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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on December 15th, 2005

The latest Congressional Research Service report on the Chinese Navy requires the attention of everyone seriously interested in Asian and global security issues. It describes a new and increasingly powerful force, being created at a very rapid pace, the mission of which is not at all clear.

Although the report focuses on facts—for which it turns repeatedly to the work of IASC Vice President Richard Fisher—it also answers some long standing  questions about the security future of the region, while raising others.

The question this important report answers is whether or not, in the period of change that followed the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, China was going to seek strong military power.

For decades specialists in America argued about this, with the consensus being that China would not emphasize her military. The rationale for this view was that, given its immense and impoverished population, China would emphasize above all peaceful economic development and the improvement of living standards. Furthermore, it was noted, China faced no security threats, so spending money on the military would make no sense. Some people, this author among them, questioned the consensus opinion but were always a small minority.

That minority, however, has turned out to be right, while the previous consensus is now clearly proven to be wrong. China is engaged in an enormously ambitious and expensive military build up, that includes not only (or even primarily) defensive weapons, but rather signals by its structure a concern with force projection, amphibious operations, and so forth.

China’s navy is building quickly, with a wide range of submarines, including missile firing nuclear craft, also advanced destroyers some carrying Russian-supplied supersonic anti-ship missiles against which U.S. carriers have no defense, others fitted with what is essentially U.S. Aegis radar technology, evidently obtained through espionage. Aircraft carriers appear to be next on the menu.

Some will undoubtedly continue to maintain that what we are seeing is simply routine force modernization, necessary after decades of neglect, but this view is hard to square with the facts which, as any reader of this report will I suspect conclude, speak rather loudly for a different interpretation.

The question is why China has decided to pour so many resources into naval power—and not naval power alone: her air force, army, and missile and military space programs are also being pushed forward rapidly.

Those who did not expect China to build up her military, at least at this rate, are of course absolutely right that poverty is a far more serious problem for a country. They are also correct that no state actively threatens China militarily. Given these facts, how are we to account for China’s remarkably active military program?

The inability of the Qing dynasty to deal with military challenges from the Japanese and from the West convinced many Chinese that military modernization was essential. The Qing made huge advances in the “self strengthening movement.” After the Qing abdicated in 1912 the military leader who took power, Yuan Shikai, chose educational and military development as his two primary objectives. The Nationalist government, which came to power in 1927, continued that stress, and developed a substantial military industrial complex, while modernizing its forces with the assistance of German experts. Even before Mao Zedong had taken power in China he was already considering ways of strengthening her militarily. Once he won power, he pushed forward the development the military, in particular nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

These capabilities gave the People’s Republic of China a strong sense of military confidence, particularly when coupled with her huge conventional forces. The Korean War was read in Peking as a victory. Nor did China’s extensive participation in the Vietnam War do anything  to shake her confidence. Thus, in 1991 when the US prepared to liberate Kuwait, China was confident that Iraq would do well.

The astonishing success of America’s new generation of weaponry alerted China and the world that warfare had changed and, unfortunately, led previously complacent powers, China most conspicuously, to seek to catch up,

China also has various territorial disputes with her neighbors, including Korea, Japan, Taiwan, India, and the countries around the South China Sea. Why Peking insists on her claims, most of which are fairly flimsily grounded, instead of negotiating them, is puzzling. But clearly the desire to be able, for example, to conquer Taiwan, or take control of islands in the South China Sea, or the Senkakus/Diaoyutai which are disputed with Japan, is important.

Beyond this are domestic reasons. Military development has always been integral to communist regimes, as it was to the fascist regimes of Europe in the last century. Military discipline, military spectacle, and the desire to be able to use force both internally and against foreign countries all contribute to this.

Para-military formations have always been an important tool for organization and control in China. During the Cultural Revolution, the “Red Guards” battled one another until finally the real military stepped in to restore control.

After Mao Zedong’s death, however, Peking emphasized the military less. True, she invaded Vietnam in 1979, but that proved less than fully successful. In certain ways she signaled a lack of military intent, for example with respect to Taiwan, against which no major military deployments were made.

But the unexpected development of the democracy movement in 1989 and its bloody suppression changed the domestic situation. On one hand, the people were clearly enraged by the Tiananmen massacre and unless their attention could somehow be diverted would threaten the regime. On the other hand, the army was ashamed of the role it had played, killing innocent students instead of China’s enemies.

The result was a twofold approach that continues today.

To distract the people, the government began a campaign of nationalistic assertion, including flag raisings, parades, needless quarrels with neighbors such as Japan—and most importantly, a program of xenophobic indoctrination in the schools, of aiguozhuyi jiaoyu or “patriotic education.” Nearly twenty years later, this has produced a crop of young Chinese deeply angry and resentful about the wrongs their country has suffered, disposed to be anti-foreign, eager for assertion—and gravely misinformed about history.

To mollify the military, the PLA was given a mission—to be able to conquer Taiwan—and an immense budget that permitted the purchase of a wide range of advanced weaponry and technology from abroad.

So even in the absence of a credible military threat, the PRC began a major military build up.

This CRS report now documents the very impressive progress China has made in her naval development. No one who takes aboard what this report has to say will have difficulty understanding why many of China’s neighbors are becoming apprehensive. Nor should they be surprised as other Asian states begin modernizing their militaries in response.

Related Links
   China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities — Background and Issues for Congress (PDF)

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