Expanding arms race

Expanding arms race

Chinese ambitions are growing and it now has the wherewithal to protect and enhance those interests in the South China Sea.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army will be getting rid of 3,00,000 soldiers from its ranks in a bid to shed dead weight, reduce overhead, and use the savings to buy more high-tech ships, planes, and make its army leaner and more professional.

But even with these cuts the Chinese military – which currently has more than two million troops – will remain the largest in the world. While the army might be getting downsized, China’s ambitions in the region are expanding, and the move is largely about jettisoning the burdensome Soviet-era command structure and making the overall force more agile.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the cuts in a public address after a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the country’s victory over Japan in World War II last week. Marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the parade was a chance for Xi to stir his country’s nationalist feelings and also to assert his own authority by announcing plans to restructure China’s bloated military.

The savings will be used to pay for new modernisation programmes in the Chinese navy and air force, as well as funding cyber operations and raising the pay and living conditions for those who the military most wants to keep.

The Chinese military parade – its greatest so far – was aimed at delivering multiple messages. For the domestic Chinese populace, the Chinese Communist Party underlined its centrality not only in the nation’s past when the Japanese invaders were tackled effectively but, more importantly, now when China seems to be moving closer to achieving the status of a great power.

For international audience, and in particular for the region, the message of the Chinese leadership was also clear: Chinese ambitions are expanding and it now has the wherewithal to protect and enhance those interests be they in the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, the South China Sea or the larger Indo-Pacific.

One important aspect of the parade was the first public appearance of the Dongfeng 21D “carrier-killer” ballistic missile. The US military is increasingly concerned about the DF-21D, as its speed makes it difficult for vessels to defend against. The DF-26 with a range of over 5,000 km, allowing it to reach anywhere in the South China Sea as well as the US naval base in Guam, was also on display.

There remain still many unanswered questions about the future trajectory of the new Chinese reform programme including what it means for the top-heavy leadership structure and what role the reserves and the country’s civilian militias will play in national defence and projecting Chinese power abroad.

But what remains certain is that the Chinese military of the near-future will be very different from the Chinese military of the recent past. And this will predictably cause consternation in the region and beyond. Already, regional powers are responding to the rise of China in several ways.

Japan has reconfigured its defence orientation from deterrence of a Soviet invasion from the north to a ‘dynamic defence force’ capable of rapid response to threats anywhere in Japan – especially defending or retaking the remote southwestern islands facing China. In 2014, Japan’s defence budget grew by 2.2 per cent, its first rise in over a decade.

The Abe administration has also loosened a decades-old ban on arms exports and ‘re-interpreted’ Japan’s constitution so that the Japanese Self-Defence Force could come to the assistance of allies and friends in conflicts, partially lifting a longstanding, self-imposed prohibition on collective self-defence.

Indeed, under the aegis of ‘proactive contribution to peace,’ Abe has presided over the greatest upgrade to US-Japan defence cooperation in decades. His government has also stepped up cooperation with Southeast Asian countries entangled in maritime disputes with China, helping Vietnam and the Philippines to acquire patrol vessels and professionalise their coast guards.

Spying on China
China’s disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea and its willingness to assert those claims with a military build-up has rattled some countries in the region, pushing them towards greater military cooperation with the United States. The US has reached an agreement with Malaysia to let American P-8 Poseidon and P-3 Orion spy planes use airbases in the country to spy on China’s activities in the waters off Malaysia's coast.

The Philippines has also welcomed the US plan to deploy air and naval assets to the country as part of the next phase of Washington’s rebalance to the region. The US troops are likely to have access to at least eight Philippine military bases under the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed last year between the two states.

In a sign of warming US ties with Hanoi, Washington has partially lifted a 40-year ban on providing lethal military support to Vietnam in order to enhance its maritime security. The arms embargo was a major stumbling block on the American side of the road to closer US-Vietnam relations. In a significant change in the communist regime’s attitude toward Washington, Hanoi has decided to allow the US Peace Corps to operate in Vietnam.

India too has been recalibrating its regional ties at this time of great strategic flux. China’s display of its military might should once again prod New Delhi to invigorate its defence policy and diplomacy to tackle the rising dragon in its vicinity. The Narendra Modi government has made a good start but much more needs to be done.

(The writer is Professor of International Relations, King’s College London)

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