The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) strategic presence and increasing capabilities in civil and military aspects are posed to challenge the United States hegemony. The country’s radical growth, significant technological innovation, and infrastructure development in virtually every element of vital economic, military, and intelligence competence has propelled China towards its broad objectives of achieving strategic parity and superiority both regionally and globally. China is taking advantage of the changing nature of warfare and uses an integrated mix of political, economic, and military power projection to achieve its strategic goals without engaging in direct conflict with the U.S. Chinese military modernization serves long term strategic objectives of China that include challenging U.S information dominance, exercising Area-Access Area-Denial in South China Sea, posing a strategic nuclear threat to USA, locating and threatening U.S operations in Indo-Pacific region and contesting aerospace superiority along with Chinese border.
U.S. Concerns About China
In the last 20 years, China has sought to build up its military power, as defined by General Secretary Xi Jinping in 2017, to become a “world-class” military power by 2049. Financed by China’s transformation into a global economic and manufacturing superpower and driven by the ideology of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the military build-up fulfills the trio of providing China with the capabilities and influence to achieve regional and global hegemony that it pursues and directly challenges the U.S. as a superpower.
In many ways, China has already surpassed the U.S. military that has seen relative decline or slow progress in recent years. China’s shipbuilding capabilities have positioned it as the largest Navy, with 350 ships and submarines to the U.S. Navy’s 293 ships. While technologically, the U.S. may be ahead, experts believe China’s military hardware will catch up within 10-15 years. The PRC is also ahead in land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles with more than 1,250 ground-launched ballistic missiles (including nuclear) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs). China is also working to adapt competent missile technology into navy ships as well as testing hypersonic weapons. Meanwhile, the U.S. operates one type of GLCM, and is significantly behind in key missile technologies of the future such as hypersonic.
Overall, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is introducing significant amounts of new military hardware but also restructuring its forces and modernizing support and intelligence capabilities. Therefore, it is not a simple build-up of hardware reminiscent of the U.S.S.R., it is aimed to improve the PLA’s combat readiness, making it suited for joint operations, and keeping the military flexible to new operational concepts, including the ability to operate outside of China. The CCP does not intend for the PLA to be a “showpiece” of modernity, but to become a “practical instrument of its statecraft with an active role in advancing the PRC’s foreign policy, particularly with respect to the PRC’s global interests and its aims to revise aspects of the international order.” The U.S. has traditionally remained a dominant power in Southeast Asia where China is seeking to assert its dominance. The U.S. has military bases, troop presence, and allied relationships with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia among others. The Chinese are attempting to change this status quo and achieve near-seas dominance, with the military being a key element to this.
A range of Chinese activities have been concerning the U.S. and its partners. First, activity around the disputed Senkaku Islands which the international community recognizes as Japan territory, but the Chinese have claimed as part of its exclusive Air Defense Identification Zone and have sent military vessels into Japan-administered waters recently. Second is China’s increased military presence in the East China Sea (ECS) and South China Sea (SCS), often beyond its borders and conducting base-building activity on artificial islands, threatening both key international trade routes and the sovereignty of nearby island nations. China is using its influence to declare wide and wider air defense identification zones around its coastline, pushing into what is considered international territory. Finally, a major concern that has exacerbated recently is China’s threat to Taiwan which is semi-officially recognized by the U.S. and remains an ally. However, the CCP has always considered the island nation as an indivisible part of China despite never ruling it since the Chinese Revolution, but it is an ultimate goal for the Chinese to reunite Taiwan with mainland China, with many experts fearing that geopolitical and military strength will be used to do so within the next several decades. Until then, China continues to provoke Taiwan with violations of its sovereign airspace and marine boundaries.
China’s Emergence as a Naval Power
With Xi Jinping coming to power in 2013, China began to pursue this strategy aggressively. The shipbuilding capabilities of China have increased exponentially and the PLA Navy has surpassed the U.S. in sheer number of ships as seen in the graph below. However, China is not just building ships, it is building newer and better ships, particularly the key trio in the navy which are destroyers, submarines, and aircraft carriers. As well-known based on the U.S. Navy, aircraft carriers are the flagships of the fleet, and those large armadas centered around an aircraft carrier are not only an effective means of offensive capabilities, but also a dominant show of strength. The U.S. currently has 11 large aircraft carrier groups. China first produced a carrier off a decommissioned Soviet ship and recently manufactured one of its own, albeit not nuclear-powered, in record time. Plans are already laid out for the next aircraft carrier with new technologies that may match or even surpass U.S.-produced ones.
The PRC’s modernization focuses not just on shipbuilding but modernizing a wider array of platforms and weapons to enhance its naval capabilities. This includes but not limited to anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, submarines, surface ships, unmanned vehicles, and most crucially support C4ISR (command and control, communications, computerization, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), a system present in the most technologically advanced navies and an area where U.S. has maintained a strategic advantage. The modernization also includes better logistics, maintenance, personnel quality, education, and training on par with the best militaries. These efforts at naval expansion and modernization are viewed by experts as part of the effort to address the situation with Taiwan, achieving control of the ECS and SCS, and enforcing the Chinese perspective that it has the right to regulate foreign military and trade activity within its 200-mile marine exclusive economic zone. The long-term objectives are to establish itself as a regional power, by displacing U.S. influence in Western Pacific and offer protection for Chinese maritime routes and communication.
China is taking an extremely patient approach. It recognizes that attaining global hegemony from a behind position is a difficult task. Therefore, it is buying time, and taking small but strategic steps politically and economically to ensure its long-term goals. The aircraft carriers it has right now are good enough to ensure dominance in regional seas, while it is preparing the next generation of nuclear-powered ships with hypersonic missiles for global navy superiority. As years pass, China is only developing more, acquiring new technologies, and growing its military sustainably, while taking positions to prepare for any potential regional conflicts in order to defend its interests.
China’s Strategy in South China Sea
The larger part of China’s strategy with its geopolitical actions as well as the military build-up are to create an expanded Chinese anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) force around the whole region. A force that is able to deter U.S. intervention in case of conflict with China with one of its regional allies such as Taiwan. The current A2/AD force is highly effective near China, not allowing any U.S. military or intelligence plane or ship to be close enough to China for reconnaissance, forcing the country to rely on satellites. In a regional mass conflict where U.S. intervention may be delayed or reduced in effectiveness, would be devastating to these smaller nations.
China’s strategy in the regional seas is complex and multifaceted. Part of it seeks to rally domestic support and deter U.S. intervention in the region. Other actions are aimed to intimidate, or sometimes tempt, neighbors to cooperate either as to appease China or in exchange for future geopolitical and economic benefits that China can bring. Finally, there is the need for the CCP to project China’s image as a global hegemony. One of the most effective strategies that China is using in the SCS and ESCS is known as “salami-slicing.” This refers to the use of incremental actions which by themselves are not what could be termed diplomatically, a casus belli. While drawing some criticism, these actions such as expanding its exclusive zone or building island bases, are concerning but not enough to create meaningful international response. However, the ‘salami-slicing’ operations are gradually shifting the status quo in the region in China’s favor.
Furthermore, foreign policy experts note China’s strategy of gray zone operations, meaning that these actions undertaken by China’s military or political diplomacy are in-between a peaceful approach and an outright declaration of war. These include incrementalism, creeping annexation, or creeping invasion. China often uses a ‘talk and take’ tactic where it draws out negotiations while gaining strategic control of a contested area. Essentially, China’s strategy revolves around gradually wearing down its neighbors and using relentless pressure tactics of its whole political, economic, military, intelligence, and propaganda government apparatus. The country makes small gains either territory-wise or geopolitically, and then backs off for a short period of time, being ready to ‘pounce’ again. These strategies, as noted by experts, have been extremely effective during the COVID-19 pandemic, as China was one of the first to gain control of the domestic epidemic. Meanwhile, as other nations and regions of the world were focused on managing the crisis, China was carefully ‘salami slicing’ away at its interests, to the point where it now feels emboldened enough to directly threaten Taiwan.
China’s ambitions in the region have created a challenge for the U.S. military, perhaps for the first time since the end of the Cold War there is a credible threat in the naval domain. The U.S. Navy has taken several approaches to counter China’s threat in recent years. It has shifted a greater percentage of its Pacific fleet towards general presence, training, engagement, and cooperation in the SCS and ECS regions. It has demonstrated cooperation and engagement with both allied and neutral navies of nations in the Indo-Pacific. It has shifted its best ships and personnel to the region. The U.S. Navy has increased surveillance and patrolling activities in the region. It has invested into and accelerated development of new technologies and ships for future deployment to the region. It has shifted its fleet structure for better response and flexibility. The Navy is also developing new operational concepts and strategies to counter China’s A2/AD shield. Diplomatically, the U.S. and its allies consistently push for China to end its aggressive stance, with sanctions being potentially used more often as a response.
Looking into the future, it is unlikely that China will stop its expansion, tactics, or ambitions. In fact, it is more emboldened and determined than ever before, under the leadership of its strongest general secretary since Mao Zedong himself. Xi Jinping has tremendous dreams for Chinese hegemony, and he has built a domestic and global system that will help the country get there before the end of the century. Current U.S. actions can only incrementally slow down or deter Chinese expansion and challenge. That can only be possible if the whole global community sanctions China, but so many countries of the world depend on Chinese manufacturing and trade, they are willing to appease its regional ambitions. Furthermore, there is much global political divisiveness, and the U.S. is no longer the undisputed leader or has the global respect it once had, largely due to its own domestic politics and weak leadership. It is highly unlikely; the world will unite against China to limit its ambitions. The more realistic scenario is that
China’s recent military growth and naval expansion poses a significant risk to regional security and U.S. military interests. As China strives to achieve its goal of becoming a regional and global power, it is pursuing a military route to serve as the enforcer to its political and economic influence. That is gravely concerning because if left unchecked, many of the regional island nations that have traditionally been U.S. allies could succumb to China’s influence or even, as Taiwan, be annexed through military force. In the long-term of global hegemony and the dangerous tensions between two nuclear powers poses a risk of potentially provoked conflict and massive casualties of a military conflict. The U.S. recognizes this and has begun to develop and implement various strategies to keep China at bay and maintain U.S. presence in the region as a counterbalance to the powerful force of the PLA. Therefore, it depends on China in the future how far they are willing to go to enforce their interests at the cost of a potential world-splitting conflict.
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