07 February 2019

China - a dragon which does not swim in deep waters. Yet! (I)

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Image source: Mediafax

A nation used to solve its security issues in a soft, but also defensive way, finds out that it is more and more linked to the international challenges and issues ● President Trump’s firmness in taking decisions against China was, probably, a surprise to Beijing ● The immediate reality of the military costs could mean that Beijing is not a concern for Washington ● The US is trying to counteract, using the same priority order established by China’s founding father, Deng Xiaoping, after 1978 ● China’s fourth “modernization” could end US’s global military hegemony.

“The one who wants to fight must know when to do it and when not”

An old Chinese saying says: “Good iron does not make nails; good men don’t make soldiers”. Although the recent Chinese movies are promoting a spectacular mythology about China’s military past, wherein the local heroes are fighting like American cowboys, the differences being related to equipment (the Colt pistol vs the Qing bow), tridimensional duels, guns and uniforms glow, the military duty was not something that young Chinese with abilities and possibilities wanted in the past. The Chinese generals and kings had to elaborate special laws to recruit militaries, and their lives were not spared, especially when talking about defending the Northern border and the Great Wall which were protecting the capital. Of course, great weaponries were invented in China, the Chinese bow (Confucius was also a training teacher for it), the gunpowder (centuries after that it was stolen by the Europeans, hence, the Chinese had to import cannons from the Portuguese in Macao, to equip their own troops). But China’s military power, usually, did not last too long.

Not even the Chinese thinkers, who have marked China’s evolution and who are still influencing millions of young Chinese through their wisdom, were not promoting a warrior culture. Confucius was saying that the greatest general is the one who can win the war without battling. General Sun Tzu’s perspective was quite different though: “The one who wants to fight must know when to do it and when not”, or “The art of war consists in stopping enemy’s plans, breaking its alliances, and only afterwards attacking its army”.

However, even when we are talking about a five thousand years history mirrored by four decades, the latter can show dramatic changes. The openness, the globalization is transforming even the military options, war’s culture, its training. A nation which is educated to a softly and defensively way to solve its security challenges finds out that is becoming more and more connected to the international challenges and issues. It is definitely not alone in this regard. And the competitors, whether military, economic or social, are discovering that Beijing does not want to create highways only to South of the Great Wall, or to export only through the old Silk Road, or to forget that hundred years ago the Chinese Empire had a fleet which was dominating the two oceans related to the Asian Plateau, or that kite’s inventor, the precursor of aviation was, of course, Chinese. If someone do not want to forget that, for the other one is quite hard to accept it.

China, China, China

The new acting Secretary of Defence, Patrick Shanahan, took over the position in the first days of 2019, at the moment when there were celebrations for four decades since the regulation of the American-Chinese relations.  In his first meeting with Pentagon’s representative staff, he asked for the focus on US’ National Defence Strategy and on the competition with the other international powers, stating, for anyone who was still in doubt, that “there is no loyal competition, there is just competition”, and the name of the main competitor is “China, China, China”. Crystal clear!

The stance against China is one of Trump’s Administration most clear option. White House’s last stance and decisions are revealing, briefly, that US’s foreign policy is following two main elements:

  • Competitor, enemy, opponent’s economy capacity to encumber the American economy, to compete against the US;
  • The military potential and security threat against the US;

The three major international actors which can counter the US are:

  • Russia - the military potential significant/similar on mutual annihilation fields but regional economy;
  • The European Union - strong economy, some powerful national armies but the rest of it…
  • China - growing economy (in 2023, probably, the first in the world), armed with ambitions to dominate the close water space but also the cyber one.

Only one of the them is actually competing with the US in both fields. Only one of the three has a clearly growth in both areas, and also the ascendant of an highly positive payments balance in bilateral trade exchanges.

In these circumstances, the reaction of the ex-Boeing official, who became Pentagon’s chief, is natural and in line with president Trump’s approaches. Equally natural is also the launch of the CHINA MILITARY POWER / Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win, for the first time, on 15th of January 2019, created by the Defence Intelligence Agency / DIA.

The report, which is following the model founded in the 80’, when the DIA was releasing annual projections for URSS’s military power, is analyzing China’s evolutions from the military domain, the current situation, perspectives, showing, through numbers and arguments regarding the technological evolutions, that is building a “robust, lethal force with capabilities spanning the air, maritime, space and information domains which will enable China to impose its will in the region. (…) As it continues to grow in strength and confidence, our nation’s leaders will face a China insistent on having a greater voice in global interactions, which at times be antithetical to U.S. interests.” The statement comes from the DIA chief, general lieutenant Robert P. Ashley Jr., and it is incorporated in report’s preface.

Military budgets, just one part of the currency

President Trump’s firmness in taking decisions against China was, probably, a surprise to Beijing. The Chinese authorities were getting used to a permissive treatment in the economic relations and with a reflexive - concerning the military ones. The most obvious benchmark to be considered when talking about the military capabilities of a country is the military budget. A 2019 forecast looks as follows:

US                 $ 716 billion             3.7% from GDP
China            $ 224 billion             1.9% from GDP
India              $ 55.2 billion             2.5% from GDP
Germany       $ 49.1 billion             1.3% from GDP
Great Britain  $ 47.5 billion           2.1% from GDP
Japan            $  47 billion               `0.9% from GDP
Russia           $  44 billion               2.8% from GDP
France           $ 40.5 billion             1.8% from GDP

Saudi Arabia and South Korea are not listed here among the first 10 states with the biggest military budgets. We can see that US is dominating this list, but, equally obvious is that the following is China, which has increased the budget comparing to the other states. As much as important are the following aspects:

  •  budget’s increase rate: in the last 15 years, the Chinese military budget has increased with around 10% annually, except for the last years, while all other states budgets have recorded increases of only 1-2%:
  • having an economic increase which could double the Chinese GDP by 2030 (China $43 trillion vs US $24 trillion), the moment when China’s military budget will outclass US’s one seems to be close. Even with not increasing the GDP percentage for defence;
  • with an exceptional budget like US’, equally extraordinary are the costs for the foreign military infrastructure (around $ 50 billion, according to some estimations) for the few hundreds of bases dislocated throughout the world. China has, for now, only a single foreign military base, in Djibouti, company level;
  • US’ costs for the military personnel and for the few million veterans are outclassing the total of the Chinese budget;

The immediate reality of the military costs could suggest that Beijing is not a concerning subject for Washington. The evolution tendencies from this field, the new directions China is promoting its security interests are, however, the ones to have released the alarm.

The competition starts to be tense.  Military, but, mainly, economic.

The recent retaliation measures taken by China against Canada, although unofficial, are showing that Beijing wants to deter other states which, following US’ example, could impose taxes for Chinese products imports or event to block, for security reasons, these products` entry on the internal market.

The economic conflict has escalated in the past two years, ending with US’ decision, from March 2018, to impose supplementary taxes on China’s imports worth of $ 250 billion. China responded with countermeasures. Not equally, still waiting to see how the situation will be like at the end of the three months negotiations deadline agreed by the two leaders, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, during the meeting in Argentina at the G 20 summit. A period that will end in March. Until then, they will strike through the allies.

The stake is huge and it is not economic-based. The Chinese products are getting where there is no Chinese military presence yet. The price decreased, the lack of trade constraints is creating dependencies on Beijing, especially for the developing states, but not only.

Acting offensively in blocking China’s influence economically and commercially, the US is trying to counteract, using the same priority order established by China’s founding father, Deng Xiaoping, after 1978. The four “modernizations” he envisioned were, as follows: industry, science and technology, agriculture and the army. The military domain was the fourth, being the beneficiary of the beforemost domains’ accomplishments. This approach had the following consequences:

  • for some decades, China was seen only as an economic competitor which does not have the force, nor the will to promote its security interests, through military methods, beyond its territorial waters or just in punctual border conflicts with some of the neighbors;
  • Chinese products’ direction, and the investments, uppermost towards the developing states, especially from the Southern continents, has created the feeling that Beijing is avoiding the global economic competition;
  • the dependency on energetic imports from the Gulf area or from Russia were seen as a vulnerability which will dull the increasing Chinese economy and will provoke issues for its increasing rates;
  • the excessive centralization of the modernization process was seen as a brake for it, following the principle that for any decision you must have an alternative, the development involving free trade, and the latter competition;
  • the accelerated economic increase will bring economy’s climax, will create gaps between the economic fields, regions, the urban area and the rural one, will be transformed in a system crisis.

For each of the listed aspects, the evolutions were quite different from the speculated ones:

  • China already built a complex military infrastructure in the first islands` ring, extended from the Senkaku Islands, to East of Taiwan, up to the South China Sea. Beijing already started the projection of its naval power through exercises and weaponries in the areas of Guam and Philippines;
  • the Chinese investments in the developed states already have created a Western dependency on the funds and loans offered by Beijing, and the taxes and costs imposed by some states are creating the idea that these are actually avoiding the competition with China;
  • the energy imports sources were diversified, the connection with Russia was strengthened, being mutually necessary, and China is one of the main clean energy producers from ecological sources. Economy’s increasing rate had only in the past two years one digit only, but it remained among the highest in the world;
  • ther Chinese Communist Party leading the modernization process did not create the speculated dysfunctionalities. The party has evolved towards the model of a national corporation which takes care of its members, but it is concerned also by maintaining nation’s cohesion, by avoiding the social faults or between the village and city, directing its efforts towards the fight against internal corruption or from state’s structures;
  • the accelerated economic increase rate has continued, Beijing upkeeping the control over the distribution of the economic profit shares in order to not increase disparities, breaches, it has avoided potential crisis, the system is functioning.

More than four decades after the moment when the four “modernizations” were imposed, the conclusion is that the first two are already producing effects, the third has outclassed the rice bowl level offered to each Chinese citizen, and the fourth is already collecting what has been produced in industry, science and technologies domains.

Such decisions taken by Trump’s Administration, maybe the most important regarding US’s security, are not just a reflex of the business approach the president is accused of, but also a recognition of the fact the China’s “fourth modernization” could end US’s global military hegemony.

The releasing of the CHINA MILITARY POWER / Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win report, by the Defence Intelligence Agency / DIA, at the beginning of this year, responds to this warning raising approach regarding the security challenge that China is for US’s global power status.

The Chinese military capabilities, tendencies, doctrines for different forces categories, existent or projected, are analyzed with dates and diagrams. Also, it is analyzed the switch from “a defensive, inflexible, ground-based force charged with domestic and peripherical security responsibilities to a joint, highly agile, expeditionary, and power-projecting arm of Chinese foreign policy that engages in military diplomacy and operations across the globe”.

We will be presenting you all of these in the second part of this analysis, elaborated exclusively for the Defence and Security Monitor.




3)https://www.opendemocracy.net/paul-rogers/us-decline-military-calculus Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper