of “significant” consequences if Beijing took this naval foothold. Already, analysts warn that Djibouti risks becoming the latest country to fall into China’s debt trap by borrowing more money than it can pay back, at interest rates too high to service. This poses a worry for the US, which has its only permanent African base in Djibouti: Camp Lemonnier, holding about 4,000 US troops. One scenario could even see China pressuring a debt-ridden Djibouti to hand over Camp Lemonnier.

There is other maneuvering, too. During the Cold War, Chinese and Soviet troops eyed each other with suspicion, but now Moscow is pivoting towards the East. This month, more than 3,000 Chinese troops join hundreds of thousands of Russian forces for a joint exercise as part of massive war games. This, Russia’s largest military drill in almost four decades, highlights intensifying cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. Taking place in a region bordering China, Mongolia and North Korea, these games signal what could be a burgeoning military alliance.

Furthermore, China is thought to be seeking a military presence in Afghanistan, where Beijing worries that instability there could spill over into its restive Xinjiang region. Reports claim that China will build a base in Afghanistan for hundreds of troops carrying out counter-terrorism training missions, though a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson has denied the existence of any such plans; its Defense Ministry has previously dismissed reports that Chinese military vehicles were patrolling Afghanistan.

These various adventures – in regions as diverse as nearby seas, the Horn of Africa and a war-wracked state – portray a Beijing gaining in strength, financial clout and assertiveness. Not only can China’s arsenals and soft-power strategies deter Washington from making costly interventions in these contested areas, its firepower and new allegiances are challenging the military supremacy of old superpowers and disrupting a decades-old status quo. And though the Pentagon is well aware of this buildup, the Washington’s efforts to catch up may well already lag too far behind.

Jon Connars is an American investment risk analyst and researcher currently shuttling between Singapore and Bangkok with expertise in the ASEAN region. He has been featured in The Hill, The Diplomat and Asia Times.

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