China’s military build-up: not as scary as it looks


Over the last few months China has been launching aircraft carriers, satellites and – this week – stealth frigates in a concerted effort to raise their military profile. It’s an abrupt departure from a long-standing military policy of keeping their heads down, and SIMON ALLISON puzzles over what it might mean.

Deng Xiaoping, the man who more than any other laid the foundations for what modern China has become, was very clear about China’s military strategy. Tao Guang Yanghui, he said, which translates directly – and rather poetically, as Mandarin translations into English so often do – as “hide brightness, nourish obscurity.”

For three decades, this has been China’s policy. In practice, what it means is that the Chinese military has kept a low profile, focusing less on ostentatious displays of strength and more on discreetly building its capabilities.

It’s a strategy that’s served China well. Since the 1980s, the top brass have been gradually cutting down the number of extraneous troops and replacing old equipment with modern systems. At the same time, a new organisational structure and better training has been introduced, streamlining what was a ridiculously bloated and notoriously inefficient bureaucracy.

But the brighter the light gets, the harder it is to hide, and, increasingly, Chinese leaders don’t want to. In late 2011, a small story on page three of the official newspaper of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) indicated a change of tack. Mentioned in the article was Deng’s famous aphorism, but with a twist: as well as keeping a low profile, China’s security forces were encouraged to “actively achieve something”, which implies a little more engagement. This may seem a minor, almost insignificant detail, but this is how policy is communicated in the obscure, arcane world of Chinese politics, and sure enough, 2012 and 2013 (so far) have seen China’s military adopt a much higher public profile.

The centerpiece of this was, of course, the launch of China’s first-ever aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, a former Soviet vessel which China bought for US$20 million and refurbished. Much pomp and ceremony surrounded the launch, and local media were flooded with pictures of the first Chinese fighter taking off and landing from its 300-metre long deck. International media, meanwhile – especially American media – were flooded with scare stories about how the new, improved Chinese military was a threat to world order.

This is an exaggeration. China’s new aircraft carrier – along with its new stealth corvettes and new satellite GPS system and all the other shiny, dangerous new toys it has unveiled recently – is not about to challenge America’s military might anytime soon. The Liaoning has just half the displacement of an American Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, and even Chinese officials privately admit that it will take China 30 years to develop a single carrier group to match just one of America’s 11 carrier groups. And America, let’s not forget, spends five times more on its military every year than China.

So then, what’s the point of China’s military muscle-flexing? For clues, take a look at the reactions of China’s two most powerful neighbours. First up was Indian admiral DK Joshi, who told reporters in December that the Chinese naval upgrade was “truly impressive” and that “it is actually a major, major cause of concern for us, which we continuously evaluate and work out our options and our strategies for.”

Even more frank was new Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who said to the Washington Post in an interview this week that China suffered from a “deeply ingrained” need to spar with Japan and other regional neighbours. In Abe’s account, the point of the military build-up – and of the recent escalation in tensions over ownership of the Japan’s disputed Senkaku islands, which China claims as its own – is to stir up nationalist sentiment within China to bolster support for the government. This, he explains, is a direct result of China’s economic liberalisation, which has forced the Communist Party to abandon its goal of nationwide economic equality. Without this, the party has had to create “different pillars” on which to base its popular support.

There’s something to Abe’s theory, as he well knows; he’s used much the same principle to shore up his own domestic support. His campaign pledges to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution and be tougher on China, alongside his aggressive defence of the Sankaku Islands, account in large part for his current 71% percent approval rating.

But the domestic angle is not the whole story. With US naval bases forming a neat ring around the South China Sea – there are bases in Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan – it’s not hard to see why China’s leadership might feel threatened in its own backyard. A stronger navy, in this reading, is not really offensive in nature, but defensive; allowing China to make sure that its ports remain accessible and shipping lanes are kept open.

So, scare-mongering aside, there’s not too much cause for concern about China’s military build-up. With its undoubted propaganda value and obvious defensive benefits, it is clearly a development with regional rather than global implications, and even these are about maintaining the status quo rather than anything else. DM

Related: China Type 056 Stealth Frigate Declared Operational On 25 Feb 2013

Photo: New recruits for the People's Liberation Army, wearing red flowers symbolizing honour, wait to board a train at a train station in Mayang Miao autonomous county, Hunan province December 13, 2012. REUTERS/China Daily

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