China's military development offers costs and benefits for its neighbors and the world. To understand why, look at two factors: technology and geography.
In the contested "near seas" off China's coast (the Yellow, East China, and South China seas), Beijing is exploiting new developments to target neighboring militaries' vulnerabilities -- as well as those of the U.S., the Asia-Pacific's ultimate security guarantor.
This appears to be where Beijing is spending the vast majority of its $132 billion official defense budget -- already the world's second largest by any measure. China declines to provide even the simplest breakdown of its spending categories, but analysts can derive a rough idea from what it is buying and building. From a U.S. and allied perspective, some of the most formidable systems include:
- Conventional ballistic missiles, which now outnumber nuclear missiles 7:1.
- Cruise missiles, including advanced supersonic variants that the U.S. lacks.
- Other precision munitions, including long-range artillery.
- Quiet, conventionally-powered submarines.
- Surface ships with improved air defenses.
- Increasingly advanced combat aircraft.
- Surveillance and communications systems to knit everything together.
The bottom line: you don't have to count all the beans to see that China is making a potent "keep out" soup. In the oceans beyond, which China calls the "far seas," Beijing lacks island or maritime claims. This makes its interests more compatible with other nations, and it seeks to cooperate, albeit cautiously.
It also has military vulnerabilities that are too difficult and expensive to fix anytime soon. Although it will remain a major power in its region, China's economic growth is slowing even as it assumes some of the same costs that bedevil defense planners in mature economies: Personnel costs mushroom while the cost of maintaining hardware numbers amid technological change greatly outpaces inflation.
Beijing's leaders know that they cannot do everything equally well. The way they order their priorities explains one of the fundamental contradictions of our time: a China that increasingly challenges its neighbors and drives regional defense spending, yet is increasingly a force for stability further away.
China's Zhuhai adirshow in November provided the latest illustration of the nation's epic story of post-Cold War military development: Beijing has combined defense industrial development and foreign technology to exploit the missile and sensor revolution that is changing the ways of war by making offensive action far easier and cheaper than defense, in many respects.
By investing in advanced ballistic and cruise missiles, for instance, China forces potential adversaries to expend greater resources to demonstrate their ability to defend themselves. Plotting the ranges of China's most advanced weapons reveals dense layers of coverage over the near seas and beyond.
The message Beijing is trying to send to the region and the U.S. is clear: Washington's alliance structure, which formerly prevented China from pursuing its claims, is no longer reliable. Beijing hopes that by demonstrating a capability to make conflict unacceptably costly, it can dissuade Washington from intervening. It might then persuade neighbors to settle disputes bilaterally on terms favorable to Beijing, and to accept China's emergence as a preponderant regional power. So far, Washington has pushed back with its Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, but the challenge is on.
Far from the contested near seas, by contrast, threats to China's growing overseas interests are forcing Beijing to find new ways to safeguard them, often cooperatively. 19 anti-piracy task force operations in the Gulf of Aden since December 2008 represent the Chinese navy's first operational deployment overseas.
The evacuation of 35,000 citizens from Libya in March 2011 was China's largest non-combatant evacuation operation to date, and the first to which China's air force and navy both contributed. Mekong River security patrols since December 2011 marked China's first deployment of domestic security personnel beyond its borders.
PLA the global peacemaker
China's move to safeguard Syrian chemical weapons in the Mediterranean on their way to destruction in 2014 likely heralds a new approach to international security cooperation. As part of increasingly active contributions to the United Nations, the People's Liberation Army has sent more than 22,000 military personnel on UN peacekeeping missions, more than any other permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Deploying China's first combat troops under UN auspices to Mali in late 2013 similarly foreshadows greater intensity and diversity of contributions. These efforts either enhance international security, or are universally accepted measures to protect Chinese lives and property.
Beijing's anti-piracy contributions are a case in point. Through periodic meetings in Bahrain, China has coordinated productively with the U.S. Navy and other Gulf of Aden security providers. These meetings, and interactions among Chinese and other officers and personnel off the Horn of Africa, offer the basis for future cooperation.
Indeed, despite the ongoing near seas challenges, the U.S. and Chinese navies, sometimes working with other security partners, have engaged in anti-piracy exercises not only in the Gulf of Aden but also off the U.S. west coast and Hawaii, and even in the South China Sea.
China's military development brings challenges and opportunities. Challenged by China's growing might, neighbors seek to bolster their own capabilities. Those that enjoy alliances with the U.S. have solid security options; all seek better weapons and personnel.
Beyond the region, China's military development is a net positive. Its contributions to international security in the Gulf of Aden are likely the first of many. Even as combined efforts have suppressed Somali piracy, the Gulf of Guinea has emerged as a new locus of piracy and other disruptions by malevolent non-state actors.
The region's increasing energy exports, amid sectarian terrorism and vulnerability to pandemic diseases such as the Ebola virus, underscore the importance of nations cooperating to provide security support, in forms acceptable to local countries.
The desire to cooperate with willing nations to ensure the security of the world's shared resources, and thereby the effective functioning of the global system, is a central tenet of U.S. policy.
The book on China's growing efforts to safeguard its citizens and property while making vital international security contributions is still being written. But the first chapter makes for compelling reading. Moreover, this is part of a multivolume series to which many other nations are making their own vital contributions. The vast oceans offer countless opportunities for enhancing security, especially by acting together.
The key question is: Can China, the U.S., and other nations cooperate in the "far seas" even as the U.S. and its allies and partners ensure that "near seas" disputes are not resolved by force, or threats of force? That pivotal chapter is now taking shape, with no room for rewriting if the first draft fails.
Andrew S. Erickson is an associate professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College and a founding member of the department's China Maritime Studies Institute. He is also an associate in research at Harvard University's John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.