China's Military Is about to Go Global

The burgeoning need to protect commercial assets and Chinese nationals abroad will inevitably lead Beijing to develop new military capabilities and take on missions further afield. 

January-February 2015

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 noninterference principle as its 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 standoff 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. The United States has historically attempted to influence the outside world to ensure its safety, but Chinese leaders believe that strengthening the country internally enhances its national security. This difference in strategic thinking can lead to different preference rankings for the types of international issues that need to be addressed, and which aspect of an issue is the most disconcerting. For example, both the United States and China regard North Korean denuclearization and stability as imperative, but while the United States prioritizes the former, China considers the latter to be a higher priority. Last, abandonment of the nonintervention principle to facilitate its new global expeditionary mission would mean the potential for Chinese interference in areas where the United States may prefer China’s traditional hands-off approach.

 

EVEN IF China develops a more robust global expeditionary capability, regional contingencies will still be the focus of Chinese war planning. However, the breadth of capabilities the PLA will acquire to conduct expeditionary operations would endow it with other options it presently lacks, and therefore may tempt China to expand the scope of those operations over time. Many of the capabilities required for HADR operations, NEOs, peacekeeping and personnel recovery missions are dual-use—that is, they will also strengthen China’s traditional war-fighting capabilities against its weaker neighbors. Augmented sealift and airlift, advanced special-operations forces, a greater number of surface vessels and aircraft, and more experience for its troops could all encourage China to expand the scope of its interests and willingness to use force to protect those interests.

While the Chinese leadership may plan on building expeditionary forces primarily to address nontraditional threats, the increased capabilities may shape Chinese interests and preferred methods of achieving more contentious security objectives. Chinese strategists have already launched a debate about whether China should aspire to become a global military power. Currently, those debates are couched in discussions about how China should approach its territorial disputes, especially in the East and South China Seas. But influential thinkers such as Colonel Liu Mingfu, a former professor at the PLA National Defense University and author of China Dream, believe that China should aim to surpass the United States as the world’s top military power. Additionally, in a March 2010 newspaper poll, 80 percent of those surveyed responded positively to the question “Do you think China should strive to be the world’s strongest country militarily?” However, less than half of respondents approved of a policy to publicly announce such an objective.

The implications of a growth in Chinese power-projection capability for the United States and its regional partners are uncertain. China’s increased military role 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 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 by its nature contingent and uncertain. Current trends, if they continue, will prompt the Chinese leadership to develop a military capable of protecting Chinese interests and nationals globally, albeit on a limited scale. At the same time, a number of factors could change these trends. For example, if China were to engage in a war, even a small one, retrenchment and rebuilding might follow, which could delay the unfolding of this scenario. But as long as China persists in 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 and 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 course. Here comes the PLA.

Oriana Skylar Mastro is an assistant professor of security studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She would like to thank Elaine Li and Xingjun Ye for their research assistance.

Image: Flickr/olemiswebs/CC by-nc-sa 2.0

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