China’s Clever Rise

Another common China theme is the question of what its growing military budget reveals about its regional and global ambitions. Writing in the current issue of The Washington Quarterly, MIT’s M. Taylor Fravel argues that instead of arguing backwards from worst case scenario assumptions, we should use China’s increasing transparency about its military doctrine as a window into what’s driving its military buildup. He identifies five principle strategic goals found in speeches by Chinese military policy makers and Chinese military scholarship: regime security, territorial integrity, national unification (preventing Taiwan’s secession), maritime security and regional stability. He then analyzes the elements of China’s force structure, and finds it largely consistent with the kinds of capacity needed to accomplish those goals.

Its territorial defense combines the natural geographic advantages conferred by its vast border regions with its huge military manpower to both deter invasions and contribute to domestic control operations. It supplements that with a tactical emphasis on area denial around the periphery (as opposed to area control) to make any military campaign too costly for an adversary. (An example is the capacity to hinder American force deployment to Taiwan in the case of a conflict, as opposed to engaging them once deployed.) Similarly, its emphasis on a limited and regional force deployment capacity, both to maintain the Taiwan status quo and also to allow for operations in support of regional stability, are consistent with its stated strategic priorities. Obviously the Taiwan question is a thorny one, especially given our treaty obligations. But Flavel argues that China’s inability to contribute to regional disaster relief (e.g. the 2004 tsunami) illustrates the very limited progress it has made in this area. But its lack of long-range deployment ambitions is further illustrated by a very limited strategic airlift capacity (14 and 6 percent of Russia and U.S. respectively), and an Air Force modernization that focused on short-range fighters, not long-range bombers.

Flavel acknowledges that the lack of transparency that persists between the U.S. and Chinese militaries despite growing communication creates a dilemma of unknown intentions. This pertains especially to its naval modernization, where China has developed its greatest force projection capacity and in light of the fact that it still has several unresolved maritime rights disputes, including one with Japan. But American naval power still dwarfs China’s.

Flavel concludes that China spending over the past decade is consistent with a largely defensive posture, and that any shift into long-range force projection capacity would be indicated by military hardware purchases and domestic production.

In many ways, the doctrine is in line with recent American and European strategic analyses. The major difference being that, outside of securing its maritime commerce, China seems to be maintaining a doctrinal wariness of costly and farflung interventions. While Peking has become more active in UN multilateral missions, and as Flavel points out, is intent on a regional capacity, it has adopted an asymmetrical stance vis à vis the U.S. and its potential coalitions that very shrewdly achieves a cost-efficient strategic deterrence in its own neighborhood, while leaving the stability of the rest of the world up to the global governance system.

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