Why China Will Become a Global Military Power


For
over a decade, academics, policymakers, and government officials have
been engaged in a relentless debate about Chinese military capabilities
and intentions. To some, China is likely an expansionist country akin to
Germany before WWI. Others argue that China’s assertive behavior in its
regional offshore island disputes is simply a manifestation of the
Chinese Communist Party’s focus on domestic stability, which precludes
any broader global ambitions.

Mastro photo Contrary to the
extremes of the current debate, the Chinese military will be neither
hollow nor a juggernaut. While the Chinese leadership would prefer to
stay focused on internal development and regional issues, I argue in a
recent article in The National Interest that facts on the ground will
increasingly compel the Party to develop some global operational
capabilities. Specifically, the burgeoning need to protect commercial
assets and Chinese nationals abroad will inevitably shape modernization
of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) toward limited global power
projection, regardless of its current plans or intentions. Even though
the Chinese leadership will embark on this path with very limited goals
in mind, Chinese thinking on how and when to use force could change once
its strategy, doctrine, and capabilities evolve to incorporate these
new roles.

While I posit that commercial, domestic, and
international drivers will push the PLA to have an increasing global
presence, this does not equate to fighting major wars and stationing
troops abroad. If we define global military power by the standard of the
United States, no country qualifies. The question here is not whether
China would have the capacity to invade and occupy far-off countries, as
only the United States can; but whether, like other second-tier powers,
it will develop the capacity to project limited but meaningful force
outside its immediate region.

Chinese Companies Create the Strategic Demand

In
the near future, economic motivations will drive the development of
China’s limited global power projection capabilities. Approximately
20,000 Chinese companies have a presence in more than 180 countries and
regions, creating a constant demand for government protection of these
assets. Furthermore, Chinese overseas investment is growing: at US$60
billion, China’s annual outward foreign direct investment (OFDI) in 2011
was 20 times the 2005 amount.

As Chinese investments
increase, threats to those assets will increase in tandem. This is
particularly the case in politically unstable countries where
nationalization or seizure is always a possibility, or in countries that
have ongoing territorial conflicts where anti-China protests have often
resulted in damage to Chinese-owned property. While still a fledging
phenomenon, there are recent examples of instances that could drive
China to develop limited expeditionary capabilities to augment its
response options.

These incidents are occurring more
frequently and are increasingly threatening to the Party’s strategic and
political interests. Statements made by the Chinese political and
military leadership acknowledge that China’s need for stable access to
natural resources in addition to exploding foreign investment have
expanded its interests beyond the region, while their capabilities lag
behind. Wang Yi in his first speech as China’s foreign minister outlined
trends and principles in foreign policy, highlighting the need to align
China’s foreign policy with its expanding global interests. China’s
2013 Defense White Paper noted that “security risks to China’s overseas
interests are on the increase” and included for the first time a section
on protecting Chinese overseas interests. And in recent months, China’s
president Xi Jinping himself has publicly stressed the critical
importance of a strong military to a successful foreign policy and
dismissed the option of passivity.

The Chinese Public Creates the Domestic Support

An
increasing number of Chinese citizens are going abroad, with many
migrating to politically unstable countries as part of an exported labor
force or in prospect of financial gain. In the 12 months leading up to
May 2014, Chinese nationals recorded 98 million overseas trips—a number
that has increased by an average rate of over 10 million a year for the
last four years. By 2020, approximately 150 million Chinese citizens
will be traveling and living abroad. In comparison, approximately 57
million Americans traveled abroad in 2014 and 6.3 million Americans live
overseas.
Domestic public support for the development of
expeditionary capabilities is coalescing as more and more Chinese
nationals find themselves in dangerous situations due to a combination
of misfortune and political instability in host nations. According to
the Chinese government’s foreign ministry, its embassies and consulates
deal with an average of 100 incidents a day regarding overseas Chinese
nationals in danger. Netizens have begun to complain that the government
relies too heavily on enhancing citizen awareness of dangers and
diplomatic mechanisms for citizen protection, rather than using military
force. A prominent Chinese public intellectual noted in the aftermath
of the disappearance of flight MH370, which was carrying 157 Chinese
nationals and to which the Chinese government responded by launching
joint search-and-rescue teams, that “China’s capacity to engage in
security operations outside its national boundary still lags far behind”
developed countries and that “China has all the reason and right to
turn the crisis and challenge into an opportunity to build up its
security forces’ capacity to protect overseas interests.”

‘Responsible Stakeholder’ Creates the International Approval

In
addition to commercial demand and domestic pressure, the Chinese
leadership’s desire to create a positive international image could
provide additional incentives to develop global expeditionary
capabilities. International pressure for China to take on more global
responsibilities organically creates international support for PLA
expeditionary operations of a limited nature. A Chinese military with
the ability to project power globally, even if only for a short period
of time in relatively permissive environments, could contribute more to
peacekeeping missions as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster
relief operations. A proclaimed desire to contribute more to the global
good could provide a legitimate and non-threatening rationale for the
development of power projection capabilities.
A Stronger, More Globally Impactful China?

An
effective global capability is not inevitable. There are real
obstacles—technological, political, and ideological—to the Chinese
military’s capacity to operate abroad, even on a limited scale. Scholars
often point to China’s failure to resolve these obstacles today as
proof that there will still be impediments tomorrow. Admittedly, the
PLA’s experience with such expeditionary operations has been limited. It
holds true that China currently has no bases abroad, no long-range
logistics capabilities, and rudimentary satellite coverage. China is
particularly weak in the key enablers required for expeditionary
capability: airlift, sealift, C4ISR (command, control, communication,
computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance), and logistics.

But
we should not forget that at the turn of this century, the idea of
China with an aircraft carrier or Chinese participation in peacekeeping
operations seemed highly contentious and hypothetical. If China invests
in the right platforms and technologies—such as large transport aircraft
and tankers; amphibious combat ships; hospital ships and landing dock
platforms; and a robust, space-based ocean surveillance
system—conducting limited global operations will become more probable.
At the same time, while acquiring the requisite military platforms and
units is a formidable and obvious challenge, it is only one piece of the
puzzle—the PLA will also have to address organizational and doctrinal
impediments.
The exact shape and capabilities of a global
expeditionary PLA in a decade or so remains uncertain and contingent.
But powerful commercial, domestic, and international drivers will compel
the Party to reshape the PLA in order to protect Chinese interests and
nationals overseas and maintain its credibility. While Beijing’s
motivations may be relatively narrow, such new and expansive PLA
capabilities will have much wider implications for its traditional
war-fighting goals as well as for future articulations of strategy and
interests. Specifically, the ability to conduct limited expeditionary
operations on a global scale could impact China’s non-interference
policy and regional stability.

Once the PLA has the
capabilities to intervene abroad, and ideological barriers have been
loosened with global operations, the Chinese leadership may become more
interventionist. A more assertive China may be a positive development
for the United States, especially if it leads to greater Chinese
cooperation on issues such as energy security, stability in the Middle
East, and climate change. One possible future scenario is that China
relaxes its non-interference principle as its global interests expand
and overlap with those of the United States, leading to coordination
between the two countries on global issues. But there are three reasons
to question the feasibility of this ideal outcome. First, as the North
Korean nuclear issue has demonstrated, even when Chinese and American
interests overlap, divergence in their preferred tactics can inhibit
progress on the issue at hand. Second, China defines its core interests
narrowly in domestic terms while the United States is more likely to
view issues from the perspective of maintaining the current global
order. Last, abandonment of the non-intervention principle to facilitate
its new global expeditionary mission would mean the potential for
Chinese interference in issues in which the United States may prefer
China’s traditional hands-off approach.

In terms of regional
stability, while the Chinese leadership may only plan on building
expeditionary forces to address non-traditional threats, the increased
capabilities may shape Chinese interests and preferred methods of
achieving traditional regional security objectives. The implications for
the United States and its regional allies and partners are uncertain.
China’s increased military role in global affairs and enhanced
expeditionary capabilities could create a balancing backlash among its
Asian neighbors and contribute to instability in the region, as
incentives for preventive war increase with the rapid shifts in the
regional balance of power. China could become confident in its ability
to achieve its objectives by brute force alone, especially with domestic
support. However, a global expeditionary PLA could also create a more
assertive China that is positioned to provide international public
goods, further enmeshing Beijing into the current world order and
reducing the incentives for it to use force to resolve disputes.

Any
projection about future intent and capabilities is contingent and
uncertain. But as long as China continues its double-digit annual
increases in defense spending, and GDP growth continues even modestly,
China should be able to simultaneously develop traditional war-fighting
capabilities to address regional challenges as well as global
expeditionary capabilities to confront threats farther from home. While
flare-ups or resolutions of persistent regional issues may delay or
accelerate this future scenario, they are unlikely to reverse China’s
increasingly global PLA.