Arms race

Over the years, military expenditure has increased – and still is – in line with economic expansion. There’s no bellicose intent of course, but...

A protestor from League of Filipino Students and Kabataan (Youth) Party list group holds an effigy symbolising a missile and placards during a rally by more than a dozen students outside the Chinese Consulate in Manila's Makati financial district in the Philippines, February 19, 2016. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
A protestor from League of Filipino Students and Kabataan (Youth) Party list group holds an effigy symbolising a missile and placards during a rally by more than a dozen students outside the Chinese Consulate in Manila's Makati financial district in the Philippines, February 19, 2016. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

One of the main characteristics that China always tries to stress is the peaceful nature of its ascendancy. Beijing uses this aspect in order to reassure its stakeholders, whether it's in dealings linked to the New Silk Road, or in its relations with its Asian neighbours. Its economic clout, which has clearly led to an increase in its military potential, is instead one of the main reasons why Asian countries look to China with suspicion which, while they see China move fairly nonchalantly on the international diplomatic stage, nevertheless have to  then come to terms, within the Asian region, with a growing display of Chinese muscle.

During the course of the last legislative session, in March 2019, the National Assembly approved a defence budget which calls for an increase of about 7.5% of military expenses (a lower rise compared to the 8.1% posted in 2018). But more than the increase, at a first glance what is of more consequence is the complete overhaul that Xi Jinping is currently undertaking of its military forces in order to ensure that its army is up to the global challenges the China is likely to face in the coming future. To do this one first has to understand how the current administration views its military establishment, before analysing the kind of attitude Beijing is adopting towards the rest of Asia and particularly in the South China Seas and along the Indian-Chinese border, where it has always been a thorn in the side of its Indian neighbour. 

The reform of the army promoted by the Chinese president takes into account a few new developments: first of all the technological advances, which means new weapon systems can be deployed which strongly affect the general approach to military issues; secondly – and this is a crucial argument – the New Silk Road (BRI) initiative has radically changed China's military requirements: from now on China will have to be able to deploy very fast moving, agile forces, capable of operating in different environments and specialised in providing the kind of security that can guarantee Chinese investments and Chinese personnel engaged in overseeing the more strategic trade hubs along the Belt and Road Initiative. Therefore, the recent reform has completely restructured its armed forces, leading the PLA to reduce its actual units to just 300,000 by cutting its land forces and increasing the size of its naval and air force units. The restructuring – as specified in a report by the National Defence University Press – "mirrors the intention of strengthening the army to engage in joint land, sea, air and even space operations". A joint command has been created that integrates other more recent changes. The bolstering of its navy, an aspect that the United States finds most worrying, has been promoted in order to guarantee control over the South China Sea.

This is the area most at risk of the entire region, because there are many interests involved and because the recent militarisation activities undertaken by China have caused a suitably vigorous reaction from the United States (which has recently had its own B52 flying fortresses fly over stretches of this sea).

The last to file a complaint with Beijing has been Vietnam: on 28 May last Hanoi accused China of violating international legislation. "Vietnam – the statement of the Vietnam Foreign Minister Le Thi Thu Hang reads – has full legal and historical reasons for stating its "indisputable sovereignty" over the Paracels and Spratly archipelagos, and in compliance with international law we request that China comply with international legislation, recognise this sovereignty and avoid repetition of similar action that heightens tension in the area".

The South China Sea is strategically relevant for a number of reasons. Firstly, because one third of world trade ploughs through these waters, secondly, because its seabed is extremely rich in raw materials, and thirdly because some of the contested island represent a major economic resource – for example in the Philippines – for the local fishing industry. In the last five years China has exponentially increased its control over a number of atolls, going so far as developing military and civilian facilities along the entire length of the so called "nine point line", China's effective maritime border, as Beijing sees it. And as the Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte put it, China at this point has full control over the entire South China Sea. The problem is that an accident may happen at any time in these waters, due the extensive maritime traffic that involves all the countries in the area, including the United States.

On 8 March 2019, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, at a press conference held during the second session of the 13th National People's Assembly, stated that "the key to peace and stability in the South China Sea should be in the hands of the countries in the area. The Code of Conduct (COC) should be jointly formulated and shared by these countries. Currently, the minister added, the COC consultation process has been accelerated. The Chinese side has offered to establish responsibility within three years, or establish how things should move forward by the end of 2021. An increasing number of Asean countries have started to support and accept the Chinese proposal of accelerating the consultations". The problem is that Beijing, even in the South China Sea, doesn't seem too prepared to accept any decisions reached by anyone else, such as for example the ruling of the International Arbitration Court in The Hague which, in 2016, decided that the waters that China was claiming as its own were actually "international waters". A ruling that China has pretended to ignore, and has thus continued to upgrade its military presence in the area while using trade agreements to circumvent any diplomatic problems with the other countries.

But China's muscular attitude in the Asian area can also be seen in its relations with its Indian neighbour. Though both countries have increased their military budgets and New Delhi has always accused Beijing of engaging in a form of geopolitical encirclement towards India (the so called "thread of pearls"), in recent times the territorial disputes between the two have grown more pointed, adding to the potential risk of a much broader military clash. There are two areas that are currently being disputed: the province of Arunachal Pradesh and the region of Doklam (Donglang in Chinese), where last summer there was a dangerous escalation along the border between China and Bhutan.  In this case Bhutan itself was the focus of the problem: the country is formally allied to India, but has excellent relations with Beijing to which it is attracted owing to the Chinese capacity for investment, though it hasn't so far accepted to be part of the New Silk Road (another reason for friction between China and India, especially due to the China-Pakistan corridor which has particularly riled New Delhi). So a road building project on the Chinese side soon became a pretext for a number of skirmishes that always risk degenerating into something more problematic.

At the time not a shot was fired by the diplomatic stand-off lasted more than ten days. The reason for the clashes between the two regional giants are many and Beijing's efforts on this front are enshrined it its Belt and Road Initiative: Beijing, as in other parts of the world, tries to win over potential rivals using trade agreement tools which are supposed to lessen suspicion towards it. But its recent growth from a military perspective, displayed whenever it has the opportunity, has created a general climate of mistrust in Asia. The one thing that is coming to Beijing's aid right now is the current attitude of the United States: Trump's ditching of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), strongly advocated by Obama in order to isolate China commercially, has been viewed as a form of disengagement. This has meant that Beijing, in spite of everything, has once again become a point of reference for many Asian countries, despite the risks that its continued expansion entails.


This article is also published in the May/June issue of eastwest.

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