On rising powers, China’s Military Power and global security in the 21st Century

China’s rise represents the most important development in the changing global outlook since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. That event saw the emergence of a post-Cold War ‘interregnum’ – a period of almost twenty years of US-led ‘unipolarity’ – which was brought to a conclusion as the 2008 Global Financial Crisis rapidly spread through the international system. The end of the US-led ‘Unipolar Moment’ represents a return to normality in international relations, and as major powers rise in a multipolar order for the 21st Century, it is entirely possible that there will be a reassertion of traditional competition between states. Yet the distinction between the Unipolar interregnum and the new multipolar world is not clear. The after effects of the Global Financial Crisis continue, with Europe’s debt crisis, and the United States seeming inability to deal with mounting debt threatens a ‘second wave’ of economic calamity. China is not immune from these effects in an interdependent global economy, and its growth has slowed. The Chinese government also confronts a myriad of internal challenges which could slow its rise – though these are unlikely to bring that rise to a complete halt. Nor is the United States likely to forego its strategic primacy in key regions such as the Western Pacific. The Obama Administration’s decision to ‘strategically pivot’ to Asia in 2011 is the clearest indication that China’s rise will not see the US accept a re-emerging Middle Kingdom, but instead compete to maintain its interests. It is, after all, a Realist World.

That the international system is in transition as a mulipolar international order emerges to replace US-led unipolarity is clear to all. The rise of the ‘BRICs’ – Brazil, Russia, India and most importantly, China – contrasts with perceptions of the decline of traditional centres of power in the West and suggestions of the end of a ‘Vasco Da Gama’ era of Western global dominance. Although slowing since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, China’s economic growth in real terms of GDP has averaged 11.08% between 2003 and 2010, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) statistics. This compares to 1.6% for the United States over the same period. Although the United States economy continues to outsize China’s, and the US remains wealthier as a nation, China is rapidly catching the United States. China has long since surpassed Europe’s key economies, and in 2010, China surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy, and should current trends continue (even with a slower Chinese growth rate following the Global Financial Crisis), China looks set to eclipse the US economy certainly by 2030, if not considerably sooner.  In terms of diplomatic influence China is increasing its global influence, through playing a more assertive role in international organisations, and through expanding its diaspora in regions of strategic importance to China, notably those areas where China gets vital energy and commidities resources to sustain its economic growth, and thus reinforce the political legitimacy of the Chinese Government.

As China’s economy continues to grow rapidly, economic and industrial resources invested in sustaining Chinese military modernisation will increase accordingly, allowing China to undertake more ambitious capability development for its military and boosting its military-industrial capability. China’s military modernisation is already causing growing concern in the East Asia region, and beyond, given that it seems to be matched by an increasingly assertive posture in regions of dispute within Asia, and a growing confidence within China regarding its ability to fight and win ‘local wars under conditions of informationisation’. The 2012 Department of Defence Report to Congress on ‘Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China’ emphasizes that China’s military modernisation continues to focus ensuring the PLA is able to undertake core tasks – ‘to deter Taiwan from declaring independence, to deter, delay or deny US intervention in a Taiwan Straits crisis, and to defeat Taiwan in the event of hostilities’. The development of a range of military capabilities towards fulfilling this key task also contributes to allowing China to assert its interests in regional security disputes in areas such as the South China Sea and the East China Sea, and it is China’s rapid military modernisation in pursing these core tasks, along with a more assertive posture in protecting China’s interests that causes the greatest concerns across much of Asia. However the report also notes that China is developing capabilities to undertake Hu Jintao’s ‘new historic missions’ first outlined in 2004, which include protecting China’s expanding national interests and undertaking a more significant role in promoting peace and security through military operations other than war. These tasks include counter-piracy and counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peace support operations, and perhaps most importantly, the protection of critical sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) and securing vital space-based capabilities from interference. 

As China’s military modernisation progresses, there is an increasing likelihood of a degree of blurring between acquiring capabilities for core tasks such as Taiwan or for protecting China’s perceived interests in local disputes, and the types of capabilities required for the ‘new historic missions’. For example the development of power projection capabilities for naval forces is slowly emerging in the form of a nascent aircraft carrier programme; more sophisticated long-range submarine capabilities; and more capable air and space based intelligence, surveillance and reconniassance (ISR) capabilities. Yet gaps remain clear and China lacks long-range force sustainment capabilities for its naval forces. Although China continues to deploy warships to support counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden

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