As expected, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense earlier this week reacted with indignation at the contents of the Pentagon’s latest report on the Chinese military, released last week.
Like in previous years, Chinese officials deplored what they saw as a misrepresentation and unfair depiction of China’s military development, adding that US officials were “deliberately playing up the imbalance” of military power in the Taiwan Strait to justify arms sales to Taiwan.
At a press conference on Monday, Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng (耿雁生) assured the world that, contrary to what the Pentagon report suggested, the Chinese military is developing “for the exclusive purpose of safeguarding the country’s sovereignty, security and developmental interests,” and that Beijing has “firmly adhered to a peaceful development path and adopted a defense policy that is wholly defensive in nature.”
There is no denying that China is a rising power and that it should be allowed to develop a military that is commensurate with its economic might and growing role internationally. As such, a large share of the billions of dollars it has injected into the military in the past decade has gone toward revamping what not so long ago was a ramshackle army that could no longer meet the requirements of a major regional — and increasingly global — player.
What undercuts Geng’s reassurances is the fact that this development is showing signs that it is going well beyond a purely defensive posture. News that the People’s Liberation Army has embarked on a program to build at least three aircraft carriers over the next seven years — a hugely expensive endeavor, especially as China has no experience building such platforms — raises the specter of a navy that intends to exert its influence well beyond China’s shores. To this we add a growing fleet of modern destroyers, nuclear submarines and an arsenal of conventional and ballistic missiles of various ranges.
Again, critics of the Pentagon report could resort to moral equivalence by pointing out that other countries, such as the US and Russia, have similar — in fact, far greater — military capabilities, and that China is entitled to have those as well.
However, the problem with that line of argument derives from how one defines China’s “defensive policy.” While it is normal for countries to feel jittery whenever a new regional hegemon arises, such apprehensions can usually be assuaged through political signaling and self-restraint on the part of the mightier party.
For the good part of the first decade of the 21st century, China did remarkably well in that regard, behavior that in part was the result of knowledge on Beijing’s part that it had yet to develop a military capable of taking on regional competitors.
This has since changed, especially in terms of naval capabilities, and countries like Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam are now aware that should it decide to do so, China could fight a war with them and expect to win. Consequently, long-simmering disputes over contested islets in the South China Sea and exclusive economic zones, which in the past could not escalate beyond the occasional skirmish, could now be resolved once and for all through military means.
And as a rising power that has observed how other great powers have behaved in the past, China could very well reach the conclusion that it, too, is entitled to use force to achieve desired political outcomes. After all, the US in 2003 launched a “defensive”— or “pre-emptive” — war against Iraq, while Russia did much the same in its war on “terrorism” in Chechnya, or “separatism” in Georgia.
When China’s regional claims encompass pretty much the entire South China Sea, countries with interests in the area can be forgiven for having doubts about what Beijing means when it says “purely defensive.”
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