Commentary from J.L. Granatstein

China is a global economic and political power. Soon, it will be a military one, too

by J. L. Granatstein

National Post
May 14, 2015

A few days ago, the Office of the Secretary of Defence in Washington issued its annual report on Military and Security Developments Involving the Peoples Republic of China 2015. This is a sobering document, appearing within days of a contingent of Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers marching past Russian leader Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping in Moscow’s huge Victory Day parade. At the same time, and for the first time, Chinese navy ships are engaging in live-fire exercises in the Mediterranean Sea alongside Russian warships.

The authoritative U.S. document notes that Beijing’s defence expenditures continue to increase by 9.5 per cent a year, as they have done for the past decade. The Defense report concludes that China remains focused on the possibility of conflict in the Taiwan Straits — it has 400,000 soldiers, sailors and air personnel in the area — and in the East and South China Seas, with substantial military buildups also continuing there. The South China Sea archipelago of the Spratly Islands, claimed by Beijing, are undergoing extensive “land reclamation,” China creating what is now a 2,000 acre landmass out of what were hitherto essentially underwater shoals. Naval vessels will soon be able to dock there, and an airstrip is all but certain to be constructed. As the South China Sea is thought be ripe for mineral and oil exploitation and as parts of it are claimed by several Asian nations, this is a dangerous flashpoint, an area where Beijing’s “low-intensity coercion” can be expected to increase. In response, the Philippines and Vietnam are doing “land reclamation” projects of their own.

But China is also interested in more than its periphery, as the Mediterranean naval exercises confirm. The American report notes that Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles can now reach targets in all of the United States, except for Florida. That capability, of course, includes reaching all of Canada too. Moreover, the People’s Liberation Army now fields MIRV missiles, carrying multiple nuclear warheads, and 42,000 drones are being purchased. The air force has new stealth fighters, reportedly based on stolen technology, and it is said to have plans to sell some such fighters abroad, part of China’s rapidly growing arms export trade. China already dominates the African arms market.

The rapidly expanding Chinese navy has its first aircraft carrier, nuclear submarines with intercontinental-range missiles, and new “carrier-killer” missiles designed to make U.S. Navy aircraft carriers keep their distance, or to sink them if they get within striking distance of Chinese territory. Moreover, China is building ships at speed. One commentator noted that China is talking of selling warships to Russia; its shipyards are capable of cranking out frigates seven times faster than Russia’s. If only the Royal Canadian Navy could be persuaded to secure its warships from China, Canada’s defence procurement problems could be solved quickly. Much more cheaply too.

However, another recent American report, issued in February 2015 by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission, another U.S. government agency, pointed to weaknesses in the Chinese military. There is widespread corruption, a lack of professionalism in the officer corps, and weak command structures, all of which would hamper operations. As serious, the Chinese army and air force suffer from serious logistical shortcomings, and there are still major deficiencies in long-range air transport capabilities. It will take years to rectify these weaknesses, but Xi Jinping, the country’s strong-willed leader who had made himself Chairman of the Central Military Commission, has made fixing these problems a priority.

Still, China is already the world’s second ranked military, and the West needs to talk to the Chinese generals and admirals. The American military already does so, and the 2015 report from the Office of the Defense Secretary lists an extensive range of consultations, visits, and joint exercises in Thailand, Indonesia, Mongolia and Australia. There are even plans for an exchange of navy commanding officers. The Canadian Armed Forces have also begun to develop some military-to-military links with the People’s Liberation Army, apparently including junior officer exchanges, and the two nations have participated together in the most recent RIMPAC naval exercises, alongside other Pacific Ocean fleets.

China is the rising nation, for now still mainly focused on protecting its own sphere. But increasingly, Beijing is looking to extend its reach abroad and to become recognized as a great power. China already has such recognition in trade and financial clout; it will certainly be a global military power within the next decade.

J.L. Granatstein is a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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