Chinese Military Capabilities

Interesting article from Defense News on US-Chinese relations.  The US CINC of Pacific Command has noted that Chinese naval forces have seemed less aggressive this year than they were last year, and offers a couple of explanations for why.  I have some thoughts on these explanations, but there is one other point that I also find particularly interesting:


First, and most broadly, this seems to represent an assessment of changes that occur within the span of a few months.  While any positive development is welcome, I think that it's presumptuous to view this sort of change as indicative of broader trends in US-Chinese relations.  These statements implicitly seem to be using the clashes between China and the US/Japan from last fall as a baseline for comparison.  This is problematic given that the spike in tensions last fall represented more of a departure from the normal level of assertiveness than this recent period of "calm" does.  I think the more interesting question to ask pertains to what caused the spike in assertiveness last fall.

Admiral Willard attributes the return to normalcy to a couple of different factors.  The first is the resumption of a more cooperative spirit in US-Chinese inter-military relations.  The second has to do with "strong statements" that have been made by Secretaries Gates and Clinton in response to increased Chinese belligerency.  China is certainly not looking to provoke any kind of substantial military confrontation with the US, so evidence of US assertiveness may have played a role in checking Chinese behavior.  That said, I think this may be a case of reading too much into the influence that one actor over another.  The spike in aggression, and the subsequent decline, may be largely unrelated to specific US actions.  The US is certainly a consideration given its dominant naval presence in the region, but much of China's behavior is also directed toward asserting its position with respect to neighboring powers.  Although demonstrating its willingess to resist the United States is certainly part of this process, so it may be appropriate to say that the spike in tensions is more directly related to the US than the decline.  Arguing that the US' actions have led to the decline in tensions supposes that Chinese authorities were going to maintain a higher level of belligerency from the outset.  However, assuming the spike in the fall served its purpose (say, demonstrate resolve) then there may be no need or desire on the part of China to maintain heightened levels of tension.  Basically, I question how much influence these sorts of exchanges really have on the behavior of another state, and how much of this simply reflects the basic internal processes and preferences of the Chinese government.

Aside from those two points, the part of this article that I found particularly interesting was the brief note that was made regarding China seeking to eventually deploy an aircraft carrier in the region.  Specifically, it's interesting to note that the carrier that the Chinese navy is looking to deploy is an old Soviet carrier that has been modified.  I think this is really indicative of two important things:

  1. This provides some information regarding the importance that China places on the distribution of its military capabilities.  Internal/land-based security forces (police and military) are, from what I know, far more developed than China's naval forces.  Using an old Soviet-era carrier seems to imply that China is unwilling, for whatever reason, to devote the resources necessary to the building of a "home-grown" carrier based fleet.  Granted, this could partially be out of the need for expediency.  However, this page, and this page, indicate that it takes about 5–7 years to build a Nimetz class carrier for the United States.  This time could probably be reduced considerably if we consider that the 5–7 year construction period is probably, in part, the result of the complicated nature of installing nuclear reactors that power the ship (50 years with one refueling stop?!).  If the Chinese were to begin by using less sophisticated technology for propulsion they could probably field their own carriers in significantly less time.  Given these considerations, I'm surprised that they have not yet deployed a carrier, and that the one they're still waiting on is an old Soviet model, as having the basic framework in place should significantly reduce the amount of time it takes to deploy. And if it doesn't, then why not build your own?  They certainly have the capital, manpower, and technology for it.
  2. By extension, I think this says something about the pace at which the Chinese military is developing.  US policymakers and pundits have been sounding the alarm regarding the threat that China poses, and is coming to pose, in terms of US dominance in the region.  But if they have yet to field their first used aircraft carrier, we may have more time in the diver's seat than we are often led to beleive.

I certainly agree that this carrier is a symbol of China's rising power, but we musn't forget that military leaders have a strong incentive to overestimate the threat posed by rival states for a variety of reasons.  There is obviously the budgetary incentive, but this is a really pesimistic view of the preferences of American military leadership.  Alternatively, nobody wants to be the one to get it wrong, so to speak.  American military leaders have a strong incentive to hype threats so as to ensure that civilian leadership takes it seriously enough to provide the resources necessary—obviously you don't want to go into war unprepared if you can avoid it.

However, America's position as the chief global power probably leads military officials to view potential conflicts in an exclusively American framework.  Rather, they assume that any trouble with China in the region will be a US-Chinese conflict.  It's easy to forget that China has several other states with which it shares borders.  Any rise in Chinese power is going to give these other states serious cause for concern.  So while the US is obviously going to be concerned about any growth in Chinese naval power, as this is likely to be the medium through which a US-Chinese conflict would occur, we shouldn't lose sight of the broader context.  That is, the relative weight that China places on its ground forces relative to its naval forces also says something about its priorities and the potential threat that it poses to US interests in the region.              

Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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