Despite growing concerns over China’s military capabilities, it has also been called a “paper dragon.”
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China a local threat rather than a global one
These two ideas are key when evaluating China and its aims, as well as assessing the threat it poses to the existing geopolitical situation. The U.S. Defense Department writes that Beijing is working towards “securing China’s status as a great power and, ultimately, reacquiring regional preeminence,” in its 2015 report on China.
Despite the lack of immediate military threat on a global level, there are dangers in the relationship between the two nations, primarily in the western Pacific. China’s territorial claims are a source of tension, but despite high-tech equipment the Chinese army lacks recent combat experience.
Although significant doubts remain over China’s ability to fight on a global scale, it seems that Beijing will concentrate its efforts around the country’s borders, particularly in the China seas, where its handicaps would be masked.
Active defense doctrine evolving
Since the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, China’s defense philosophy has been largely defensive. Even after fears of another land invasion from the USSR abated, the “active defense” philosophy implemented in the 1980s still focused on defensive action, and short-range, defensive forces.
“We attack only after being attacked,”wrote the Chinese Navy. That objective is still being pursued today, although the territory covered by the idea has been extended significantly further from China’s shores.
It is important to remember that as a result of the active defense doctrine, China has invested primarily in short-range defensive weaponry. It is remarkable to think that China’s 1,500 fighter jets are supported by only a few aerial tankers which can greatly increase their range. In contrast, the U.S. has over 500 tankers to support its fleet of 2,800 fighter jets.
While the Chinese navy boasts 300 warships, second only to the 500-strong U.S. Navy and Military Sealift Command, it too is a short-range force. The range of the Chinese navy is severely constricted by the fact that Beijing commands just 6 logistics ships which can refuel and resupply other ships. By way of comparison, the U.S. has 30 vessels of this kind.
Chinese forces possess great short range strength
As a result of the focus on short-range forces, China’s troops are far less effective when forced to fight away from their bases. This situation is compounded by the fact that China’s lack of close allies means that overseas bases are very rare.
The idea that China would send forces across the globe to confront the U.S. is fantasy. The priority for Beijing is securing greater power and respect in its own backyard, and right now that means the South China Sea.
In this arena, China’s short-range forces would pose serious problems for the United States. Beijing would be able to concentrate huge numbers of forces in a small geographic area, overwhelming the technically superior, yet badly outnumbered, U.S. adversary.
The potential for conflict is influenced by China’s definition of what would constitute an attack. Most people believe that Washington would not attack China, and therefore the chances of war are slim given the active defense doctrine. However if an attack on Chinese interests is taken to be worthy of defensive action, the risk of conflict increases exponentially.
South China Sea developing into considerable headache
China’s definition of its interests is growing wider, and so too are the areas which it considers part of its territory. The recent land reclamation projects in the South China Sea mean that Beijing now has a foothold in the disputed area. As a strategic shipping lane which also contains rich fishing grounds, and potentially vast reserves of oil and natural gas below its surface, the area is of great importance.
The construction of Chinese bases in the Spratly chain has decreased the possibility of a peaceful resolution to competing territorial claims between China and Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan, among others.
Existing U.S. military alliances with Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam mean that Washington could be drawn into a conflict between China and any of those countries. Fighting China on its home turf is fraught with danger for the thinly spread U.S forces, and such an eventuality must be avoided.
At the same time, control of the western Pacific should not be surrendered to Chinese control. The challenge for U.S. officials is to maintain a position of strength in an area where China is increasingly challenging its primacy. Despite pronouncements about maintaining “a constructive relationship with China,” the U.S. is increasingly struggling to manage Chinese actions in the only region where Beijing poses a legitimate threat.
Although China is not a global threat, the combination of clear strategic goals and military power in the South China Sea is a real headache for the United States.