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What allies and military resources does China have to project power on a global scale?

In six key fields China has a rapidly growing collection of military resources with which to project power globally. Although the United States military will remain as a whole superior for the foreseeable future China is increasingly able to function as a global leader equivalent or superior to the other UN Security Council members. Therefore in this article I will seek to show, focusing as the question asks on the military, that:

China is consolidating its regional hold and developing global power projection capabilities using her military’

I consider there to be six key fields for this:

  1. Overseas bases and partnerships
  2. Naval/Aerial Assets
  3. Allies
  4. Cyber power
  5. Polar power
  6. Space power

#1 Overseas bases and global operations:

China’s first official overseas base was established in Djibouti in 2017 in order to oppose piracy, conduct rescure operations, engage in peacekeeping, and of course all the general intelligence gathering one expects.[1] [2][3]

Of course, China has had an unofficial military presence in neighbouring countries since before then, such as its troops based in Tajikistan to secure the border and eliminate terrorists.[4] But for a country which for decades has hid its strength and bided its time Djibouti represents a massive policy shift, especially given the sheer distance.[5] Loudly placing troops halfway across the world is the diplomatic equivalent of ‘come on if you think you’re hard enough’ with a bit of ‘this town ain’t big enough for the two of us’.

Above: Trade map from EU4. Pretty accurate actually

But as nice as the new real estate is, China is keenly aware of how painfully long their border is and how far apart its interests are, and as a result is using military assets to pursue greater influence in every direction per my initial thesis.

One important distinction must be made however: though the following examples use military assets they are not always being used strictly to establish a greater military influence. Often soft or economic power plays into the decision to deploy assets.

China’s regional consolidation using military operations and partnerships:

  • Deepening ties with its best frenemy Russia through some of the largest war games in decades[6] and joint drills in the Baltic[7] – as in, Europe. That could go in either column of course but is largely a product of Russo-Sino ties and therefore I would consider it regional.
  • Defending and consolidating its claim in the South China Sea[8] through island construction and militarisation to secure the key trade route against potential opponents
  • Engaging in joint drills with ASEAN[9] to lessen regional tensions, and pursue greater trust
  • Claiming an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea,[10] a clear statement that the Senkaku/Diaoyu claim has not been abandoned and an implicit declaration that it seeks to limit the US’ traditional protection of Japan and South Korea.
  • The principal recipients of Chinese arms are neighbours such as but not limited to Pakistan, Thailand and North Korea.[11] Arms sales are dramatically increasing[12] Not only does this increase China’s regional sway but it is also an opportunity to see field tests of their products without risking PLA forces.

China’s global operations using military operations and partnerships:

  • Sending hospital ships as far as Venezuela[13] to build ties across the world. While this uses military assets it is aimed at improving China’s image as a responsible world power and gaining the trust of economic partners. For the PLA of 40 years ago this kind of extensive movement would be inconceivable
  • Polar operations, which will be discussed in section #5, have put China in a position to lead the next great scramble for land
  • China is and remains one of the largest contributors to UN peacekeeping efforts[14] with the goal of not only stabilising global hot sports but also showing that it is willing to co-operate with pre-existing global institutions[15]
  • Evacuating Chinese nationals from Yemen in 2015[16] – later loosely adapted into Operation Red Sea[17] heralded a new era of Chinese global operations

Above: Badass Operation Red Sea, you foreign devils

As such, it should be clear that China has become one of two regional leaders in the Asia-Pacific alongside America , and is taking its first actions as a world leader in the 21st century. It is in every direction using military assets to rapidly expand and develop its power projections, with promises to adopt nuclear-powered aircraft carriers[18]and rumours of a second port in Pakistan to become China’s foothold in the Middle East.[19] With continued military spending growth[20] there is no reason to question that China will within a decade be a global power. What this power will be used for is open to debate, though my personal belief is that China’s behaviour will be distinct from America’s historical patterns.

#2 Naval/Aerial Assets

‘China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,’[21]

-Adm. Philip S. Davidson, USINDOPACOM

China has undertaken rapid modernisation and expansion of its naval and aerial forces. This has consolidated its regional security, enabling it to focus on a greater global presence, likely by 2030.[22]

Because China’s Ground Forces could likely have won a war through sheer attrition decades ago, assuming naval/aerial equality, and because ground power cannot be projected without naval and aerial assets, I have chosen not to discuss them directly.

Above: The PLAN Ensign

‘By 2030, the existence of a global Chinese navy will be an important, influential and fundamental fact of international politics’[23]

-Dr Patrick Cronin, director of the Centre for a New American Security’s (CNAS) Asia-Pacific security programme

The PLAN is now the worlds largest navy, and unlike the qualitatively superior US Navy is concentrated in China’s immediate waters, giving it local advantage as well.[24] Outside of the East China and South China Seas, the Chinese navy’s biggest operations have been in the Indian Ocean where they maintain a strong presence[25] – with the crucial Gulf of Aden near Somalia receiving particular attention.[26] However her global capabilities are rapidly developing and will likely develop a greater global profile soon.

Above: The Gulf of Aden

China now working on her third aircraft carrier[27] with hopes that the fourth will be nuclear-powered and thus able to operate at greater range.[28] Furthermore the PLAN boasts at least 60 submarines with plans for more.[29] China’s domestic destroyer qualitative improvement is significant, with domestic innovation taking the lead.[30] [31] The self-developed Type-052C guided missile destroyers for example has over-the-horizon strike capability – one 052C, the Xi’an, recently deployed to the gulf of Aden.[32]

Quantitatively in nearly every category China has either surpassed the US or is nearly at parity:

Now again, the US remains unquestionably dominant with unmatched global reach. The number of large surface-based ships should make this clear – hell China is actually behind Japan.[33] And the United States is expanding its non-ballistic missile submarine fleet with vessels like the Virginia-class.[34] But this is not a dick-measuring contest, this is about China’s global reach, and this expansion allows China to not only secure her neighbourhood but also begin moving into other regions as we have already seen in section #1 with the Djibouti base, operations in Yemen and increased number of joint-drills.

Finally, general technological improvements[35] and greater flexibility in armaments[36] will ensure that this new generation of vessels are able to operate alongside the best in the world. This qualitative leaping also ensures that China is positioned be an R&D leader, strengthening its global influence.

Therefore, due to the PLAN’s

  • Increased size
  • Improved technology
  • Increasing dominance in regional waters

It is in a strong position to continue and expand upon the overseas operations mentioned in section one.

Above: The PLAAF Flag

The PLAAF has also been dramatically expanded, taking part in global exercises, relief operations, air shows[37] and movies.[38] Bad movies admittedly, but not every popcorn flick can be Wolf Warrior 2.

Truthfully though it might just be that I dislike Fan Bingbing.

China currently operates 1,222 fighters and over a thousand helicoptors, and is the third largest air force in the world.[39] Fourth if you count the US navy.[40] However unlike the second largest, Russia, it is a modern air force with one of the only fifth-generation fighter models in the world, and with the industrial capacity and population to continue its rapid expansion.

Key to China’s ‘unprecedented’ modernistation[41] has been a focus on the technology of tomorrow. Although China continues to operate older systems that cannot compete one-to-one with the average ships of the Japanese Defence Forces or Republic of Korea National Military, the PLAAF has made it a point to purchase[42] and otherwise acquire,[43] advanced systems to catch up. However thanks to China’s massive R&D department and industrial capacity China is positioned to dominate the coming generations of fighters and aerial equipment on her own merits.

China is already a leading producer of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones,[44] both for export and domestic use, and while the US may maintain some technological edge China’s ability to produce sophisticated, even world leading, drones should not and must not be underestimated. As such, we can say that in UAV technology China has used its military capacity for greater global influence in arm sales and thus ability to project pure influence. Again, I’m using ‘military resources to project power’ in the broadest terms.

In terms of manned vehicles, the J-20 ‘weilong’ is one of the few 5-th generation fighters in the world and comparable to the F-22, although it is much newer and therefore still working out flaws.[45] Although the J-20 is few in number it again shows that China has developed the military assets that will enable it to project globally in the future.

I can’t reiterate this enough – Yes, there have been great successes and there will be greater successes, but China is still developing its global reach. Although its influence is greater than commonly believed it is nevertheless in its early days. Right now the few J-20s in operation are a vital resource to be carefully sheparded, but as the early flaws are worked out and China expands her industrial capacity to build more they will develop a greater profile.

So overall the PLAAF is behind the PLAN in terms of global projection, but it is increasingly developing its support capabilities and has generally operated successfully in Africa or in military drills and exercises.

Therefore I would argue that China is effectively the leading power from its region, with a strong and concentrated navy and large, rapidly improving air force. Its global profile, although smaller, is nevertheless expanding and is in a position to continue expanding, especially in strategic zones where poorer countries welcome Chinese investment. Experience is being rapidly gained in East Africa and these lessons will soon be applied in Pakistan and other regions. China’s technological capacity is rapidly advancing, enabling future global leadership. China’s Air Force is taking a greater global role at air shows and other prestige events that improve influence, and China’s large industry makes it an effective arms salesman. This altogether binds other nations into their sphere of influence and therefore China’s military allows it to project power globally.

#3 Allies:

None.

By choice.

China does not maintain allies, it maintains partners, many of whom are US allies.[46] At the greatest extent is the Mutual Defence Agreement[47] with North Korea, in which China pledges to defend its buffer state… I mean, friend if it is attacked, but not if it attacks others. At the lowest extent is a general willingness to trade on reatively strict terms.

Note: “Trade” and “Mutual Defence” don’t mean “steal our fucking aid trains” Kim.

Instead of having a strict ‘with-us-or-against-us’ mentality, China does business with anyone who walks through the door at the level they will accept. Instead of maintaing a global network of defence commitments China worries about her own massive borders and sells weapons to key partners. So even China’s close partner Pakistan[48] has strong US military ties[49] but conversely even Saudi Arabia[50] and Israel[51] will work with China.

This is essentially the decision to prioritise economic gains and general neutrality over global client state system. Some have argued that this is changing, that China’s more assertive foreign policy is creating client states and likely a greater military role.[52] I consider it too soon to say whether we’re seeing the shift to an attempt at global military hegemony, though I have my own personal ideas.

In that regard, of course the answer is that China has no power projection through allies. It does however a certain degree of freedom to operate globally that is more beneficial to a primarily commercial power like China.

#4 Cyber power:

It’s, like, stronk.[53] [54] [55]You should know this.

Probably not that strong. But still, strong.

Cyber power is vital for 21st century operations and China’s Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) is a world leader. Ships aren’t worth much if you can’t afford to operate them because your economy collapsed, power grid broke and an embarrassing video of your president was released. And China is one of the leading cyber powers with the ability to run sophisticated operations worldwide.

Cyber power, unlike ships, planes and tanks, is cheap. It’s low-intensive infrastructure with only electricity, metal and an educated workforce being the deciding factor. For China, a country with plenty of all three, focusing on their comparative advantage of sheer size and economies of scale has allowed them to dominate this field. While the PLA still lags behind in high-tech and experience-heavy military assets, fields that can only be improved with decades of research and real battlefield experience, the PLASSF can work from the comfort of their own base with nothing more than an ethernet cable.

So yeah. Cyber China is strong superpower. I’ll talk more about the Strategic Support Force in section #6.

#5 Polar power:

Honestly, this whole section could be summed up with ‘read China as a Polar Great Power by Anne-Marie Brady’. But that’s technically cheating, and I already cut the cyber section down to a pretty brief segment.

The Arctic and Antarctic represent a massive supply of everything from fish[56] [57] to mineral wealth.[58] [59] And, spoiler alert, a lot of ice is about to go bye-bye which means exploiting those resources is going to become easier – probably by the time the Antarctic treaty comes up for renewal.[60] Here’s a joyfully simple map of Antarctica’s mineral wealth:[61]

Above: The biggest piggy bank in the world.

When the Arctic recedes further it will likely finally open up a ‘northwest passage’.[62] Because the Earth is round – a fact everyone knows but too few properly understand – it is much faster to go through the Arctic circle to get to Europe and the eastern seaboard of America then across the Pacific and Indian oceans. The military applications are of course self-evident.

Above: The Xuelong, China’s premier ice breaker. Plans are in place for a nuclear ice breaker.[63]

However as useful as training and infrastructure is, the real security benefit is the Beidou system.

In 1996 the United States is believed to have cut off GPS service to Chinese warships in the Taiwan strait, causing the loss of control over missiles.[64] This attack made it clear that China must develop its own domestic navigation system or remain subject to US whim. So within four years China deployed Beidou, their global positioning service. And the accuracy of any navigation system is greatly improved through a polar presence.[65]

So between resources and geography the polar regions will become major economic centres by the end of the 21st century – I doubt they will be too protected from human development, just based on the last 100,000 years or so of history. But how well is China positioned to take advantage?

China is already influential in the Arctic due to the looser nature of political arragnements there[66] and has been investing in Arctic partnerships.[67] Russia at the very least will prove a valuable partner in exploiting the Arctic circle, and it is possible so will some European states. The expansion of China’s fleet with the domestically-constructed nuclear-powered Xuelong 2[68][69] makes it clear that Chinese investment will only increase in the soon-to-be crucial region.

America, for the record, is cutting funding due to domestic politics even though it lacks a modern icebreaking fleet.[70] [71] Not that it’s a contest.

Above: The Polar Star, an US Coast Guard Icebreaker.

In the Antarctic, China is believed to maintain a military presence[72] and is preparing its first airport[73] to support its massive research projects.[74] China outspends every other Antarctic power.[75]

So at the future frontier of the 21st century, China is in fact better able to project power than any other nation. It may already maintain a military presence in Antarctica and is well positioned to claim one in the Arctic. It has the equipment and facilities to keep a stable presence.

#6 Space power:

As with the polar regions, China is again at the forefront of the new frontiers.[76] It maintains a key monitoring station Argentina that was vital to the Chang’e 4 probe landing.[77] [78] It fired its first known anti-satelite missile in 2007.[79] China has plans to develop a global weather monitoring network by 2020.[80] [81] [82] Jamming and other counterspace abilities are believed to be strong.[83]

But that’s depressing, so please enjoy Patrick Stewart as the Yutu probe.

Above: OK that’s actually even sadder. Goddamn.

Due to the drastic decline in US space capability – to the point they have required Russian assistance to enter orbit[84] – China is at present at least equivalent to the United States in its ability to project power into space, if not greater.

This brings us to the PLASSF, or ‘People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force’ or ‘Chinese Starfleet’.

Above: Paramount, I’m pretty sure this is IP theft.

This is the formal fourth branch of the Chinese military, equivalent to Donald Trump’s “Space Force”. It manages cyber-, space- and electronic- warfare as well as some military intelligence.[85] In terms of the power projection of the 21st century, they represent China’s cutting edge.

Yes, the bases, ships and planes I mentioned earlier are vital. Yes, China’s lack of reliable allies is a potential concern. But the future belongs to the country that can with a push of a button wipe out the enemy’s entire networks, or wipe out their satelite uplink, or destroy their power stations. In that regard China has the same – or possibly better – global power projection as any other country.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, although China lacks – by its own choice – dedicated allies, it has the foundation of a strong global power projection system in its conventional forces, in particular the Navy and Air Force. In unconventional forces, it is already a global power able to match the United States, with extreme cyber and space power. At the future frontier of Earth development, the Arctic and Antarctic, China is extremely well situated. Its large industrial sector allows it to sell a massive quantity of arms, further using its military to make connections and confirm the quality of their product.

As such I would say that although China is still limitd in its conventional power projection, it not only has extensive military resources with which to project power but is also situating itself carefully for the struggles of tomorrow.

Finally, for those looking to read further I recommend the following (with the standard disclaimer to not to believe everything you read):

China as a Polar Great Power: Anne-Marie Brady: 9781316631256: Amazon.com: Books

Global Firepower

The Diplomat

http://eng.mod.gov.cn/news/node_… (Chinese Ministry of National Defence)

The Jamestown Foundation

RAND Corporation Provides Objective Research Services and Public Policy Analysis

Footnotes

[1] PLA base in Djibouti to help China better perform int’l obligations

[2] China’s First Overseas Military Base

[3] China’s Djibouti Base: A One Year Update

[4] Page on washingtonpost.com

[5] https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2019/…

[6] Russia and China hold the biggest military exercises for decades

[7] China and Russia Hold First Joint Naval Drill in the Baltic Sea

[8] Before and after: China builds artificial islands in South China Sea

[9] China embarks on first joint naval drills with Asean

[10] In Line or Out of Order?

[11] China’s Arms Sales: Motivations and Implications

[12] China’s arms sales rise as it vies with US for global influence

[13] Chinese navy hospital ship docks in Venezuela amid crisis

[14] http://isdp.eu/content/uploads/2…

[15] https://www.brookings.edu/wp-con…

[16] PLA Special Operations: Combat Missions and Operations Abroad – Jamestown

[17] Operation Red Sea – Wikipedia

[18] China aims for nuclear-powered aircraft carrier by 2025

[19] First Djibouti … now Pakistan tipped to have Chinese naval base

[20] China Defense Spending Set to Rise 7.5% as Xi Builds Up Military

[21] With Ships and Missiles, China Is Ready to Challenge U.S. Navy in Pacific

[22] China’s ‘blue water’ navy catching up with the US

[23] China’s ‘blue water’ navy catching up with the US

[24] With Ships and Missiles, China Is Ready to Challenge U.S. Navy in Pacific

[25] How China’s PLA Navy could close a perception gap in the South China Sea

[26] China Dispatches New Naval Fleet for Gulf of Aden Escort Mission

[27] China has started building third aircraft carrier, military sources say

[28] The Real Reason the World Needs to Pay Attention to China’s Growing Aircraft Carrier Fleet

[29] https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33…

[30] China Launches 2 Type 055 Destroyers Simultaneously

[31] https://media.defense.gov/2018/A…

[32] China sends new naval destroyer fleet to Somali waters for escort mission

[33] Total Destroyer Warship Strength by Country

[34] https://fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/…

[35] 5 PLA Navy Projects to Watch in the Next 5 Years

[36] https://fas.org/irp/agency/oni/p…

[37] The Chinese Air Force’s First Steps Toward Becoming an Expeditionary Air Force

[38] ‘Sky Hunter’: Review

[39] 2019 China Military Strength

[40] The 5 Most Powerful Navies, Armies and Air Forces on Planet Earth

[41] China’s Air Force Modernization: ‘Unprecedented in History’

[42] China’s Air Force Modernization: ‘Unprecedented in History’

[43] Chinese theft of sensitive US military technology is still a ‘huge problem,’ says defense analyst

[44] Does China’s J-20 rival other stealth fighters?

[45] How China’s J-20 ‘Powerful Dragon’ compares to the US F-22

[46] China’s Partnership Network Versus the U.S. Alliance System: Coexistence or Conflict?

[47] China and North Korea Have a Mutual Defense Treaty, But When Would It Apply?

[48] ‘All-weather friendship’: but is Pakistan relying too heavily on China?

[49] U.S-Pakistan Military Cooperation

[50] China holds first anti-terror drills with Saudi Arabia

[51] What’s Behind Israel’s Growing Ties With China?

[52] India feeling the heat on Belt and Road

[53] How China Becomes A Cyber Power

[54] (PDF) China’s Emergence as a Cyber Power

[55] AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order: Kai-Fu Lee: 9781328546395: Amazon.com: Books

[56] Commercial fishing banned across much of the Arctic

[57] Southern Ocean Fisheries

[58] Mineral resources – Discovering Antarctica

[59] Arctic Mineral Resources

[60] In 30 years the Antarctic Treaty becomes modifiable, and the fate of a continent could hang in the balance

[61] The threat to Antarctica from mining and exploiting oil and gas

[62] Will global warming open up Arctic trade?

[63] China’s Planned Nuclear Icebreaker

[64] ‘Unforgettable humiliation’ led to development of GPS equivalent

[65] What’s China up to in Antarctica? | The Strategist

[66] China Launches the Polar Silk Road

[67] https://www.rand.org/content/dam…

[68] China Launches First Domestically Built Polar Icebreaker

[69] First Chinese-built polar icebreaker gets name

[70] The U.S. urgently needs new icebreaker ships to patrol the Arctic. Will Trump’s border wall get in the way?

[71] Trump proposes slashing science spending at the NSF

[72] China and Russia are eyeing up Antarctica — and experts say Australia should be more concerned

[73] China prepares to build its first airport in the Antarctica

[74] China to Expand Presence in Antarctica with New Research Bases

[75] Subscribe to read | Financial Times

[76] China’s Get-Rich Space Program

[77] China’s military-run space station in Argentina is a ‘black box’

[78] Int’l payloads on Chang’e-4 start operation

[79] World fury at satellite destruction

[80] China Has a ‘Space Force.’ What Are Its Lessons for the Pentagon?

[81] Reshaping the Chinese Military

[82] Space Threat 2018: China Assessment – Aerospace Security

[83] Space Threat 2018: China Assessment – Aerospace Security

[84] NASA Astronauts Will Still Ride Russian Rockets After US Craft Arrive

[85] PLA Strategic Support Force: The ‘Information Umbrella’ for China’s Military